6 Austin Chefs Who Started Out as Artists

By Megan Giller  |  December 10, 2013
Credit: Kirk Weddle

Think of it as the opposite of still life. Instead of painting brilliant orange gourds, purplish-red grapes and stagnant glasses of wine frozen in time, chefs get to play with the raw ingredients in 3D, transforming something full of life into a sculpture that will nourish more life: you. These six chefs started out as artists but soon harnessed their creativity a different way. All have their own take on it. For example, Uchi’s Tyson Cole (pictured above) revels in the “different colors of flesh,” while Zack Northcutt of Swift’s Attic says that if they had to be a starving artist, they’d work in a medium where they could feed themselves. Whatever the reason, check out the chefs' artwork below, on canvases ranging from paper to plates.

  • Sonya Cote, chef and owner, Eden East and Hillside Farmacy 

    Before the fiery chef devoted herself to the local foods movement, she was a self-professed “angry punk rocker” who ran away from home to be a painter. Eventually, she calmed down and worked as an illustrator for Whole Foods, starting in the early 1990s. She worked her way up to graphic artist and then marketing director, all the while using her artistic skills and her love of organic, natural foods. Eventually, she became more and more involved with chefs before taking on that role full-time herself. She says she “always fell in love with art that was fleeting” and would build “elaborate structures out of found objects,” then take a photo of the installation, and then paint the photo. Cote says, “Food is the same way as far as an art form, because it’s gone” as soon as you serve it.

  • Tyson Cole, chef and owner, Uchi and Uchiko 

    When the James Beard Award-winning chef was a kid, he was fascinated with Legos, shapes and color. “It was almost to an OCD point,” he told us. “I’d buy sets just to get more yellows.” At UT, Cole harnessed that energy into sculpture and painting, but he quickly dropped out after getting a job at sushi restaurant Kyoto. He continued to paint, using unusual tools like knives (the painting above was done entirely with a knife) and then moved into ink, because he “liked how colors play off each other and how it changes the feel and emotion of it.” But soon his obsession with color theory, philosophers like Josef Albers and painters like Mark Rothko took a different turn. “It was serendipity,” he told us. “I was meant to be a sushi chef. There are all of these different colors of flesh that I can combine.”

  • Zack Northcutt, sous chef, Swift’s Attic

    Anyone who has enjoyed one of the meaty masterpieces that Northcutt makes at the downtown hot spot ("big-ass" burgers and plated dishes like albacore tataki) won’t be surprised that he switched from pen and ink and painting to cooking because of a pig roast. While in art school at ACC, he took a job at a UT archeology camp and traveled to Belize to draw renderings of ancient artifacts. There he started hanging out with the chefs. When they roasted a pig for Fourth of July, he was hooked. “I figured if I was going to be a starving artist I ‘d work in a medium where I could feed myself,” he told us. So does he still consider himself an artist? “There’s an art and whimsy to cooking,” he said about the creative process. “You’re taking one thing and transforming it into something else.” He doesn’t consider every dish a work of art, but he says, “I’m horrible about doing asymmetrical platings. If it doesn’t have a dot on the other side, I can’t handle it.”

  • Meg Schwartz, chef and owner, Spoon & Co. Catering

    Schwartz started out as a studio art major at Rhodes University in South Africa, where she majored in painting and the philosophy and history of art. Schwartz played in ceramics and won national contests in high school, and now she makes cedar-root sculptures that have been featured at Lenoir but mostly focuses on drawing and collage. She says her mother told her when she started art school, “If you can get in, great, but you might be starving in a garret.” Schwartz says, “She was so right,” and so she started cooking, another passion that became her art (“food is like painting, like brushstrokes” she says). When she moved to Austin from South Africa, she thought she might go back to art. She says, “Then I saw what amazing produce you can get here, and I thought, well, how can I not cook? You can make anything from any cuisine at any time.”

  • Credit: Spencer Selvidge

     Alex Manley, pastry chef, McGuire-Moorman Hospitality Group

    While Manley was studying painting at the Rhode Island School of Design, she traveled to Rome to study abroad for a year. She says that she would go to the famous farmers’ market there, the Campo de Fiori, and buy fresh food, including fish from the “beautiful fish market.” Then she’d come home and paint what she would eat that day. But Manley paints much more than food (notwithstanding the egg above), including portraits, still lifes, canvases with stitching and even a shoe series. The chef spent almost a decade in Los Angeles working as an artist, and she’s had her fair share of shows and sold numerous pieces of work. After moving to Marfa to help a friend open a restaurant, she decided that she belonged in the food industry, where she considers herself a “tactile artist.” Manley now makes elegant plated desserts and artistically awesome baked goods for the McGuire-Moorman Group, although she has just recently shifted to being the savory chef at Josephine House. She says, “When I’m older and not working anymore, I’m going to go back to painting. If you’re just dabbling in it, it’s not going to go anywhere. To pursue it you have to do it every day.”

  • Lawrence Kocurek, executive chef, Trace 

    Kocurek had to be careful in high school: his father was a police officer, and he was a graffiti artist. He’d spray paint around Austin, but he says he’d choose his spots wisely, especially since his dad made it clear he wouldn’t bail him out. But because Kocurek didn’t think his graffiti art would be taken seriously, he shifted focus to the “culinary art realm.” And the executive chef of the W’s restaurant really does see his food as art.  “A plate is a blank slate,” he says, noting that he even chooses the shape of the plate to resemble a frame, often opting for square. “With food you can do height and texture. It’s sculpture.” But Kocurek hasn’t abandoned painting completely. In addition to designing some of his own tattoos, he says he still paints and draws at home and is working on a few religious themes now, like Buddha and the sacred heart of Jesus.