By MM Pack
Photography by Marc Brown
Executive Chef Rene Ortiz of La Condesa has plenty to say about food and restaurants. He’s got a lot to say about family, too, both in and out of the kitchen. For him, the topics aren’t mutually exclusive, and it’s not just talk, either. Ortiz puts his heart where his mouth is by focusing his passion on what’s important: his family and friends, a lifelong love for the restaurant business and leaving a legacy of responsible, inspired cooking and eating.
Ortiz, who grew up near San Antonio and on a commune in Las Cruces, New Mexico, chose Austin in 2009 after 15 years in the culinary fast lanes of New York and Europe, Sydney and Vancouver. He’s worked with, and learned from, such noteworthies as Jean-Louis Palladin, Daniel Boulud, Alain Ducasse, Douglas Rodriguez, Peter Gordon and Mark Miller. Prior to moving to Austin, he was executive chef at New York City’s acclaimed La Esquina.
La Condesa, in the Second Street District, is named for a hip neighborhood in Mexico City, and its menu reflects sophisticated renditions of the capital’s culinary diversities. “La Condesa is my concept of Mexico City food,” says Ortiz. “Traditional cooking, street foods combined with quality, sustainable ingredients—about 75 percent of what we use is sourced locally. We take old ways of cooking, make them local in context, global in reach.”
Clearly, the formula is working. La Condesa was semifinalist for a 2010 James Beard Best New Restaurant award and, in August, the chef and his staff prepared a sold-out dinner at The James Beard House in New York. The restaurant is certified by the Green Restaurant Association (one of only four such certifications in Austin) for high standards of energy efficiency, recycling and use of environmentally friendly products.
Ortiz began his career at the tender age of 14. “Through high school, I cooked in a coffee shop in Universal City [suburban San Antonio] for a family friend, Felix Leon,” says Ortiz. “He encouraged me and wanted me to excel. I liked the restaurant environment from the start . . . I knew that’s what I wanted to do with my life.”
In the 1990s, Ortiz followed his culinary star to New York, arriving sans job or connections. “I lived at the Y and worked unpaid internships,” he says. “It was the hardest time I ever had . . . I cried every night . . . but that’s when I really learned.” He’d do a six-month internship with a chef he admired, then move to the next one. “It was a great time for restaurants in New York, and a great time to be learning the craft there.”
Since settling in Austin, Ortiz has made some significant lifestyle adjustments. He began exercising, lost 30 pounds, and now takes two days off a week to spend with his family. “The restaurant business is addictive,” he says. “I could easily be at La Condesa day and night. But I’m the chef-dad who wants to be with my kids [Milo, 4, and Papillon, 1]. I want to feed them, bathe them, play with them, teach them, look after them, everything a good papa should do. In New York, it’s all about work. Austin has changed me completely to be more what I want to be.”
That papa thing extends beyond his own children. Ortiz wants to teach—to pass on his gifts and the skills he’s been taught. “I’ve been very fortunate that so many chefs have taken me under their wings,” he says. “Restaurants provide a weird kind of family, always there for you.” He takes his mentoring position very seriously, working with staff and regularly accepting interns. “I want them to learn what I have to offer and then move on to the next chef. It’s not just about technique; you’ve got to get into the intimacy of cooking—see, smell and hear the food as well as taste it. And ultimately, learn to cook your food, not someone else’s.”
Unlike many restaurants, three-quarters of the kitchen staff at La Condesa is female. “It wasn’t by design,” says Ortiz. “It just has to do with performance. In the kitchen, I find women to be focused and composed and they want to do things right.” A key collaborator is the restaurant’s pastry chef, Laura Sawicki, who relocated from New York to work with Ortiz.
Partly because he missed his New York restaurant “family,” Ortiz created the Chef Series dinners to benefit Austin’s Sustainable Food Center. “I was new in town and wanted to get to know other chefs here,” he says. “So we do these collaborative dinners for a cause we believe in. And yeah, it worked,” he says with a smile. “I’ve made some good friends.” The third Chef Series dinner will take place at La Condesa on November 3.
Ortiz is also busy with another project that gives back: establishing a nonprofit in East Austin that will teach culinary skills to young people from the neighborhood. “It’s going to be a fully functional restaurant, staffed by professionals and kids who want to learn the business; it’ll be based on the commis system.” (In traditional European kitchens, a commis is an apprentice working under a station chef to learn the station’s responsibilities and operation.) In Ortiz’s vision, they’ll learn accounting and food costing, as well as cooking. Now in the permit phase, the project has received pro bono support from an architect, a builder, an interior designer and other chefs. “Austin is a very kind city,” says Ortiz. “People want to support local food and local work.
“I want to create energy and community,” Ortiz continues. “My mission in life is to help people. I have the means and I have the voice. I’m not going to let people be horrible cooks if I can teach them.”