Where did your passion for food begin?
Very early. My grandparents owned an Italian-American restaurant in upstate New York. They had seven children, so by the time I was 10 years old I went to work with my mother and was pretty much raised in the back room of the restaurant.
I idolised my uncles, my aunts; my grandmother baked the pies, my grandfather was the maître’D, my uncles ran the kitchen, and my aunts and mother ran the floor.
So it was in the blood from a very early stage.
When they asked me what I wanted to do with my life I had already been cooking for about six years.
I decided to go to culinary school right out of college and fell in love with it.
I’ve never had a job outside of the kitchen so it was just kind of part of the family.
How did you end up in Texas?
I’m originally from upstate New York but I’ve been in Texas since 1999 by way of Dallas. I spent five years at The Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek with Dean Ferry, where I met my current boss, then moved to The Driskill Hotel in Austin.
So I’ve worked for the same guy for the last 20 years, and now we’re partners.
Congress is our first partnership – our first operation that we own together.
Can you describe the concept of Congress?
Congress is designed to be a food and wine experience – from start to finish we built it to be a destination, a celebratory example of the best food and wine experience we can produce.
It’s not limited to a type of cuisine; we do offer an à la carte menu and a chef’s tasting menu that changes consistently with the seasons and the best available product we can get in from local farmers.
Was that a conscious decision to be based in Texas vs. New York City?
I spent time in New York City, not working, but I’ve certainly visited there on a regular basis.
But honestly, after culinary school I sent my résumé out to five-star, five-diamond restaurants, and The Rosewood Mansion [on Turtle Creek] was the first to call.
I packed my bags and moved to Dallas blindly, and followed that path. I’ve never left.
I kind of fell in love with Texas, but more importantly, I fell in love with Austin and what the city had to offer.
Dallas has an established reputation for luxury, but Austin has evolved quickly into a top destination for food and culture. What do you think has contributed to its recent popularity?
When I left Dallas after working with Dean [Fearing] for five years, people thought I was crazy for leaving and going to Austin.
They told me: “There’s nothing in Austin. There’s BBQ, that’s it”.
Just before we got here in 2000 there were only two or three restaurants that anybody would refer, or would be on anybody’s list.
I’ve been fortunate enough to witness this entire process, and we were fortunate with The Driskill Hotel, where I was before, to really do what we wanted and to get the quality ingredients to set the standards that we have today, because there wasn’t much of that really going on at the time.
What is so special about the city?
I think Austin is an incredible city. It’s transient; people are coming here from all over the country and it has allowed for a great diversity of cuisine and restaurants.
It started slowly, but in the past five years it’s just completely exploded.
A huge part of that is the people who have moved here and brought not only their ideas, their experiences or skills, but also their expectations.
Specifically, all the feeder markets from Chicago, San Francisco, and New York City; they were used to that food scene and they were looking for it. The demand set up the supply.
Now, it’s unbelievable the amount of new restaurants opening every week. The way the locals support entrepreneurship and local businesses – it’s unlike anything I’ve seen anywhere else.
Photography by Elizabeth Wentling
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