A native Austinite, Josh Watkins quit his Central Texas hometown for schooling at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. While stationed in the Golden State, Watkins worked on several restaurant openings with former high-profile San Franciscan Chef Reed Hearon—one of which, Rose Pistola, earned the James Beard Foundation’s “Best New Restaurant” award. Inspired by the wealth of seafood and high-quality, local produce San Francisco had to offer, Watkins decided to bring the same elevated, seasonal dining experience back home.
Returning to Texas, Watkins first worked under Chef William Koval at The French Room in the Adolphus Hotel, nationally recognized as the best restaurant in Dallas by The New York Times and Bon Appétit. And finally making the move back to Austin, Watkins joined the culinary team at the historic Driskill Grill under the tutelage of nationally acclaimed chef—and fellow Rising Star—David Bull.
By 23, Watkins had worked his way up to chef de cuisine (even making an appearance on Food Network’s “Iron Chef America” alongside Bull). And by 2007, with Watkins at the helm as executive chef, The Driskill Grill earned consecutive five-star ratings. Watkins’ passion for farm fresh, ingredient-driven food led him to open Carillon at the AT&T Hotel and Conference Center in June of 2008. It’s there, in the seat of his native city, that Watkins’ daring approach to traditional foods and emphasis on local, sustainable ingredients finally blossomed into something entirely its own. And it quickly caught the attention of food critics across the state, earning Watkins a four-star rating from the Austin-American Statesman, and gaining for Austin another talented chef invested in the city’s thriving local culinary scene.
Interview with Rising Star Hotel Chef Josh Watkins of Carillon – Austin, TX
Caroline Hatchett: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Josh Watkins: The answer is two-fold. When I first started cooking, it was my first job. I was 15 years old, working at a place called The Pier on Lake Austin. I was flipping burgers and dropping fryer baskets, and initially I enjoyed the rush and pace of the line. One day, a senior girl at the cash register brought me back a nice cold beer. I cracked it open and drank it in the Austin heat. I thought, “This is the life.”
But it wasn’t until I went to San Francisco that cooking became more than a sport. Before that, cooking on the line was a fast-paced sport to me. When I went to culinary school, I fell in love with food. It gave me passion and nurtured my growth. San Francisco has such great produce and seafood. When I worked at Black Cat, we had one person who grew our arugula and one person who made red wine vinegar for us. I fell in love and made it a career.
CH: What advice would you give to young chefs just getting started?
JW: You’re not an executive chef right out of culinary school. People don’t graduate from Harvard and become CEOs for Fortune 500 companies. Practice your craft; get good at technique; be patient. If you work hard, you’ll be able to obtain your goals.
CH: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
JW: Make sure you know how to use acid. Everyone talks about salt and flavor profiling. But you can’t have balance without proper use of acidity. Acidity makes things bright, clean, and crisp. Of course, we cook with things that are rich but have to use acidity to balance them.
CH: What goes into creating a dish?
JW: I always start with produce first. I go and see what’s available. I buy lots of produce, bring it back to the restaurant, and put it on the table. At that point, I haven’t conceptualized a dish. I just start cooking. That said, we don’t get perfect results every time. But the most amazing dishes we’ve come up with come from that format. If someone over-blanches asparagus, we make it into panna cotta, for example. Obviously, you have to manipulate and improve on results. It’s about grabbing what you see and like. We cook for ourselves and customers tend to like what we like. I had a guy in culinary school tell me not to cook what I like. I never listened. I think a certain amount of passion has to be put forth from one’s own likes.
CH: What’s the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
JW: We’re inside a building with conference center in its name and that’s on the University of Texas campus. We’re fortunate in our business levels and covers, but I’ll be out somewhere, and someone tells me, “Oh, I’ve heard about [Carillon]. Where are you guys?” I always hear that. Our PR and my following have brought enough diners to the restaurant; we’re not slow. But the constant challenge is hearing, “Where are you located?”
CH: What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your job?
JW: Earlier on when I was first promoted to sous chef, I had to take care of lots of managerial things, like managing labor costs, office work, and paper work, for the first time. The biggest challenge was learning how to take the fast-paced kitchen environment and turn it off to balance it with mundane management tasks.
CH: If you had one thing you could do over again, what would it be?
JW: I cooked in San Francisco for quite some time. But I would definitely cook in New York for at least five years.
CH: What’s your proudest accomplishment in your career to date?
JW: As a Texas chef and not a New York chef, cooking at the James Beard House. Being able to go to the James Beard House, for sure, it’s up there with appearing on “Iron Chef America.”
CH: What does success mean for you?
JW: At the end of the day, if you can look at what you’ve accomplished in that day, and it touched people to make their lives better. If employees have more direction in their careers and lives. If you can be part of that, that’s what success means to me.