10 Questions for Trace’s Nadine Thomas
Unassuming chef Nadine Thomas was recently promoted from executive chef of the downtown W Hotel to beverage and food director, and part of her job is overseeing hyperlocal restaurant Trace. Thomas got her start in her native Canada with a three-year apprenticeship program. When she landed her first big job at the Owl’s Nest restaurant at the Westin Calgary, she “loaded up [her] little Honda and drove across the Rocky Mountains” to be a soucier. Ever since then she’s stayed with the Starwood company, most recently moving into her more managerial role at the W in Austin. We caught up with her to talk about the ins and outs of keeping it local (like having separate produce and meat coolers for Trace versus the hotel), pastry chef Janina O’Leary’s recent departure and what Thomas is doing with the projected 4,000 pounds of honey that the rooftop bees are producing.
Zagat: So you’re from Canada. What did you think about Texas when you came here?
Nadine Thomas: I came for an interview before I got the job, and I remember I went to the farmers’ market and everyone was sweating [laughs]. It was August, and it was hot as hell. I had to do a cooking challenge as part of the interview and went to the farmers’ market to buy the ingredients. And there was pretty much just okra and eggplant at the whole market. But thankfully they also let us go to Whole Foods, so I was able to find a few things that weren’t just okra and eggplant.
I had cooked with a few of those things before, but the produce is different here and so is the style of cooking. It’s much more Mexican influenced, which I’ve really been enjoying - all the tacos and everything. Before I came here, I would never eat anything on a corn tortilla, and now I won’t eat anything on a flour tortilla. I put hot sauce on everything. My family in Canada is always laughing at me.
I love the casualness of Austin, it’s not always so formal. And you can play with different strategies and flavors and small plates. People eat smaller and more often here.
Zagat: Trace has a strong local ethos. What does that term mean to you?
NT: I thought three years in that we wouldn’t be doing exactly what we said, like not sourcing so locally. But I think we do it even more. When you’re in a hotel, it’s hard to do it because people just demand strawberries and blueberries. It doesn’t matter if they’re in season. But we take it seriously. Valerie [Broussard, Trace’s forager] really does find what we can get from the farms. At Trace they have a separate produce cooler and a separate meat cooler. Everything is kept separate from the hotel. Even the milk, as hard as it can be.
We do a ton with recycling and composting. Only 30 percent of our total waste even goes to the landfill - the hotel diverts 76 percent away from the landfill. That alone, to keep the cooks informed - what goes in which trash can and dealing with the dock and where we put the compost - is another avenue that we always have to be on top of.
Zagat: What about for the banquets and the hotel?
NT: For the banquets it’s obviously more challenging. We can’t go over to Springdale and say we need greens for 200 people [laughs]. So we have to use more conventional produce and items. But there has been a greater demand for local or sustainable or organic from the media planners. We have a group coming this week, the U.S. Green Committee, and they want everything local. So we’re working with Val, and we have to get the stuff for banquets too and plan out.
Zagat: Justin Rupp at Olive and June recently told us that it’s a nice restaurant’s job to use local produce and meats, that it’s just doing what's expected. Do you agree? When is it appropriate to spotlight local produce on the menu?
NT: That’s part of having a beautiful restaurant, that you’re going to use what’s in season and what you can get around you. We don’t put every vendor that we use on the menu, but we put some, like Windy Hill, on there, because we feel that he’s special and creating a niche in the market and putting his name on there is giving more credibility to that product. Otherwise people ask us all the time where we get stuff. We try to keep the servers up to date. Valerie has a board in the back that she constantly changes, like, today the tomatoes are from this farm. Our front of house staff here is so well-educated that their questions stump me sometimes.
Zagat: How are the bees on the rooftop? Have you started using their honey yet?
NT: We did our first spin of honey and got around 600 pounds. And we’re almost out. So we’ve ordered another round of bottles, and we’re spinning and filling bottles again.
The honey goes to Trace, the bar, the spa has a special honey treatment and all the in-room dining orders come with a small jar of honey. Plus we gave a lot of the first round away.
We don’t always have storage for bottles for 600 pounds of honey, so we have to get with Walter [Schumacher, the “bee czar”] to find out when the bees are going to be ready to have the honey taken. And we have to get the bottles and labels. It’s not a typical job for a chef, or wasn’t before. Now it probably is more and more.
Zagat: So pastry chef Janina O’Leary’s last day was Tuesday. Where did that move come from?
NT: We are in a hotel, and the hotel business can be exhausting on a person, especially if you have a family. It’s open 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. I don’t know her exact reasons for leaving.
I have loved working with Janina and will really miss her. I love working with people who are adventurous and laidback and want to do something fun. Like the macaroon chandelier at the Food & Wine festival. She did a great job opening the hotel, and for three years she got a lot of recognition and brought it to us. The position is still open.
Zagat: Some have said Trace has been kind of a revolving door, especially on the savory side. What are you guys doing to keep people from leaving?
NT: Ben [Hightower] really left on his own, to work a completely different shift. We love Lawrence [Kocurek, Trace’s chef]. We tried to find someone who is really committed to staying and maybe wants to stay at the company. Trace is a huge focus in our company. If you do a good job here, you’re going to have opportunities.
We give our shifts a ton of freedom. We keep the kitchen modeled after a free-standing restaurant, the same with front of house. We have monthly talent-satisfaction roundtables. As far as the revolving door, there have been a lot of promotions too. Sometimes movement isn’t a bad thing.
Zagat: In your new job, do you get to work on menus and in the kitchen still, or is it more managerial?
NT: In my previous role, I definitely worked in the kitchen. There’s a lot of paper and desk work when you’re the executive chef, but you also have freedom to go chop onions or make the sauce for them. Now I try to stay out of the kitchen because we have a new executive chef and a chef de cuisine, but it’s hard [laughs].
There’s all the wine management and the cocktail culture. I was a bartender a long time ago, and I always joke with them that if they’re really in the weeds I can jump back there [laughs]. But we have some pretty fancy cocktails, so I would struggle on those.
It’s also part of the job to see what restaurants around town are doing. I love Barley Swine. And I always go by Second Bar & Grill because they’re in our neighborhood and they’re kind of the competition. I stop in there for a late-night snack. And there are the neighborhood haunts like Doc’s. I just went to Haymaker last week too, and they do a great job, as does Black Sheep.
Zagat: What is it like as a female chef in a male-dominated industry?
NT: I really never tried to make that a point. I just wanted to be treated equally, and I thought if I wanted to be treated equally, I should just act that way. If there was some guy chef lifting up a 50-pound bag of potatoes, I did it too.
I like that it’s competitive, and I used to always try to compete with them. We always had competitions in the bigger banquet houses. Like, I can make a thousand crepes in two hours [laughs]. That’s what made it fun. Sometimes it can be monotonous and mindless. Sometimes you have to chop a 25-pound bag of onions, and the best way is to see who can chop it faster.
Zagat: Is it any different to be a female manager?
NT: I don’t think so. In this hotel we have a lot of female managers. Women manage differently. I’ll always ask for a second opinion, and we’ll brainstorm more freely. If someone’s going to make a bad decision, let’s three of us make a bad decision [laughs].