Chef Todd Duplechan has devoted himself to notions of “new Texas cuisine” at the Austin, Texas, restaurant Lenoir, which he opened with his wife, Jessica Maher, in early 2012, six years after moving to the Lone Star State from New York. The couple met while working in adjoining kitchens run by luminary chef David Bouley — he at Danube, she at the namesake Bouley. Their idea for Lenoir evolved after years of adjusting to Austin and its idiosyncratic tastes.
Lenoir’s mission was to create a community-minded restaurant in terms of both food and operations. Dishes draw on locally sourced fare and ideas extrapolated from tenets of Texas tradition. Lenoir also boasts a unique community-supported restaurant, or CSR, program that draws inspiration from community agriculture initiatives and crowd-sourced fundraising for the arts. All of it owes to Duplechan’s thoughtful approach to cooking, which he developed from exposure to unusual food at an early age.
How did you first commune with the culture of food?
It was an extremely important part of my upbringing. My family on both sides is from south Louisiana, so I spent considerable amounts of time there. I grew up in Dallas, where there were a lot of great ethnic restaurants. My dad grew up poor, and when he was in the military he figured out pretty quickly that poor people’s food is usually really good. In different countries he sought out that country’s version of that. When he came back he was still in that mode, so we went to a lot of strip-mall Asian restaurants where we were the only white people there. We ate a lot of that. If we wanted “American” food, we ate at home, where he would cook.
What did he cook?
His version of “American” was basically Cajun food. In Dallas he raised animals for eating, even when we lived in the suburbs. They would probably have him arrested in this day and age, but he raised rabbits and pigeons and stuff, for my pets and our dinner. It would make him a renaissance man these days, but in fact it was just considered really, really redneck.
When did you first endeavor to become a chef?
When I started cooking I wanted to be a sushi chef. We ate a lot of sushi when I was young. Everyone has their “first time I ate sushi” story, but I don’t actually remember because I was too young. I went to culinary school to try to be a sushi chef and worked as a sushi chef for five years.
What led you to open Lenoir in Austin?
I was always searching for a vision that I had early in my career from looking at magazines and reading articles and seeing really high-concept food that’s been perfectly made. I ended up finding it when I went to New York, or at least variations of it. I stayed for a while and cooked and learned. After a little bit there, I met my wife. We decided we wanted to open our own restaurant in a place that was more amendable, and that was Austin.
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What was your notion for Lenoir?
When we moved here we had an idea for a restaurant that was definitely not this restaurant. We lived here for six years and started to reformulate what it was that we wanted to do. When we moved, we were thinking of very New York City-style restaurants, and we figured out that’s not really what Austin wants.
What did Austin want instead?
I think a lot about the food that people are eating and why they are eating it, and I started to formulate an idea of “hot weather food.” I grew up eating barbecue and Mexican food and chicken-fried steak — heavy stuff. Those are staples of Texas cuisine. But I don’t want to eat a chicken-fried steak and then go out into a 110-degree afternoon. So I began to look around at hot-weather cultures and why they eat what they eat. There are a lot of similarities, and I started working out, brick by brick, what the base of that could be for here. I was trying to figure out what new Texas cuisine should be like.
What dishes at Lenoir embody that idea for you?
One dish that comes to mind is wild central Texas antelope seared a bit like you would [find] in an Asian-style restaurant. The broth is spiced, but with more Cajun aspects to it — with celery, peppers and cloves. It’s served with vegetables and noodles that we make ourselves. There’s a sake company in Austin that makes sake with organic rice. What you have left over when you make sake is called kasu, which has a really wonderful flavor and is useful because it is still a grain with a lot of starch. We make that into noodles. That gives a good representation of what we do. We always have a fish curry of some sort, less a creamy curry and more a vegetable-based curry sauce with lots of spice — kind of a handcrafted thing made with central Texas stuff. Also, goat terrine with a preserved-lime and harissa broth.
How did you develop the CSR program for Lenoir?
We wanted our restaurant to be very community based, so for us it was taking a model that I had heard about before from places that used it to fund their restaurants in smaller communities. In the restaurant business you rarely get large infusions of cash. You’re just dealing with the little bit that comes in every day, and everything is tied up in some sort of inventory or payroll. It’s just a big cycle of money in, money out, and it’s hard to do larger projects. So the idea initially was ... to come up with projects and use the CSR to fund them, whether that be to build a greenhouse or to do community art. People who are putting their money toward it are getting something out of it at the restaurant, but they’re also getting something out of it secondarily, like, “Oh, I helped build that!”
How does the program work?
It’s currently an investment of $1,000. You buy your share for that, and you get the use of $1,200 at the restaurant to spend however you want. You can come have dinner, have me cook a private menu or come in for a drink one time a day for a year. It’s also transferable, so if you have a friend in town, you can send them to dinner or something like that. We do some special limited-edition things, especially dishes that are seasonal. I might go to the market and see four pints of something really cool, but that means I’m only going to have five orders of it. So it might go out to our members to let them know there’s something special tonight if they want to come by. It’s a little bit of insider stuff for the restaurant, and it’s based on community support.