A Chat With Jeffrey’s and Josephine House’s Rebecca Meeker
Accomplished yet unassuming chef Rebecca Meeker has quite the resume to back up her skills. She has cooked in cities across the globe, most notably helping famous French chef Joel Robuchon open his restaurants in New York and Taiwan. Before coming to work with Larry McGuire at his hospitality group as their chef project manager, she cooked with David Bull as the chef de cuisine at downtown Congress. Meeker is also on the board of the Fresh Chef Society in town and an avid runner. We sat down with her to talk about the newly reopened Jeffrey’s, how she taught the Taiwanese to cook French food and her first cooking experiences (hint: they’re Austin, through and through).
Zagat: Have you always been interested in cooking?
Rebecca Meeker: I have. When I was in high school, my best friend’s mom owned Word of Mouth Catering. She started it in our neighborhood. From growing up with her and being at her house and seeing her cook, I saw her turn her little neighborhood catering company into a real company. Her food was always so delicious, so I asked her to teach me how to cook. She said if I got a bunch of girls together she would teach us, so we did. And then eventually they all dropped out. When I graduated from high school, she offered me a job in her kitchen at Word of Mouth, and then I did that for the summer. With that I got a job with David Bull at the Driskill, and I stayed there for a year. I wanted to go to culinary school, and my dad was like, “You’ve got to work in a kitchen for a year before considering this.” So I did, and then we started traveling around looking at culinary schools. And then I went to school. I had no idea that 10 years later, that relationship I made with David Bull when I was 18 years old would bring me back to Austin to open Congress. It came full circle. Then Larry called me about two months ago and offered me this position.
Zagat: So you grew up in Austin. What was it like to spend so much time in New York and then come back? Did you see a change in the city?
RM: Absolutely. The city is growing with ACL and SXSW. It’s brought a lot of people here who are really into food. And the community itself. The neighborhoods have really opened up and people enjoy going out to eat on a weekday, not just a Friday or Saturday or for a special occasion. I’ve got to give it to the Austin community for really going out there and eating and letting us cook what we want. Being OK with eating sweetbreads.
And then of course there’s a lot of talented chefs here. You see a lot more often that cooks from New York and San Francisco are coming to Austin, whereas when I was growing up I had to go to those cities to get the experience I wanted.
Zagat: How is the Austin scene different than the New York and San Francisco scenes?
RM: It’s been a long time since I cooked in those cities, since before Congress I was in Taiwan. But those cities just felt such a strong community with chefs and food. It wasn’t as personal for me because I didn’t know all of my neighbors. Here I know all my neighbors and a lot about the city from growing up here. Everyone in the bigger cities was just so positive and on each other’s side when you went out to eat if you were in the industry. You were taken care of tenfold. Everyone had great things to say about the restaurant you were working at, and you had great things to say about them. It was really positive.
Zagat: You mentioned Taiwan. You went to open one of Robuchon’s restaurants there?
RM: Yes. I opened Robuchon’s restaurant in New York. Xavier Boyer, who used to be the chef de cuisine there, once he was done in New York, he was going to open one in Taiwan. He called me and asked me if I wanted to go. And it worked out. I was there about a year and a half.
Zagat: Was it culture shock?
RM: It was crazy. I went with Robuchon’s team, and they were all Japanese. I worked with three of them in New York, so I knew them already. But I was the only American in the whole establishment.
Zagat: Did you have different sensibilities in terms of food?
RM: I started with Robuchon at a crucial time in my career, because I knew how to cook. But once I started with them and opened the restaurant in New York, I believed in the way that they taught you and the recipes and the philosophy. Transitioning to Taiwan with the same team was pretty easy. You just go there and teach locals the philosophy and the food. The restaurant is still open in Taiwan but not in New York.
Zagat: Did you like living there?
RM: I loved it. The people are really nice. They have all these hot springs and massages, which are really great. The only thing I didn’t like about it was Christmastime. There was no sign of the holidays anywhere. It was just another day. They would ask me for stories, like, “Is it true that in America for Christmas people spend so much money and there’s presents around the tree?” And hearing them talk about our culture, it was like, “Yeah, that’s very much true.”
Zagat: What kind of food did you eat on a day-to-day basis there?
RM: Every day it was like, “What do you want, rice or noodle?” A lot of hot food, there’s not a lot of cold food there. Beef noodle soup. The restaurants don’t serve water. They serve hot tea and it’s hot outside, so you’re sweating like crazy.
Zagat: That’s such a contrast from the food you were cooking at the restaurant there.
RM: Yeah, and it was really hard to - we were there six months prior trying to source ingredients and work with farms. We served hanger steak in the restaurant. And over there they don’t serve hanger steak because it’s in the stomach lining. So we would literally have to go to a slaughterhouse and break it down and show them. And then of course there’s a language barrier.
Zagat: Were people there interested in that type of food?
RM: Yeah, definitely. Over there, in that part of the world, they love French food. It’s a lot more between Paris and Japan. My mentor in New York and Taipei, Yosuke Suga, is now Iron Chef French in Japan.
Zagat: Shifting back to McGuire-Moorman, the team has so many established awesome restaurants here. What is it like to join that group after it’s already so well-oiled?
RM: It’s nothing I’m not used to, because with Robuchon we opened restaurants really fast as well. But it’s really inspiring. Larry sees things through a different set of eyes. It’s strange. I think I’m really good at plating food, and then he does it, and I’m like, “Wow, I would have never thought to do it that way, but yeah, it looks great.” There’s so much more that can happen with this restaurant group, so we’re excited about that as well.
Zagat: What kind of changes have you made so far?
RM: We talk every day about menus, and menus change daily at both restaurants. Jenn Jackson, the chef de cuisine on the Josephine side, she’s really into farm to table and local, and that’s what that restaurant is about. We’re bringing some of that over to Jeffrey’s and focusing a lot on trying to be as local as possible. Seedlings Gardening takes care of our gardens for both restaurants, and we love cooking out of the gardens and working with the owner, Liz Baloutine. Seasonal menus and changing a lot until we’re really happy with everything.
Zagat: Just to clarify, you’re mainly focusing on Jeffrey’s right now. But are you also in charge of Elizabeth Street, Perla’s and the other restaurants?
RM: Nope. Right now I’ve been here for two months and my title is the chef project manager of McGuire-Moorman. Right now I’m working with Jeffrey’s and Josephine House. In the future we’ll start working on new concepts and then maybe go back and touch base with all the other restaurants, just update them seasonally and work with the chefs. But because this is a new position, we’re kind of learning as we go.