Josh Watkins

By Layne Victoria Lynch
Photography by Whitney Arostegui

Some chefs embrace a dogmatic mind-set when it comes to cooking in a professional kitchen, while others labor tirelessly to innovate and improve the culinary industry every day. Josh Watkins, executive chef at the Carillon in the AT&T Hotel and Conference Center, has the latter personality.

From early on, the confident Aspen-born, Austin-raised chef knew he wanted to apply his innovation to transforming treasures from local farmers, artisans and ranchers into enticing, well-made meals. “There’s something to be said for knowing each of these people personally,” Watkins says. “Because I’ve built relationships with them, I know they are going to give me great ingredients.”

Perhaps this defining characteristic was inherited from Watkins’s mother, who eschewed empty processed foods and drive-through fare and raised him on wholesome, earth-grown ingredients, instead. “I know everyone says this, but my mom was a different cook from most moms,” he says. “We didn’t have boxed macaroni and cheese or pizza on the table every night. That was absolutely unheard of in our home. [Mom] was a bit of a gourmand.”

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Indeed, dinner at the Watkins home might have been a big bowl of crispy, creamy Caesar salad one night, followed by a decadent, top-secret artichoke dip paired with crusty homemade bread the next. But the one meal Watkins remembers most favorably from his childhood days in Austin is his mother’s crumbly and rich beef tartare—a recipe he’s continued to prepare over the last 15 years for places like the Driskill Hotel and the Carillon. “We’d have that about once a week,” he says. “To me, it tasted like an affinity or an addiction. I still can’t get over how good it is. That’s probably why I still feature it on my menus. People will come in and request it all day long.”

Like his mother, Watkins approaches his tartare as a blank canvas—no ingredient or interpretation is off-limits, and that’s probably why the creative-yet-classic dish continues to be one of his most popular. He suggests choosing between three cuts of beef—whole tenderloin, whole rib eye or center-cut rib eye—and for his recipe, he likes high-quality, marbled tenderloin from grassfed cows at Richardson Farms. Dicing the meat into tiny pieces is the secret. “I don’t like to grind it,” he notes. “But you need to make sure the pieces are very, very small…almost at a melting consistency.”

Once the beef is prepared, Watkins makes the dish his own by folding in flavorful touches such as pungent Parmesan cheese, high-quality black or white truffle oil and mustard gastrique, and every so often, the chef will sear the outside layer of the tenderloin to add extra texture and temperature elevation. Also up for interpretation, he notes, is the best way to get the tartare to your mouth. “I would say I’m classy and use bread every time,” Watkins says with a laugh. “But sometimes you just get hungry and grab the nearest spoon.”

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In addition to being a favorite dish at the restaurant, tartare is also popular at the South Austin home Watkins shares with his wife, Sarah, and toddler son, Cash. Of course, Cash is too young for the dish, but Watkins plans to introduce him to his family recipe as soon as he can. “That’ll definitely be something I’ll make for him when he’s old enough,” he says. “It’s something that I loved growing up and I want to share that with him.” 

Click here for Josh Watkins's Beef Tartare recipe.