12th May 2015
Interview: Adam Park
Photographs: James Scheuren
12th May 2015
Interview: Adam Park
Photographs: James Scheuren
We meet David late one afternoon at the legendary Bouldin Creek Café, which he refers to as “the nexus of South Austin’s creative community”. He takes us to the original Soup Peddler premises tucked away in a parking lot across the street, and then we head to the Central Market to buy fish for dinner. David has decided to recreate a favourite meal that he had with his wife Meredith in Milan – salt-baked red snapper with risotto and wilted greens, which, he says, “turned out to be the most simple and delicious meal we’d ever eaten”.
Their house in South Lamar is beautiful in a quintessentially Austin fashion: wood-framed and purple-fronted with a vegetable garden and an orchard in their back yard where David grows persimmon, peaches and pears. He gives us a tour of his well-stocked (and very well-organised) kitchen and then begins to cook in a practiced, confident way. Mia, their seven-year-old daughter, joins us for dinner. Before we eat, David says a motzi blessing – they are observing Shabbat – and then we settle down to feast on an extraordinary fish dish.
During the meal David put on a few records from his sizable collection: local legends Commander Cody and Stevie Ray Vaughan, as well as more obscure artists such as Mighty Sparrow and the Olympia Brass Band. He assembled a playlist so you can hear some of the records we listened to on the night.
David: Actually I was a horrible eater when I was a kid – the very opposite of adventurous. I grew up in Baltimore and it was a very 70s, 80s kind of upbringing in terms of food: a lot of iceberg lettuce, canned vegetables and all that stuff.
David: It started when I was in college in Maryland living in a group house with friends, smoking a bunch of weed and trying to figure out how to feed ourselves. I remember the first time I went food shopping with my college roommate, we didn’t know what the hell to do, what to buy. Everything we bought was white – white bread, ramen noodles, rice, white potatoes. So it took a while for me to figure it out. I bought a couple of cookbooks…
David: One was a Cajun cookbook and it had a photographic step-by-step guide to things like trussing the pork roast and stuffing it. There were some fairly complex processes. I remember buying a nice Wusthof chef’s knife and an All-Clad frying pan and getting quite into it. Moving to Austin and being around lots of creative people was definitely inspiring. And the travelling was good for inspiration as well…
“The waiter rolled out a trolley with what looked like a mound of salt. He cracked the salt crust and dug out this fish… it was the most delicious meal we’d ever eaten”
David on the inspiration for his dish – see Recipe
David: A lot in the Middle East – the hospitality there made a big impression on me… In Africa, I remember a train ride through from Lusaka to Dar es Salaam where the train would stop and pick up dozens of chickens and then you’d be served chicken that night. How the hell they were slaughtered and prepped on this train I don’t want to picture, but they tasted very good. I had great experiences in Zanzibar, taking spice tours and eating at the night market. In Israel I remember the falafel stands and the amazing pickles.
There was one Mexico trip in particular that fed into my Soup Peddler business. We went to a town called Real de Catorce, in the mountains of North-Central Mexico. It’s a very magical place ringed by 10,000-foot ridges. Right near the cathedral there was this woman who had a gordita1 stand. She had a communal table around her and everyone sat down to eat together. The offering was very simple, all handmade – pat pat pat, put them in the fire while another person does the fillings on this big plancha. I remember just being really inspired; there’s a photo of me watching the gordita woman going, like, wow! It was wonderful. I started the Soup Peddler soon afterwards.
David: Sort of by accident. I came to Austin as a computer guy, then scrambled to do something else and make a life of my own. I got a bit of confidence when I started a little Shabbat group and it turned into something like a supper club where I ended up doing most of the cooking.
David: I’d always lived in shared houses and one of the hallmarks of sharing food is forgotten vegetables in the fridge, which make for great soup. Soup is a good thing to cook in bulk and it always seems to improve over time. So when I thought about starting a food business, I thought, well, soup could work.
My first employee chased me down the street in her slippers shouting “You’re the soup peddler, I want a job”
David: As the idea developed, I envisioned it as that milkman thing, you know, the long-lost milkman of American culture, except people would leave their buckets out on the porch and I’d fill them up with soup. It struck a chord. I think the whole bicycle delivery thing was a big part of the appeal – it was quirky in a very South Austin way.To start with I sent an email out to friends: you get a bucket of soup for ten bucks and I’ll bring it around every Sunday. After a couple of seasons it took off and I started getting big write-ups in the local papers. I really wasn’t prepared for the demand. I was cooking out of this tiny kitchen with three 30-quart pots which meant I could only supply 45 customers a week. But the scarcity only made it more desirable.
That gave me enough confidence to sign the lease on a building. At the time the investments seemed incredible – I remember spending $750 on my first fridge and I thought that was insane. Then I signed a lease and started getting employees and I had to start thinking of myself as a boss. My first employee chased me down the street in her slippers shouting “You’re the soup peddler, I want a job”. I remember sitting with her peeling potatoes – she was the worst potato peeler – and it was like, Oh my god I’m never going to be able to offload these tasks.
David: No. I’d never stepped foot in a kitchen or restaurant, never waited tables. I didn’t know anything about food safety. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing but it was infused with love so it turned out okay.
David: When I started out, I felt like a big fish in a small pond. Now it’s like the ocean. Not only are there a lot of great creators here now, there’s a huge investment pressure on Austin and incredible competition for spaces. Certainly it’s a rising tide with a lot of boats, but you have to be a good seaworthy boat. Because there’s so much talent here, it’s rather intimidating. Especially for a half-ass culinarian like myself without any formal training.
David: At the beginning I took summers off, but that doesn’t really work in terms of creating a business and having employees and stuff like that. So I struggled with ways to make it a year-round endeavour.
David: There’s a couple of decent cold soups, but really, cold soup sucks! Okay, it’s a decent little appetizer, fine, but it doesn’t like hit people like soup truly does. We started doing a full menu delivery service with added entrees, and that worked for a while, but the delivery business had hit its peak and was starting to fizzle. So I partnered with someone to create a storefront where you could buy soup and have juices and smoothies. It took a while to take off but it worked in the end.
Now we have three stores. It’s a little bit of a tough sell; we don’t have anything crave-worthy, nothing that’s crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside, you know? Pizzas or burgers or stuff that makes people want to…
David: Yeah. It’s a humble offering. It’s not a flashy thing, it’s not sexy food. But it still has a really deep resonance with people. Soup is a primal, communal food for every culture. It’s an expression of love.
People are very timid when it comes to using heat and their cooking suffers – you need to make those chemical reactions happen and give the food some character
David: Oh definitely, home is where I really connect with food and get to be creative. It’s really nice to chop up one onion and make a dish, rather than chopping up a whole 50-pound bag of onions.
Meredith: She’s a great eater. There was never any, like, “Oh we’ll make you a separate dinner”, ever. Her favourite dish is David’s homemade chicken nuggets.
David: We really tried to open up her taste buds early on – they don’t realise there’s a choice until they reach a certain age. Then there was a backlash – no, no no! – but thankfully that was just a phase.
David: Cooking is mostly chopping stuff up and making it hot. The heat is important. A lot of people roast vegetables at 350F when they should really put it at 450F and give some character to their food. When you’re sautéing something in a pan, use the fire – use it until it’s too much and then turn it down. People are very timid when it comes to using heat and their cooking suffers – you need to make those chemical reactions happen and give the food some character.
The other tip is to trust yourself and make mistakes. Making mistakes is how you learn. I’m quite anti-recipe, but if you’re looking at a recipe don’t look at the numbers, look at the techniques.
David: Yeah I like that cheffy thing of keeping your station clean, so generally the dishes are done by the time the dinner’s on the table. And I take pride in being able to get a meal on the table 15 or 20 minutes after I walk through the door. I don’t know if you noticed, but the first thing I did when I came in was turn on the oven. And I’ll usually have hot water on the stove.
I’m always trying help people organise their kitchens because I think it’s so important. But thank god a lot of people can’t manage for themselves in the kitchen – otherwise I wouldn’t be in business!
Roger Phillips – The horticulturalist and food writer takes us around his secret London garden, discusses his deep-rooted love of mushrooms and explains why he sleeps in his kitchen
Erwin Gegenbauer – The master vinegar brewer takes us on a tour of his Vienna factory, explains why local produce is “boring” and makes us breakfast featuring his own honey, oil, coffee, beer and cider
Ryan Chetiyawardana – The cocktail pioneer devises an elaborate pairing menu, explains the deceptively simple idea behind his bars, confesses a major food aversion and recalls his favourite ever meal