8 Veteran Austin Chefs You Need to Know

By Veronica Meewes  |  March 29, 2016
Credit: Driskill Hotel

In Austin, chefs come and go and, in recent years, seemingly successful restaurants have closed as quickly as they opened. But a handful of veteran chefs have been in the game since long before Austin was hailed a food city, and they're still going strong. See what's kept them inspired and successful through the years.

Tony Sansalone (pictured above)
Originally from Siderno, a small Calabrian town in Italy, Sansalone took his first pastry chef job straight out of culinary school at a historic boutique hotel in Palm Beach called The Colony Hotel. He went on to work at the Ocean Grand Hotel, which later became the Four Seasons Palm Beach, launching a 15-year career with the Four Seasons, which brought him to Austin. After running his own shop, Sansalone's Specialty Cakes, in Downtown Austin for five years, he joined the team at the Driskill Hotel for its grand reopening in 1989. He remains the hotel's executive pastry chef to this day, known for his flawless cakes, delicate croissants and addictive cinnamon rolls. He says one of the most important things he's learned in his tenure is "to be a good listener and to be sensitive to the needs of those that work for me."

Advice for younger chefs: "Often, young pastry chefs get so caught up in the design and technique, they forget flavor. Focus on the food, and make sure it tastes as good as it looks!"

David Garrido (photo courtesy of dine)

David Garrido
The son of a Mexican diplomat, Garrido was born in Canada, grew up in Mexico, Puerto Rico and Costa Rica, and was schooled in Switzerland before working for Stephan Pyles at Routh Street Café in Dallas. He's gone on to cook at Cipollina, O's Campus Cafe, the original Jeffrey's and Josephine House, opened Fresh Planet Café inside Whole Foods in 1997 and consulted for Chuy's Comida Deluxe for several years. The owners became investors in Garrido's Restaurant, which was open for five years starting in 2009. These days, Garrido oversees the kitchen at dine inside the downtown Radisson Hotel, where he serves refined American plates against the picturesque backdrop of Lady Bird Lake. "When I taste food, I close my eyes and really imagine how the texture and flavor come together," he says. "Then I taste it three times to make sure all the textures, colors and flavors are well balanced."

Advice for younger chefs: "Dedication and conviction to your work will get you to the finish line. Get as much experience as you can, learn as much as you can and continually share that with your fellow chefs."

Hoover Alexander (photo courtesy of Hoover's Cooking)

Hoover Alexander
Hoover (as he's known to customers and colleagues) was propelled into a culinary career after his first job as a dishwasher and busser at Night Hawk Restaurant in 1973. He went on to train in the kitchen there before accepting a chef position at Toulouse Restaurant & Bar on Sixth Street, then working in the kitchens at Chez Fred, Houston's and Good Eats Café before opening Hoover's Cooking in 1998. His extensive experience has taught him to "always stay willing to listen, learn and respond to customers and co-workers," he says. To this day, his popular Manor Road soul food restaurant draws a crowd for comforting classics like chicken-fried steak and chicken, meatloaf, char-broiled catfish and jerk chicken.

Advice for younger chefs?
"Embrace older food traditions, history, culture and contributors as you create your own style and identity."

Elmar Prambs (photo courtesy of The Four Seasons Austin)

Elmar Prambs
After growing up in a farming community in Bavaria, Prambs started a chef apprenticeship at the Golf Hotel Sonnenbichl in Garmisch-Partenkirchen before going on to cook at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal, Hyatt Hotel Vancouver, Four Seasons Hotel Vancouver and Four Seasons Resort Dallas. He's been with the Four Seasons Hotel Austin since it opened in 1986 and, in the past 30 years, he's cooked for three presidents (Clinton, Bush and Obama) as well as Queen Elizabeth, who simply ordered a ham sandwich with the crust removed. "Keep pushing yourself every day," he advises fellow chefs, "and hire young people — they keep you on your toes and challenge you to come up with new ideas, which helps you stay relevant."

Advice for younger chefs: "You have to enjoy and have a passion for cooking. If those traits aren't there, you are in the wrong business. There are a lot of easier careers, but none as exciting as the culinary field."

Jack Gilmore (photo courtesy of Jack Allen's Kitchen)

Jack Gilmore
An upbringing in the Rio Grande Valley was very influential to Jack Gilmore, whose dishes showcase the vibrant flavors, fresh produce, seafood and meat found in Texas. He began his culinary career working under Cajun chefs on South Padre Island, then trained with German chefs in Fredricksburg before coming to Austin to cook at Louie's on the Lake, Chez Fred and El Chino. "I've been here since 1979 and I've seen Austin grow a lot, but it's still maintained its personality," says Gilmore. "I love the people, the weather, the vibe, the options and all of the activities, both indoor and outdoor." As executive chef at Z'Tejas, he opened other locations of the popular Tex-Mex restaurant around the U.S. before branching out on his own to open Jack Allen's Kitchen in 2009. Now three restaurants strong, he's planning to open a second concept this summer, the seafood-focused Salt Traders Coastal Cooking.

Advice for younger chefs: "Be humble, passionate and figure out how to maintain stamina. And keep pushing yourself to get better each day."

Ronald Cheng (photo by Sunny Ng)

Ronald Cheng
Cheng grew up in Taipei, but he started his culinary career as a dishwasher at Sisters, his mom's first restaurant in Austin. He went on to open several of his own concepts in Austin, from Chinatown Grill and Chinatown Cafe to El Chino (Mexican and Chinese fusion), where Jack Gilmore was the head chef. In 1983, he opened the first upscale concept, called Chinatown, on Bee Cave Road, followed by other locations downtown and in the Far West neighborhood. "I'm proud of the community I've built here," says Cheng. "It's rewarding to see all the different people who have worked for me over the last 30 years grow and develop — whether or not they stay in the restaurant industry." Next on his plate is a street food concept (Street by Chinatown), which will open in the former Musashino space on MoPac. "Never allow yourself to get bored," Cheng advises. "The minute you are bored, it means you're doing something wrong. There are always opportunities to evolve and learn."

Advice for younger chefs: "When you get successful too fast at a young age like I did, you can lose track of your priorities like family and health. Take care of yourself and find something that can ground you and keep you from going crazy. For me, it's gardening. If you go to my restaurants, the landscaping is impeccable. That's how I meditate."

Emmett and Lisa Fox (photo by Jody Horton)

Emmett Fox
After beginning a kitchen career at Grisanti's Restaurant, in Memphis, at the age of 18, Emmett Fox went on to attend the Culinary Insitute of America and cook at Café Annie in Houston and Landmark Inn in Boston, then assumed the role of chef at Bnu, Arturo's Ristorante and Grapp, all in Massachussets. He came to Austin in 1992, where he served as chef at the Bitter End Bistro & Brewery and for San Gabriel Restaurant Group before opening his first restaurant venture, ASTI, in 2000 with his wife and business partner, Lisa. They opened FINO in 2005 and, 10 years later, decided to close the Mediterranean concept in order to focus on opening their newest restaurant, CANTINE Italian Café and Bar. He loves the close-knit culinary community Austin has maintained as the city continues to grow and evolve. "Even today, it is still a small, casual town which helps to foster that sense of community," says Emmett.

Advice for younger chefs: "Always take time to research what you’re working on; I call it homework. When a young chef or cooks gets trained, it’s very quick and basic. If they take 10 to 15 minutes every day to do a little homework and try to better understand something new, they'll get further ahead than most. Always do your homework."

Elaine Martin (photo by Carolyn Kelleher)

Elaine Martin
Following advice from her dad to start learning her trade at the bottom of the chain, Elaine Martin began by washing dishes at In Flight Catering, a company located inside a former pizza stand that provided meals for the flights departing from the old Robert Mueller Airport. She moved up to cook at Mamma's Money, a seafood-and-music eatery formerly on Neches Street, followed by a Carribbean eatery called Tortuga's, A Moveable Feast catering company, an Italian fine-dining restaurant called Basil's and a casual eatery called Good Eats, where she met her future business partner, Dorsey Barger. Together, they opened Eastside Cafe in 1988 and became pioneers in Austin's farm-to-table movement. Barger went on to open Hausbar Urban Farm and, today, Martin is the sole owner of Eastside Café as well as the adjacent Elaine's, a pulled pork and pie shop she opened in 2012.

Advice for younger chefs: "Work in as many different styles of restaurants as you can, so you can learn from other people's successes and failures. Learn how to deal with stress before you open your own place. Run, meditate, crochet, play tennis."