By Robin Chotzinoff
Photography by Marc Brown
Such accomplished chefs, such big careers, such a tiny kitchen! Nothing but a sink, a teeny oven and a few cabinets lined up in the hall next to the back door.
“The oven is ridiculous,” admits Mary Catherine Curren. As an executive pastry chef, she prefers the kitchen equipment on the job at Easy Tiger, but her husband, Drew, executive chef and partner at Easy Tiger, 24 Diner and Arro (opening early 2013), likes the challenge.
“The first thing a home chef should do is disable the smoke alarm,” he advises.
That’s what the couple did when they moved into this condo four years ago. Then they stored their wedding china in the bedroom, crammed in a wine fridge next to the dining table and began to perfect the art of having people over. “It’s what we bring to the restaurants,” Mary Catherine says. “We try to entertain people the way we do at home.”
Texas natives, the Currens met at culinary school in Hyde Park, New York, married, moved to Brooklyn and eventually came back to Austin. She found work immediately, at Zoot, but Drew, who began to see himself as both uniquely under- and overqualified, couldn’t get hired anywhere. “So he started doing Friday happy hours,” Mary Catherine remembers. “Anyone could come—they just had to bring a drink and a friend. Anytime after four p.m.”
“Some stayed till four a.m.,” Drew adds. “They were in it for the long haul. I’d put out fifty tacos, a crawfish boil ….” Guests overflowed into the yard, even during one memorable night of freezing rain. The Currens rustled up a pop-up tent and a basket of gloves and hats and the party continued on, perhaps in a higher gear. Then, after a year of happy hours, Drew went to work on the 24 Diner concept—putting in long hours developing a chef-driven menu, unearthing local ingredients, recycling and composting and, as he puts it, being part of a cool team. “I caught the tail end of the chefs who throw pans and burn people,” he says. “I never wanted to be that way. They say it’s the customer first, but it’s not. It’s your employees.”
The approach appears to have worked. Drew and his partners seem to open a new restaurant every couple of years, and Mary Catherine now plays a crucial part at each place. Drew says there’s just one drawback: “The more successful you get, the less you cook.” Rather than let this happen, they, and particularly he, take up the slack at home—firing up the tiny stove, taking long, meticulous trips to Central Market and calling up a few friends. “Honestly,” he says, “if I have a day off, pretty soon it’s, ‘Can we have some people over?’”
Most often, those people end up being three fellow condo dwellers known collectively as “The Family”—dear friends who work in the wine business, and who are not averse to trading great wine for great food. A Family New Year’s celebration might go on for two or three days, with birth-year vintages and over-the-top culinary feats. Last year on January 3, Mary Catherine woke up early to prepare a brunch of toasted homemade nine-grain bread, smoked salmon, caviar and “perfectly creamy scrambled eggs.”
One recent summer afternoon, the Currens prepared two meals for company, beginning with red snapper caught on a recent Gulf fishing trip. Sometime around two in the afternoon, the fish came out crusted in quinoa flakes and bedecked in salsa Veracruz, with cumin-scented quinoa and grilled local okra on the side. Served with several glasses of northern Italian white and followed by Mary Catherine’s “simple” homemade dessert of berries with a walnut crumble and an intensely zesty lemon curd, the lunch caused two guests to embrace the concept of double zest in all things.
Meanwhile, the Currens were already halfway through executing the next meal: an intimate dinner for five sous-chefs from 24 Diner and Easy Tiger. It featured all-natural pork ribs—special-ordered from Iowa and hand-smoked by the Currens—potato salad and quick-pickled vegetables. And a lot of beer, Drew says, because lately he’d been fascinated with the complexities of beer—especially beer pairings. Indeed, it’s hard to resist an interesting pair.
QUINOA CRUSTED SNAPPER VERACRUZ
For the sauce:
2 T. olive oil
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
½ t. red chili flakes
2 oz. capers
1 red onion, julienned
1 jalapeño, seeded and sliced
2 ripe beefsteak tomatoes, diced
1 bay leaf
¾ c. white wine
1 c. briny green olives (Drew likes Cerignolas that he pits himself)
1 t. sugar
For the fish:
4 5–6 oz. snapper fillets (skin removed)
Salt and pepper
¾ c. quinoa flakes (found in the hot cereal aisle)
2–3 T. olive oil
1 T. butter
Heat a pan over medium heat and add the oil, garlic and red chili flakes. As soon as the garlic becomes aromatic and lightly sautéed (prior to any color), add the capers. After 1 to 2 minutes, add the red onion and jalapeño. Sweat the onions until tender, then add the tomatoes, bay leaf, wine, olives and sugar. Cook the mixture over high heat in order to reduce the liquid. The sauce should be thick and chunky with just a hint of liquid. The olives and capers should add enough salt without needing to add kosher salt, but check the seasoning once the appropriate consistency is reached.
Season both sides of the fillets with salt and pepper. Dredge the sides that had the skin on them in the quinoa flakes. In a hot sauté pan, add the olive oil (enough to cover the bottom of the pan), swirl it gently and lay the snapper, quinoa side down, in the hot oil. Sauté for 3 to 4 minutes, gently flip over the fish and add the butter. Tilt the pan toward you and baste the quinoa flakes with the melted butter. After 2 to 3 minutes, the fish should be firm. Remove the fish from the pan, let the fillets rest for 3 to 5 minutes then serve with the sauce. The fish can also be placed directly into the sauce after sautéing on the first side—the hot sauce will finish cooking the fish.