Jack Gilmore

3rd March 2015

Words: Adam Park
Photographs: James Scheuren

3rd March 2015

Words: Adam Park
Photographs: James Scheuren

It’s the morning of Super Bowl Sunday1 when we visit Jack Gilmore and his wife LuAnn at their home near Marble Falls, an hour outside Austin. A load of friends and relatives are coming around for a pre-game lunch but Gilmore, a legendary figure on the Austin food scene, seems relaxed about catering for them all. His house, a rural retreat overlooking a dry reservoir connected to the Colorado River, has been designed with large-scale entertaining in mind. It’s built over several levels and the emphasis is on cooking outside: there’s an outdoor kitchen with a prep area and gas stove; lower down, there’s a fire-pit, a pizza oven and a building that Gilmore is converting into a smoker. “This is a party house, man,” he booms.

Born on a US Air Force base in England and raised in the Rio Grande Valley, Gilmore got into food almost by accident. He wanted a career in football but one day during high school, while working as a busboy at a local restaurant, he was asked to fill in for an absent chef. The work appealed to him right away. “The two middle-aged Mexican ladies who ran the back of house started grabbing my ass and I thought, hey, I could get used to this.”

After 19 years as executive chef at a major restaurant group, he set up his own place, Jack Allen’s Kitchen2, on the outskirts of Austin – there are now two branches around the city with a third opening in Westlake next month. It’s a Texan enterprise through-and-through: they serve traditional south-western food – stewed red chile pork shoulder, chicken-fried steak – and take particular pride in supporting local producers. The legacy extends through his son Bryce, also a chef with two Austin restaurants of his own3.

First, Gilmore takes us to the vegetable garden he shares with his neighbour James, who swings by to talk us through the produce. It’s mid-winter so there’s kale, flat-leaf parsley, kohlrabi, spinach, carrots and elephant garlic4. We hear guns going off in the distance – someone’s out shooting skeet. Gathering some fennel and radishes for a salad and some beetroot to roast, we head back to watch lunch being prepared in the outdoor kitchen.

By now people are starting to arrive. While Gilmore holds court by the oven, chatting and laughing more than actually cooking, LuAnn attends to the details and generally keeps the show on the road. One friend has brought round a whole hog, another turns up with a fresh rabbit which is promptly gutted and turned into a stew. By the time lunch is ready, there must be 25 or 30 people on the property. Before we go, Gilmore insists on giving us a crash course in tequila so we head down to a bar in his basement and try five or six of his favourite bottles.

Continued below...

What did you do before starting Jack Allen’s Kitchen?

By the time I got married and had children, I was at a place called Z’Tejas – a restaurant in Austin serving killer south-western food. Initially it was never going to be more than one location but then we decided to travel: “Hey, let’s open one in Phoenix, might as well open one in Las Vegas, hey let’s do Salt Lake City, Seattle, Baltimore, California, let’s do this and that”. So I was a corporate chef for 20 years.

What was your lifestyle like?

I was on the road 200 days a year – different airplane every day, different hotel every night. Sometime I would wake up and not know what city I was in. In Las Vegas one day, Phoenix the next. But I had a clear plan – I ran that restaurant like I owned it.

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So what changed?

I realised that life was too short. My kids were out of high school, so I turned to my wife LuAnn and said, “Hey, let’s open our own restaurant”. So together with my partner Tom Kamm – my front of house man for 19 years – we said fuck it, we know how to do it, let’s open our own goddamn restaurant! And let’s do it right.
I was also getting into the whole farm-to-table thing. My son Bryce, who had come out of culinary school in San Francisco, turned me on to it. He went to work in Aspen, Colorado, and showed me all the incredible meat and cheeses the farmers were producing. I went back to the corporate people at Z’Tejas and said: “Hey, if we don’t get on to farm-to-table right now, we’re going to miss the boat”, but they didn’t go for it. Three months later I was gone. I wanted to take farm-to-table to the next level.

How so?

We have four valuable seasons within a hundred miles here. You’re in South Texas in an hour and a half – it’s not going to freeze down there, so you can have stuff growing all the time. And the pond right there? That’s the Gulf of Mexico. You get crab, shrimp, oysters, flounder, redfish, snapper… all kinds of stuff. It’s incredible.

The pond right there? That’s the Gulf of Mexico. You get crab, shrimp, oysters, flounder, redfish, snapper… all kinds of stuff. It’s incredible

I’m loyal to everybody we buy from – spirit makers, cheese-makers. We buy from a hundred or more different farmers a week. Buying local isn’t cheaper, it certainly isn’t easier, but it’s better. And it’s fresher. So it’s up to us to honour it, and we try to do that every day.

What kind of food do you serve?

We serve all sorts. When I first moved to Austin, chicken-fried steak was the thing. Basically it’s meat that’s cooked like fried chicken but it can be beef, pork or anything else. So chicken-fried is big for us, but we’re also friendly to people who want to eat healthy, so we’ve got lots of salads. And a great drinks list. We can do anything. Our mantra was really simple: the restaurant was going to be people’s favourite, and it was going to be fun.

Given how busy you’ve been as a chef over the years, what’s the food like at home?

It doesn’t suck to be the son of a chef. LuAnn and I both worked hard – she was in marketing for over 25 years doing 40 or 50 hours a week – but we still made sure there was good food on the table. LuAnn’s a great cook. She’s got two or three wheelhouse things – her peach cobbler, which you’re going to have in a bit, is unbelievable. The kids learned how to do it themselves, though we did show them a thing or two.

Do you eat out quite a lot?

Yeah, we go out a lot but it’s real hard. Maybe it’s my long hair or something, but in Austin I sometimes get special treatment and we don’t like that. We don’t want free food. There are dozens of restaurants in Austin I want to go to, just haven’t had the chance. And we travel a lot. South Carolina, Phoenix, Seattle, Chicago, New York: those places inspire me too.

Can you pick one meal in particular that has inspired you?

I’m not saying this for the hell of it but, to this day, my wife makes the best Mexican casserole on the planet. I don’t get turned on by 10-course meals. But there’s one or two things that come up every so often, that – boom – damn that was good. The Sunday brunch at [Bryce Gilmore’s restaurant] Odd Duck, the first time I was there, just blew me away. Can’t get any better than that.

Who are your influences?

It was always about the back of the house – the kitchen people. There are five or six names that really matter to me. Robert Mayberry, the first true chef I ever worked with, at Chez Fred; Guy Villavaso and Larry Foles at Z’Tejas, they were true mentors and really taught me the restaurant business. Plus they have incredible palates. Everybody teaches each other round here.

I’m not saying this for the hell of it but, to this day, my wife makes the best Mexican casserole on the planet

Do you have any useful tips for the home cook?

If you follow recipes, just use it as a guide. Put your own spin on it; make mistakes, and get better. If it says one cup, use two. If it says white onions, use red. My book is written in that way. But you can’t do that with baking. Baking is so scientific. If it says one tablespoon of baking powder, you better use one tablespoon.

What’s your comfort food?

Chicken-fried steak, white gravy, macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes and carrots. Did I say mashed potato? [laughs]

Your house is pretty spectacular. How long have you had it?

We moved in here 11 years ago. Very little beyond the front rooms of the house was there when we bought it. My son and I built most of it with our own hands; we did the plumbing, the electricity… We’re a family that likes using our hands, obviously.

Do you entertain here often?

As much as we can. This is a party house, man. Three or four big parties a year, and then up to 20 people more regularly. We’re quite far out of town, so we end up putting a lot of people up overnight.

Today is Superbowl Sunday. I believe you had ambitions to become a professional footballer at one stage.

When I was in high school, my coach said I had to go to a football college. Looking back, I know I was good enough, but there’s no regrets. We didn’t have a lot of money and I wasn’t in a big scouting area. I would have tried harder if I’d had another chance.

You should try Pulque. Now that’s rocket fuel. It’s what a lot of the workers drink… They’re the ones who go out shooting guns in the air

Probably less chance of a head injury though…

Hell, I probably got more head injuries in the kitchen than I would have on the field.

You have a pretty serious-looking tequila collection.

Yeah, I got to meet a lot of the guys who make it, so I’m lucky. My passion for tequila really grew when I started working at Z’Tejas. When I travelled, I’d always pick up a bottle. I’d taste something, love it and have to have it. We stock 40 or 50 in our restaurant. We’re pretty passionate about it, and people like it.

Do you have a favourite brand?

My favourite is Chinaco, but they don’t make it any more. I have a bottle from ’97, another from ’01. It’s great tequila, and it’s nice to age it a bit – just because it’s been sitting in a bottle doesn’t necessarily make it better, but it makes it different. Would you like to try something?

On The Menu

Lunch with Jack Gilmore
Austin, February 2015

To eat:

Jack’s Super Bowl roast chicken with vegetables »
Rabbit stew
Fresh green salad
Peach cobbler »

To drink:

Lots of tequila
Lone Star beer

I’d love to.

Okay. I’ll teach you how to sip it. You don’t shoot it, you have to taste it. This one’s another favourite: Don Julio 1942. It’s around $125 a bottle, so it’s for savouring; you don’t make margaritas out of this stuff. It’s oak-aged. If you like your whiskies, you’ll like this. It has vanilla and all the tones of a really good Scotch. Not like a Patron, which they’ve glamourised – made it look like a perfume bottle. This is pure, sexy. I’ve got four bottles of it.
Another one I like is El Tosoro Paridiso, another is Ambhar. I’ve also got lots of shitty tequila too with funny bottles, like one in the shape of a gun; this one – Vabo Una Tequila – was given to me by [rock musician] Sammy Hagar.

The Don Julio is very nice. Mexican rocket fuel!

You should try a by-product of tequila called Pulque. It’s nasty – now that’s rocket fuel. It’s what a lot of the workers drink. They’re the ones who go out shooting guns in the air.

So which is the best widely-available tequila?

Herradura. It’s the number one tequila in Mexico, with five or six different varieties. It’s really good and it’s affordable down there. It’s good in margaritas, but don’t waste the really good stuff in mixes.

How many bottles do you have?

Two or three hundred, and over a hundred kinds. I’m a bourbon man too, so I’ve got a little bourbon collection. Bulleit, Pappy van Winkle. Maker’s Mark. The whole Buffalo Trace family. I’ve got a few mezcals here too, still got the worm. It tends to be too smokey for me, but the worm has hallucinatory properties. We have two rules in my bar: girls have to eat the worm. And girls have to eat the worm.

Check out the Jack Allen’s Kitchen website

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  1. The Seattle Seahawks vs the New England Patriots. The Patriots go on to win 28-24
  2. Jack’s full name is Jack Allen Gilmore. Whenever he got in trouble with his mother as a kid she would always call him by his full name
  3. Barley Swine and Odd Duck, both of which take a more modernist approach than his father’s restaurants
  4. “Try this,” says Gilmore, handing us a sharp, intensely flavourful red-mustard leaf. “Makes you crave a piece of tuna.”

Posted 3rd March 2015

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Words: Adam Park
Photographs: James Scheuren

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