It turns out you can go home again—if you’re a chef, anyway. Born in Houston and raised in San Antonio, native Texan Rene Ortiz spent two decades traveling the world, expanding his horizons and cultivating his international culinary skills. But like any good Texan, Ortiz eventually returned home.
Ortiz began his culinary career in Vancouver, as chef de cuisine for Robert Clark at Star Anise, named “Canada's Best Restaurant of the Year” in 1996 by Gourmet Magazine. Ortiz went on to work his way through the brasseries and bistros of Western Europe, absorbing and exploring various culinary styles and pantries. By 1998, Ortiz found himself once again stateside, though still far from home, working under luminaries like Daniel Boulud, Alain Ducasse, and Jean-Louis Pallidan in New York City.
After a stint as chef de cuisine at Douglas Rodriguez’s Latin-American Patria, Ortiz began consulting with some high-profile restaurant investors and chefs. Mark Miller of Santa Fe's Coyote Cafe asked Ortiz to revamp the menus for Wildfire and Ocean Room, Miller's restaurants in Sydney, Australia. While in Sydney, Ortiz helped launch the Emerald Room at Industrie, an upscale French bistro. In 2007, Ortiz stopped back in New York, opening La Esquina (one of Time Out New York’s “Best New Restaurants”) as executive chef.
After two decades, Ortiz finally returned to the Lone Star state with a world’s worth of wisdom, a résumé of high-profile employers, and an authoritative palate—all of which coalesce in the kitchen of La Condesa. A culinary homage to Mexico City's popular Condesa neighborhood, the restaurant offers contemporary Mexican cuisine inspired by the diverse cultures and varied regions of Mexico—ideal for a chef whose ambitions have taken him all over, and whose palate never settles for anything less than bold variety.
Interview with Rising Star Chef Rene Ortiz of La Condesa - Austin, TX
Emily Bell: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Rene Ortiz: I think it was just one of these things I was drawn to. It was what I did as a kid. Growing up, I was always in kitchens, whether it was in family or friends’ restaurants. Or just working to basically help my folks survive. And I realized that I loved doing it when I was accepted to Texas A&I for environmental engineering and I just wanted to cook. That’s all I wanted to do. So I dropped out and moved to New York.
EB: What advice would you give to young chefs just getting started?
RO: Travel. Eat. Experience food and life, what it has to offer. Young chefs come out of culinary school think it’s all about how to be a Frenchman. It’s about discovering what many cultures reveal to the world of cooking. And exploring those little regions is probably the most amazing thing. Not only do you eat well, you make amazing friends.
EB: Do you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks? Do you hire chefs with or without a culinary background?
RO: I recommend that they go, definitely. Again, it’s taking these things with a grain of salt. There’s so much more than education. To make those skills come to life you have to understand culture and people. I hire students; I hire anyone who was that special star in their eyes and who wants to achieve something better. People that are just like I was. I was very fortunate to be taken in by amazing people and to learn from them because I have that drive. It doesn’t really matter to me, as long as they have the passion for what they’re doing and respect their work and my work, then I’m more than happy to try to teach them.
EB: How are you involved in your local culinary community?
RO: A lot people like the restaurant, which is awesome. They really like it. And we’re just happy that we were doing nice things for people and they like it. I’m happy that we’re not the misfit kids. I’m glad that we’re accepted here for the art that we do, the things that we create, the energy and the community that we have. It’s totally a Benetton crew of customers. There is a very large demographic of people that we feed and it’s pretty cool.
EB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
RO: What I’m trying to do is make sure the people that come in here take away a little something that they can remember, that for every single dish we do, we do put in hard work—that people who come in here are always smiling and have a lot of questions. To me, if you’re dining at a restaurant and you have no questions, then there’s a problem. When I eat I want to know, “Why? Why did you do this chef? Or how did you do it?” I think it makes food that much more amazing and approachable. It’s just about happy people, really. That’s all I really care about—that my people are happy. And by “my people,” people I mean the diners.
EB: What goes into creating a dish?
RO: It definitely starts with an ingredient. But it also encompasses lots of places that I’ve been and things I’ve tried. If there’s something I’ve never tried, we’ll buy it and work with it to make it amazing in the best way that we know how. Creativity is something that is a gift for people. Chefs are artists, and creativity is something that just comes to them. It’s very special.
EB: What’s the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
RO: Our biggest challenge is to definitely compete with ourselves to make things better. To move forward as a restaurant group. Another big challenge is to make sure that the people that work for us are happy all the time. That’s important to me. Without happy people, there’s no happy restaurant. And if it’s not a happy restaurant, you’re probably closing. It’s an important thing that my people are happy. It’s a constant challenge to make sure that they are.
EB: What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your job?
RO: Traveling. Traveling is hard for me. I do enjoy it. I love being many places all the time. But my two little people are the ones who miss me the most. And I miss them. The time that I’m away from them is probably the hardest part.
EB: If you had one thing you could do over again, what would it be?
RO: I don’t think there would be anything. I would probably just try to help more people if I could.
EB: What are some of your favorite food-industry charities? Why?
RO: Urban Root. I do as much as I can to help them. I kind of take them under my wing because I think they are our future. I think youth programs are the future for us.
EB: What’s your proudest accomplishment in your career to date?
RO: That’s tough. The best thing that I’ve ever done is to let my guard down and be secure with myself as a person and as a chef and as a creator. I think that’s probably my biggest accomplishment. I am completely confident in my work and who I am.
EB: What does success mean for you?
RO: Success for me means just being happy. Success is something that’s there already. I was born with it because I was created. I don’t have too many regrets. It’s all been pretty cool.
EB: Where do you see yourself in five years?
RO: I guess in France on a beach. It’s not that I wouldn’t be working. I just think in that five years’ time I’d probably be vacationing. I don’t know what I would be doing. It’s always up in the air with me. I’m always doing something new.