A Chat With Chef Parind Vora
Parind Vora is the well-spoken, erudite force behind Restaurant Jezebel and Bar Mirabeau. A world traveler, he was born in India but grew up mostly in South Carolina. Vora is best-known for his beloved Austin restaurant Jezebel, which burned down in 2010 and just reopened in October. The classy fine-dining restaurant mixes Old World style with eclectic Austin, featuring Vora’s mother’s saris under the white tablecloths and tasteful nude paintings from his private collection on the walls.
We met up with Vora to try some pav bhaji (Indian street food) and saffron-pistachio ice cream as well as to talk about his latest ventures, including his takeover of the kitchen at Mirabeau, with the help of chef de cuisine Fred Carneiros.
Did you grow up with mostly Indian food? How do you bring your background into your cooking?
I actually grew up eating vegetarian Indian food. I didn’t eat meat for the first time until I was 18. My mom is the real reason that I cook and have such a lust for it. She taught me that when you make Indian food you need to balance the spices. Then, living in Italy and Germany, it was a different lifestyle than in the United States. Food took a lot more importance. It was more about tradition, because it becomes part of you.
I’m not a formally trained chef, and a lot of times people are like, 'This is the way we do it.' What I try to do is say, 'Let’s try it both ways and see which tastes better.'
So what was the first meat that you ate? Was it a conscious decision?
The first meat I tried was a hamburger from McDonald’s on a school field trip when I was 18. In my mind it was a big deal. I didn’t like it at all. I just tasted salt. It didn’t taste like anything and it was really dry and crumbly. Then I tried steak again and again. But not knowing how to order it, I ordered it well-done. And I couldn’t even chew it. I was almost gagging. There was no mental guilt, though.
Then I stopped trying to eat meat for a little while. And I was working at this restaurant, Hennessy’s in Columbia, South Carolina, and the food just smelled good. So I tasted it. It was a steak that was medium rare, and it was delicious. Ever since then, I’ve tried everything.
How is the new Jezebel different than the old Jezebel? And what about Café Mirabeau?
The old Jezebel had to be everything for everyone. It was 65 seats on a normal night and had an a la carte menu. But after a while 70 or 80 percent of our customers were asking us to make dishes up. And I thought, 'Well, why don’t we just offer that to everyone?' So right before the fire, we were about to switch to that. The new Jezebel is just an evolution.
Either you love us or you hate us. There’s nothing in between. I’m doing something right as long as I’m sticking to my guns. This is what we do. If you like it, great. If you don’t, there are other places. Jezebel is that bridge of Old World and New World. The true essence of fine dining is graciousness, so our motto for both places is knowledgeable graciousness. We have to work on the knowledgeable part and the graciousness part at Mirabeau, but at Jezebel we’ve got it.
I took over the kitchen at Bar Mirabeau just a few weeks ago, and now it’s a lot more accessible and a little cheaper.
How has the community responded to Restaurant Jezebel, especially the dress code?
They’re fine with Jezebel. The complainers are the same six people. They’re never going to come into the restaurant, and they were never going to plan to come into the restaurant. I’ll tell you this much: We’re full every night. We have eight tables. If you look at our reviews online, they’re stellar, because we care about what our guests want, not what someone thinks we should or shouldn’t do.
It doesn’t feel like a special evening when people are sitting next to you in cargo shorts and hats. When you go out to a special dinner like that, you’re having an appropriate conversation. You’re using vocabulary appropriate for your age and education, and that needs to be part of the dining and dress experience.
How do you pick particular dishes for particular customers? Do you invent new dishes on the spot?
Let’s go into the kitchen. [We walk into the kitchen.]
When the order comes in, I’m just told what the person likes and doesn’t like.
How detailed do you get?
Medium. It’s not overly detailed, but there’s some information.
So here are our proteins: We have sausage, rabbit, wild boar, foie gras, antelope, elk, duck, filet. We have kangaroo, because it’s a sustainable meat. It’s a game. Here are mushrooms, dandelion greens, calamari, eggplant.
These are all of my other spices and ingredients and teas. We use spirulina, lapsang tea, yerba mate, rosehips, chamomile, all those kinds of things.
I’ll get a ticket that will tell me what they don’t want, any allergies, and what they don’t like. They’ll tell me if meat and fish are okay. Innards, foie gras, sweetbreads. Game meats. How do they like their meat and fish cooked? What spice level do they enjoy?
All of these things are taken into consideration by me, and I just basically make it up as I go. For a whole table, I’ll conceptualize a dish, so it doesn’t require five hours of explanation.
Since we’ve opened we’ve probably created 700 or 800 dishes that haven’t ever been done before. I did this dish where I took sashimi of swordfish and had a coating of spirulina on it, with sesame seed oil and hot peppers. Then I served it with a coddled egg and maple-syrup granules in the egg. But I grew up in South Carolina, so I can also do the simple stuff like fried chicken.
Say someone comes in and says they had something at Jezebel that they really liked. Can they get the same dish again?
Yes, they can get it again. Do we like to repeat things? No. We write everything down that they had, and we curate a profile for each guest. We’re trying not to repeat something that even tastes like it, to be completely different. However, if they like something, I kind of have a baseline. But exactly, probably not. We want to do something unexpected. We get people telling us that they had fun and felt like kids again. And it’s fun for me too, because I get to create new dishes.