Indie Chefs Community: The Road to COMMUNE with Grover Smith: Meet a Champion Chef, Community Catalyst in Human Form – Food
The National Community of Independent Chefs comes to Austin, y’all, and the food they’re showing will be, uh, what’s a good shot?
How about “off the charts”, will that work?
Grover Smith, smiling like a man about to eat really, really well
Because, with something this incredible, you can roughly 86 your reporter’s putative fluency in language.
Yes, the national independent chef community comes here for a unique collaboration Road to COMMUNE Dinner Series from March 23-27with five days of collaborative culinary eventswhich will feature dishes (and wine pairings) from more than 25 nationally renowned chefs (featuring Austin’s own restaurant Ariana Quant and Brandon Silva and Christina Curier and Joe Chan and Fiore Tedesco and Philip Speer and Mia Li and more among this glory company), and they are well aligned with the Good job Austin people, and most of the tantalizing action will be hosted by Sarah heard and Nathan Lemley their Foreign and national on North Loop, and – yes, it’s one of the greatest culinary things to cross town, we think, which is why we told you about it a few weeks ago, but maybe there are one or two tickets still available right now?
But, when it comes to food, it’s… not even really about food, right?
To answer this question, we spoke with the top chef at Indie Chefs Grover Smith of this national pilgrimage to some sort of culinary apotheosis in Houston next year.
Note: Smith started right here in Austin, having left his career in real estate development to pursue a career in the hospitality industry – starting as a waiter at Foreign & Domestic and working his way up to General Manager at this powerhouse acclaimed gourmet. before fleeing (our verb, not his) to Houston years later. The man is totally FOH, you see, but embraces the industry as a whole – and has a fierce respect for the cooking side in particular. And now he’s here, bringing it all home with these independent chefs, and he’s 1) excited and we say 2) has good reason to be excited.
Yes, we spoke with Smith about this week’s dinner series and beyond, and now (inspired by Rod Machen’s recent style of covering Andrew Zimmern’s SXSW gig) we’re passing on his responses like this…
About the origin of the Indie Chefs series:
“The event started many years ago at Foreign & Domestic as an opportunity to do something during a slow week of the year. It was around the first week of January, which is always a kind of time died after the New Year. And I witnessed the camaraderie that grew out of it and saw the full potential of using a meeting like this as a platform for other things. To build those relationships and getting people to meet people from other markets. And I also felt there was a lot of opportunity for people who were community stakeholders, in food communities across the country, to share ideas .
About how such a thing is usually not satisfied to arrive:
“Restaurants tend to operate in these silos, they are very competitive businesses, and so chefs may meet on a Sunday, for example, when their restaurants are closed, or after service at some point. In a bar somewhere or something. But I noticed that there was a pattern, regardless of the situation, leaders tended to keep information close to their vests and not really share as much. It was more, ‘Yeah, tonight was really busy, so busy, and we totally killed it,” and I realized a lot of it was just window dressing, there wasn’t a lot of real conversation about what they were dealing with, about the similarities of their experience. So by having a very chef-centric event – we focus entirely on their experience – we make sure they can afford to come, taking care of all the associated costs and ensuring that there is a lot of downtime, that the cooking part represents a small percentage of the total time spent together.
About the structure created to foster conversation and the exchange of ideas:
“I wanted to provide the opportunity in a place that wasn’t, like a bar. Because you’ll be going to these foodie events, and often there’s an afterparty where the chefs can socialize and talk – and I wanted to kind of formalize that and give them a four or five day period where they can get out of their kitchens, get off their daily to-do lists and prep lists, and just have real organic conversations. I also wanted to showcase people who were doing new and interesting things, trying different operating models that might not be as challenging for their employees, or inventing innovative ways to support their communities – I wanted them to can show it to other chiefs and their communities”.
About the success of the initiative:
“We’ve done dozens of these dinners in over a dozen different markets now – I think something like 700 chefs have attended and in the past we’ve always operated on a referral basis. We maintain a strict code of conduct for the event, which basically says, “Don’t be an asshole”. For example, have as much fun as you want, but make sure nothing you do negatively alters another person’s experience while they’re there. It was important that the seriousness of this was conveyed to all future participants who had not yet been a part of it, because what I think makes this series so special is that it is a positive environment, it’s very collaborative and there’s not a lot of competition involved.
About where all this is currently leading:
“COMMUNE was my idea after Covid – because there were two years where we basically couldn’t operate. And I wanted – I was a little naive at the time, I think – but around the time you started to see that vaccines were available to just about everyone who works in hospitality, and on based on the information we received at the time – I wanted to create a community-focused experiential dining complex. This means that the actual participants would work together to make it happen, and it would be that cathartic moment when everyone could come together after being isolated for so long. Obviously Delta put a bit of wrench in those plans – we had to delay it until spring of this year. And then Omicron reared its ugly head, just as we were starting to do the invitations, and I didn’t think it was appropriate to invite people to a big festival when the restaurants themselves were facing to massive closures again? So we postponed it again, until March following year, to give us a longer track to see what will happen with Covid entering, they say, an endemic phase. And we planned to do a multi-city tour, which is how we always made bread and butter, and decided that what made the most sense was to put everything under one umbrella, to do the touring the country and doing these little anti-food festivals and markets throughout the year, in preparation, to grow our community of chefs and other participants. To bring more attention to what we’re trying to do – as an introduction to this spring 2023 thing that’s been delayed twice now.
About the greater public good in general and in Austin:
“We work with Good Work Austin, with Adam Orman there and Kevin Lawler. Because, in every city we go to, we choose a nonprofit partner who works in or is adjacent to hospitality, so we can showcase what they do – both for participating chefs who come from across the country as well as the guests who attend the dinners. So Good Work will have a representative every night for the dinners, and they will benefit from the proceeds of the event from the first night, and from Saturday morning, and – we also invite many other people. And Good Work invites its members – not just for dinners, but for afterparties and our various programs.