Jessica Maher Talks Forensics Past, What's Next

November 21, 2013
by Megan Giller

Tiny South First Street Lenoir has won the hearts of many an Austinite, and not only because of its food. The chef-owner couple behind the restaurant, Todd Duplechan and Jessica Maher, are known for their friendliness and deep thoughts about their “hot-weather” fusion food (think French meets Southeast Asian meets Cajun). Though Maher has worked at such high-profile places in Austin and New York as Jeffrey’s, Bouley and Jacques Torres Chocolates, she started off wanting to be in forensics, not pastries. We sat down to chat with her about her journey from autopsies to pot de crèmes, plus what's coming up next.

Zagat: So you grew up in Nevada. How did you end up in Texas?

Jessica Maher: I grew up in this tiny dairy community with a big valley, with maybe 10,000 residents. My dad moved to Tyler, Texas, when I was about 15, and when I came to visit, we took a trip to Austin. We were staying near the Arboretum, and Blues on the Green was there. I couldn’t believe there was music for free outside. It was so charming, so I decided to go to UT. I grew up in such a small town that the idea of going somewhere where there were lots of people was really appealing. People are so friendly here that it’s palpable.

When I was really young I wanted to be Indiana Jones. I decided that when I was eight. In high school, I shadowed an archeologist, and it was incredibly boring - following this guy around in the sage brush looking to see where old roads had been and doing land surveys where they were planning to do development to see if there was anything historical there.

I started as an archeology major at UT, but my second semester I changed to anthropology, because I realized that the objects weren’t as interesting as the people. As I went along, I realized that it wasn’t living people or studying tribes of people: I liked the idea of doing forensics because there was something tangible about it. It was concrete, and there was a puzzle to be solved.

After I graduated I had this post-school internship at the medical examiner’s office for about six months. Before you even start, they ask about your comfort level with dead people. I had seen my grandmother at her funeral and that was it. So I had to prepare myself to be OK with it. I was taking pictures and collecting things, witnessing people who had just shot themselves an hour before. I saw people run over by cars. I helped in autopsies too. I cracked people’s ribs open and observed. I never had a problem with it.

Zagat: How do you get from autopsies to pastries?

JM: After the medical examiner’s office, I wanted to go to grad school, to the University of Tennessee, where they have the body farm. It’s the premiere school for forensic anthropology. But I would have had to go back and take classes before applying to grad school. Some part of me loved being in school and being in academia.

But at the same time, I was completely obsessed with the Food Network. I wasn’t allowed to watch television when I was growing up, and so as a college student and after I was completely absorbed. I had always worked in restaurants, waiting tables or washing dishes and really liked it, so I thought about culinary school. My mom suggested I work in a kitchen before I decided.

So I moved back to Nevada and got a job in the kitchen. I worked for free in the kitchen and waited tables at night. It’s a small French restaurant. The chef is Belgian and the owner is French. I would cook and then go out and talk to people about the food. I had been waiting tables quite a bit, but it was a new experience to know about the food.

Like I said, I was self-taught and didn’t know the culture around the kitchen. That’s the benefit of culinary school, so you can all be morons together. I was wearing hiking boots in the kitchen and jeans. I didn’t have any tools, especially knives. At one point, the chef was like, “Sharing your knife is like sharing your toothbrush.”

Spending the money is the hard part. But it’s an investment, because these are the tools of your trade. There are a million different styles of knives out there, but the most basic is a chef’s knife.

I don’t know how I decided this, but I didn’t buy a chef’s knife first. I bought a paring knife and a boning knife [laughs]. I took them into the kitchen and quickly realized my mistake. They had these big blocks of chocolate that we broke down to make pot de crèmes. I took my boning knife and shoved it in the block and broke the tip right off.

I worked there for 10 months and loved it, but I ended up leaving and moving back to Austin. I got a job at Cipollina and then at Jeffrey’s, where I worked for a year and a half on the line and then in pastry. It was very collaborative there, which was stressful for me. I had to bring something to the table. I spent all my time reading about cooking.

My mom had always cooked. She came from a family that grew all of their own vegetables, made wine, grazed animals, and she was the oldest and was often responsible for cooking for a big extended family. She didn’t use recipes but would just make it up as she went along. I was comfortable with following instructions, so I baked. I didn’t go to culinary school, so everything I’ve learned has been on the job or from cookbooks. I gravitated toward cookbooks first because they made sense to me. Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which talked about basics first, [helped me] understand the foundation of things before moving on, where I’m not just cooking some ethnic dish where I have no idea where it came from.

I still feel like I gravitate toward things that are familiar. I don’t get super outside the box with flavors. Todd’s more experimental. Flavor-wise, we’re doing hot-weather food, so things that are clean. Maybe they have a little spice and acidity but still have some kind of craveability. They have to be fatty or rich. Dessert should be your comfort zone. Like, I just had that fish cake and now I get to have this chocolate cake.

Anyway, the pastry chef at Jeffrey’s talked me into moving to New York. A friend worked at Bouley, and I staged there until they fired someone and had room for me.

I don’t know if I would have stayed in New York if I hadn’t met Todd, and I don’t know if he would have stayed as long if he hadn’t met me. We each kept finding opportunities, so we would stay longer. Eventually we were engaged and wanted to open our own place. Each of us individually had a dream about opening a restaurant someday.

Zagat: What’s it like to work so closely with your husband?

JM: It’s worked really well. When we first started dating, I was subbing at the Danube, working the line right next to him. I had zero idea what I was doing, and they didn’t even pay me for it. But we were young and just learning.

Todd is patient and good at teaching. He’s a total technician. He also can just pull things from his brain that he did a million years ago. Or he can read something new and try it until he makes it work in his own way. Because he’s so good at working with other people, it makes it easy for us to work together. We never really butt heads on anything, but we get stressed out about the amount of work we have to do.

Because I’m a high-stress person, he reminds me often that we’re in this together. Even if it fails, we’ll figure out something else to do. That’s great, because I can relax because I know no matter what, we’re going to keep putting our heads together.

Zagat: What’s next for you at Lenoir?

JM: There are a few changes going on. We’re opening something else, but it’s not a restaurant. It won’t be for a little while, and I get superstitious. I’m shy about talking about it until it’s closer, probably early next year.

jessica maher