Andrew Wiseheart’s got a résumé full of adventure. From the more innocent dangers of eating his father’s culinary experiments to the rugged thrills of working a ranch and hitchhiking his way through Europe, Wiseheart brings that electric element of risk and reward to his perspective as a chef.
Not that his perspective doesn’t have solid foundational groundings. Wiseheart’s San Angelo, Texas, childhood was centered in his family kitchen, where—when he wasn’t the only one brave enough to sample his father’s cooking—Wiseheart absorbed early lessons in cuisine. And it was there that Wiseheart found a balance of structure and innovation that inspired him to become a chef.
Wiseheart pursued that inspiration at Austin’s Le Cordon Bleu, solidifying his grasp of formal techniques. But it wasn’t until he hit the road, getting experience behind the line at restaurants in Napa Valley, that Wiseheart’s training began to solidify. Working at La Toque, which earned a Michelin star during Wiseheart’s tenure, and Angéle, where he prepared French comfort food, the young chef earned a confidence that eventually propelled him to Europe. Thumbing rides from Modena, Italy, to Slovenia (where he began walking), and taking two trips to Croatia (where he harvested grapes and learned the crafts of making olive oil and masonry), Wiseheart’s European tour was thoroughly hands-on.
Now firmly ensconced back in his Texas homeland, world-traveler Wiseheart combines the lessons of his youth, work, and travels at Contigo, the ranch-based restaurant he opened with partner (and childhood campmate) Ben Edgerton. The restaurant menu not only reflects Wiseheart’s seasoned palate, but it also speaks directly to his ranch-hand’s appreciation for integrity of product, and a Texan’s passion for the next culinary adventure.
Interview with Rising Star Chef Andrew Wiseheart of Contigo - Autsin, TX
Emily Bell: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Andrew Wiseheart: I don’t have the good “cooking next to my grandmother when I was 5 years old” story. I like the intensity. There’s always a new challenge. The restaurant industry never sleeps. It’s fast moving, fast paced, very artistic. And very rewarding. I’ve gone on a few expeditions hiking and backpacking; it’s kind of the same deal. It’s art, and it’s not fun at a lot of points of it, but it’s very rewarding. It’s very emotional. And there’s lots of teamwork involved; it’s not something that can be done by any one person. I’ve been part of a lot of really good teams during my career. And now I’ve been amazingly fortunate. I’ve built a team of my own that would compete with any team I’ve ever been a part of.
EB: What advice would you give to young chefs just getting started?
AW: Put yourself in a challenging situation. Move somewhere that food and wine or food is epicenter of the culture and just immerse yourself for as long as you can—financially, emotionally, spiritually, whatever it is.
EB: Do you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks? Do you hire chefs with or without a culinary background?
AW: I don’t hire based on a culinary school background. All of my cooks have been to culinary school, but for me it was a foot in the door. When I went to culinary school, I didn’t have any experience cooking. So it was like learning a foreign language. There was so much I needed. They didn’t teach you how to be a line cook; they taught you how to be a chef. So when people ask me if I recommend culinary school, I always recommend working first. See if it’s something you really want. I’d be curious how many people went to culinary school are chefs now, cooking, in the industry.
EB: How are you involved in your local culinary community?
AW: I’m a young guy that opened a restaurant. I went to culinary school here. I’ve opened doors to people that want to come in and learn. The word local is a big word around Austin. And it’s kind of blown out of proportion. We’ve never advertised as a “local” restaurant. Quality is always what we set out to do. Provide people with quality ingredients, experience, and hospitality. But the way we support local is we’re two young guys, we opened a restaurant, and put it all on the line, in an area of town that had no restaurants. It was a long shot, and we’re supporting the local community, giving back. And having fun with our friends.
EB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
AW: To me food is such a communal part of the day. It brings everybody together; everybody eats. Almost everybody enjoys eating. And I like that. I love how much food brings people together.
EB: What goes into creating a dish?
AW: Experience. In and out of the kitchen. I had somebody ask me this morning what went into a particular dish. And my travels. I read a lot. A lot of food books. So just experiences in life, really. I always try to keep an open mind. You can learn something from anybody. Whether it’s my dishwasher making tortillas or the chef at the Michelin-starred restaurant where I worked, my mom’s neighbor, or my grandmother, or my girlfriend, who doesn’t cook very much. Whether it’s what to do, or what not to do, it’s just about having an open mind.
EB: What’s the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
AW: Trying to keep up with the amount of people that are coming in. We’re actually trying to figure out how to do fewer people. Managing the customer magnitude.
EB: What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your job?
AW: Something to do with the amount of time that I put in. That kind of falls into the type, too, where it’s all paid off now. It’s starting to show that it’s paying off. I now have an established business of my own. And that’s all due to the hours I put in.
EB: If you had one thing you could do over again, what would it be?
AW: I would have built a bigger kitchen for our current restaurant.
EB: What’s your proudest accomplishment in your career to date?
AW: Holding on to all the relationships I’ve held on to through the long hours and the frustrations. The emotional roller coaster of this business, so to speak.
EB: What does success mean for you?
AW: Happiness. Friendships. I know. It’s kind of cheesy. But it’s about relationships, investing in people. And continuing to stand up for what I feel is right.
EB: Where do you see yourself in five years?
AW: Good question. The idea is starting a restaurant group and continuing with some other projects. Other concepts. They’re coming up. Once we hit our year mark, we’ll start working on project number two. That won’t be until May.