10 Questions for Congress' Erica Waksmunski
Tattooed, funky Erica Waksmunski may not have been born in Austin, but she sure fits in here. She recently caught our eye when we tried her brioche beignets and fried butterscotch pudding at Congress, about which she remarked, “I’ve been thinking about what Texans want, and finally I said, 'f*** it, I’m going to fry pudding.’” Before coming to Austin, the talented pastry chef worked at highly rated restaurants in California like Chez TJ, Sons & Daughters and Bouchon Bakery. Now in her second year at Chef David Bull’s restaurants, Waksmunski is launching a new dessert menu at upscale Congress this Thursday to accompany the new savory menu and two of the five desserts at more-casual Second Bar and Kitchen. We caught up with her to talk about her new innovations (honeycomb candy! balsamic vinegar galore!), how fine dining fits into a town as casual as Austin and where to find the best trailer food in the city.
Zagat: Have you always been interested in cooking and baking?
Erica Waksmunski: Always. I grew up with it in the house. Cooking and baking both. For Christmas and holidays, my mom and I would bake for two months. We gave candies and cakes and stuff as presents to people instead of buying things. We wrapped them up all cute. We made everything, from basic banana breads to truffles and gave them to everyone - our mailman, doctors.
In the fourth grade I was really sick, so I was home from school a lot. I would watch some TV chef’s show all day. Then I’d call my dad, and he’d pick up the ingredients, and I’d make whatever the chef made that day for dinner.
Zagat: You’ve worked at highly rated restaurants all over the country. How did you end up in Texas?
EW: When I moved to Tennessee for the first time in 2002, I started coming to SXSW when it used to be cool and small, like 10 years ago. The first time I came to Austin I said, I’m going to live here someday. That was 2003. But after I went to culinary school, it wasn’t the right career move yet.
I was living in California and doing the Michelin restaurant thing, and I visited a friend here. I ended up at one of the Parkside cooks’ house for Thanksgiving dinner, and they told me about the job at Congress. I got back to California and thought I’d send a resume for fun. The next morning, David Bull sent me an email, and within a week they were flying me out here. I was like, "Can you say that again into the mike? You want to what?" So I put out food and worked for the weekend, and by the end of it he was sliding an offer my way.
Zagat: Chef Bull chatted with us recently about how each dish is plated differently, depending on the different sizes of quail or how much a diner has already had to eat. Does that extend to dessert too?
EW: Especially if we have a slow night, I’ll send out every dish differently, just for fun. It’s like playing.
Zagat: How is fine dining different in Austin compared to in California and at other restaurants you’ve worked at?
EW: There’s less of it here. It’s also a smaller city. It’s growing. In California it’s trendy that you don’t have to be hardcore fine dining. The servers wore jeans. It’s all in the food. If you’re making good food and it’s executed really well, who’s to say that isn’t fine dining?
It’s all relative. There are more food trucks here than anywhere, and I’ve gotten some of the best food I’ve eaten here off trailers. When I first moved here I ate East Side King at Liberty Bar once a week. I was addicted. Melvin’s Deli Comfort is my favorite place to eat right now. I get the Italian au jus, and the corned beef is really good too. You can get every sandwich stacked with double meat, which I always do, and it’s two meals.
Zagat: Speaking of big portions, how do you give Texans what they want in an upscale dining experience?
EW: It’s not about what Texans want but what people want from dessert. We’re at a time in dining out that people are spending a lot of money, so just give them what they want. They want something nostalgic or comfortable that they don’t have to think about. They just want a nice plate of food that they feel good about spending money on. That’s what I try to provide. Obviously, I like to throw in what I want every once in a while. But at the end of the day it’s not about me.
There’s no donut on the new menu, but there are fried things here and there. Fried bananas are on a dish, and the fried pudding is sticking around a little while. But the flavors are changing, malt and blood orange.
Zagat: Does it influence your creativity to “give people what they want”? Does it limit it?
EW: It challenges it. I don’t feel limited because I keep a dessert or two on the menu that are for me. Maybe some people will like it, maybe some people won’t understand it. But that’s OK.
Zagat: Which desserts on the menu right now are just for you?
EW: On the previous menu it was the coconut dessert. To me, those are easy flavors: coconut, mango, almond. It’s sweet and nutty and tropical, but maybe everyone won’t get it.
On the new menu that we’re sending out starting tomorrow, the yogurt and balsamic dessert is for me. It’s a yogurt mousse with lemon jelly, a citrus salad in tarragon syrup, balsamic ice cream and honeycomb candy. The honeycomb candy reminds me of a '50s housewife or something: it seems complicated but it’s not. Balsamic ice cream might throw a few people.
Also the new tasting-menu dessert will be really fantastic. People have a hard time wrapping their head around beets, but it is beet red-velvet cake, beet chips, pickled beets in a vanilla balsamic vinegar and creamsicle ice cream. Once people try it, they’ll see those things go together.
Zagat: Are there other ingredients or techniques you’re excited about using?
EW: Chef Bull and I sit down before every new year and talk about the direction we want to go and what we want to change. I’m changing the bread service, which is exciting. I’m getting back into making macaroons too. I made those a lot in California, so I had stayed away from it here.
Yesterday, I started a sourdough starter so I can make sourdough English muffins as well as whole grain and oat bread. We’re going a little more rustic.
Zagat: Are you ready to go back to macaroons?
EW: It’s funny, my assistant said she wanted to learn to make them. So I’m going to teach everyone I know how to make them [sigh]. It’s not a nightmare yet, but we put a chocolate macaroon on the menu as part of the new chocolate dish. It’s a giant chocolate macaroon served with citrus-thyme ganache and brown-butter ice cream. Very decadent and very winter.
Zagat: What other innovations are you working on?
EW: I’m always trying to push forward. Vinegar will show up in a couple places on the menu. Recently I went into Con Olio Oils and Vinegars downtown, and I started tasting there and bought four bottles. The people there are so great, especially once they realized we’re neighbors. Now we’re partnering up with them. All my oils and vinegars come from there. I love that they’re affordable and that you can buy a little bottle for $5.
My New Year’s Eve dessert was a pineapple upside-down cake, and I pickled cherries in their black-cherry balsamic. Now I’m playing with dark-chocolate balsamic, tangerine-balsamic and Cara Cara vanilla balsamic. I’m actually pickling the beets in that Cara Cara vanilla. And Chef Bull is using their cranberry-pear white balsamic on one of his first courses.