Ned Elliott’s ability to fuse elegance and sophistication with deep, soil-stained culinary roots comes from a few major influences in his pedigree: his mothers, Sandra and Linda, and some high-profile culinary training. The first—and deepest—roots in Elliott’s culinary pedigree came courtesy of the women who raised Elliott, along with their love of gardening, cooking, and baking. For the young Elliott, food was an integral part of daily life—not just in the typical thrice-a-day consumption, but as a means of exploring nature and bonding with other people.
Not that household cooking was amateur by any means. Sandra, the resident cook, taught Elliott about the importance of fresh ingredients, while Linda, the baker, taught Elliott the extraordinary value of patience—essentially fostering an early sophistication that many cooks, even in adulthood, struggle to achieve.
Elliott took this early wisdom to the Culinary Institute of America in 1999, where he not only bridged the technical gaps in his early training, but met his future wife, Jodi. Eager to further his career beyond the schoolyard, Elliott left the CIA and began staging at various restaurants in New York City, eventually landing a job at popular Tabla. His résumé got more and more impressive, with jobs at the Essex House under Alain Ducasse, the opening team of Picholine, and Country, under mentor-chef Doug Psaltis. Now firmly rooted in Austin, Texas, Elliott combines the precision and diligence of his training with the soul-deep influence of his formative years, serving up the exquisite results daily at Foreign & Domestic.
Interview with Rising Star Chef Ned Elliott of Foreign & Domestic – Austin, IL
Emily Bell: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Ned Elliott: I grew up in a house where cooking was always something we did together. When I was in high school my mom was like, “You need to find a job in between playing sports.” And a next door neighbor of mine, his father, was the chef de cuisine of a small French restaurant. So basically I went and worked for free for the second half of my freshman year when I had time. I went to college in Montana, and after my freshman year, dropped out. I knew I wanted to pursue cooking. I wanted to immerse myself in all things culinary. So I went out and bought the Escoffier cookbook, and I found a really cool place to work, The HobKnob Café in Montana. They had a pretty big garden and six menu items. We would just rotate things that he would bring in. From there I went to CIA and went to New York.
EB: What advice would you give to young chefs just getting started?
NE: I would say forego the culinary school. I went to CIA, and I didn’t graduate. I would say if it’s a toss up between going to cooking school or not, if you have the money or can get a hold of it, go to Asia, go to Europe, go somewhere you can immerse yourself and just be there for a year or two or three or five or whatever it is. Put your head down and work. And understand that you don’t know everything. I’ll be doing this going on 21 years this April and I still have so much to learn. Things can be that way with Americans. We want instant gratification. We want to be told everything we do is good. Put your head down, learn, and listen and try to push yourself to get better.
EB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
NE: I love to cook, and that’s it. I never had any preconceived notions. We just like to cook. My wife [Jodi Elliott] and I both have a pretty strong point of view on that. And we take a lot of pride in that we paid our dues and learned a lot from the people we worked for.
EB: What goes into creating a dish?
NE: Say it’s a new dish that’s a play on fried rice, duck fried rice. First we say, “Where can we get duck from?” and contact our guy down here. From that point, the first two things are, “How can we use the whole duck—all in one dish, or do we do two dishes?” And then we ask, “Duck and what?” and go through the flavor profile. And then we consider the textures of it. So we might say, “We have ramp purée left from the ramps that we pickled last spring.” From there, we ask, “What kind of rice? Spanish, Italian, Chinese Jasmine rice, which is more floral?” We break down and go through each component. “The egg—do we do egg purée, egg foam, egg sabayon?” So after fiddling around, we come up with idea of doing soft-poached duck egg yolk, where we utilize everything, the whole duck. We braise the side, confit the legs, make cracklins, poach the breast, and use the yolk.
EB: What’s the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
NE: I think the biggest challenge is getting the word out. I’m not from Texas, and we never worked for anyone in Austin. We’re in a tucked away in neighborhood, just north of the University of Texas. For a city that’s not a huge commuting or car city, trying to get people to be able to drive more than 15 or 20 minutes to go to dinner is a challenge. Also we have an open kitchen. We’re right in the middle of the dining room. I haven’t worked in an open kitchen since I was 19. Being able to interact—cook, plate, expedite, oversee, and taste everything, and meanwhile keeping it as nice as possible.
EB: What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your job?
NE: My wife and I have gone through ups and downs, things like actually trying to step back and say, “OK, you know what, it is a job, it isn’t a life.” I’m a workaholic. I’ve never had any problem with putting in the 95 to 100 hour weeks in, six days a week. Doing that and making $22,000 a year, before taxes. And sort of coming to reality and being like, “OK. I shouldn’t want to do that.” Trying to keep everything in perspective. And keeping relationships in the balance. It’s no secret to any chef; their personal life is a challenge. It’s really difficult. There’s a sort of romantic view that people put out there.
And raising my daughter. She’ll be 4 on February 23. It’s amazing—every day is just like, “Holy shit, how do you know that?” It’s a challenge figuring out how to spend time at the restaurant, because I want to spend all the time with her.
EB: If you had one thing you could do over again, what would it be?
NE: One of biggest thing I would do over again: I worked at a restaurant—Tabla—I worked there almost two years. If I could do it over again, I would have worked there another year and a half or two years. That’s another thing for young cooks, something I tell our cooks. I had gotten to a point at Tabla, where I had seen every station, but I think it would have matured me, rather than to say “I’m done,” to say “I need to look inside myself and see what more can I get out of here.”
EB: What are some of your favorite food-industry charities? Why?
NE: We donate our time whenever we can. We work with a couple charities here, like Manos de Cristo. This year we’ll be 2 years old [May 20, 2012], and it’s important to figure out how we can get out there in philanthropic way. Jodi and I really look at things. I’m adopted. I was adopted by two women. I was afforded a totally different lifestyle than what I would have had. I’ve always had the support of two parents that said the most important thing was my education. I sort of lucked out on that.
We also cook here for Thanksgiving. We open it up to Manos de Cristos. They work with families that are struggling, families with dual incomes that still can’t meet all their bills. For us it’s really trying to figure out this year, what the best thing is for us, which way we want to go.
EB: What’s your proudest accomplishment in your career to date?
NE: Opening this restaurant. Really seeing something that I wanted to do for the past 10, 12 years, seeing that through. It’s really cool that StarChefs.com recognized me for my hard work. And there are a lot of people that have been here, worked just as hard if not harder than me, to make all of this come to fruition.
EB: What does success mean for you?
NE: That’s one of the things that’s been the hardest—the perspective. Getting a grip on my reality. For me, success is being able to turn the lights on every day and have never had one check bounce to a purveyor or to any of our staff. To have a place that people that have worked with us, whether they’ve been let go or have gone on somewhere else, come back in and still have dinner. Success would be if this place was open in 10 years, when my daughter is 14, and this can be her first job, peeling carrots and onions and potatoes, then going from there and doing whatever. And for her and for me, the biggest thing is being able to grow with the restaurant as a person and a father and a parent outside of the restaurant—that the restaurant enables me to become a better person.
EB: Where do you see yourself in five years?
NE: In five years, I see us still doing what we do. I also want to open up something that’s a little bit larger, but sort of the same thing. I don’t have any delusions of having six or seven restaurants. I’d love to have this and one other. We have a huge following in Houston, so more than likely we’ll be doing something in Houston, an amazing untouched food gem. But for Jodi and me, we just need to have a place where Jodi could come in every day and do her baking, and I could come in and cook and prep and cook service. And that still stands. I just love to cook. And so if it was all gone tomorrow, I’d be happy for a while, flipping eggs and doing stuff like that at an IHOP if I had to. I just love to cook.