Both Bruce Auden and the Current burst onto the San Antonio scene 25 years ago. One went on to revolutionize fine dining in the city from an initial base at Polo’s in the then-newly opened Fairmount Hotel. The other took on the city from an upholstered downtown basement. I caught up with Auden recently to reflect on the years we’ve shared.
You were born in London and spent time principally in Chicago, Dallas, and Houston before finding your true calling here. How did you develop a cuisine that seemed so perfectly suited to San Antonio?
Even in Chicago I became aware of big flavors — Cajun, the New Californian folks … and the mother of my wife at the time was from Mexico, so there was that aspect. I went down to Mexico mostly just to taste (and drink), not to do research on chilies or anything. Then, in Houston and Dallas, I got to know Dean [Fearing], Robert [del Grande] and Stephan [Pyles], the founders of the New Southwestern movement, and just sort of tagged along with them.
Did the Fairmount’s developers push you in any particular food direction for the opening of Polo’s?
They were looking for what other upscale hotels such as The Mansion [on Turtle Creek] were doing at the time. Fearing was doing Southwestern at The Mansion in Dallas. But in addition, I had met David Garrido in Houston [now of Austin’s Garrido’s Mexican restaurant], and along with the fact that I was now even closer to Mexico, the cuisine evolved from there.
The talent pool here must have been fairly shallow at the time. What did you do for staff?
The F&B [food and beverage] director of La Mansion was already bringing in young chefs from [the Hyde Park] CIA so some of my staff, such as Mike Bomberg, were already here; I just tried to find the best people, and my payroll was way too high as a result. Mark Bliss and Jay McCarthy just happened to be here, too, along with Dan Ward [now at Piatti] at the front of the house. A lot of chefs will apply even if they already have a good job.
You left the Fairmount after only a few of years and a slew of good reviews both locally and nationally. Why was that?
There were some management changes, but basically I was young and wanted to do something else. I did some consulting, a stint as a guest chef on a cruise ship … and I worked with Cappy Lawton opening the first EZ’s. It was a great experience for me. He had the big picture. I mostly developed the pizza dough and toppings since I’d had experience with a wood-burning oven at Polo’s. I worked briefly at Cappy’s, too. I would have taken another good chef job if there had been one.
You opened your own place, Biga, on Locust Street in 1991. Was it hard to make the switch from working for someone to being in charge yourself?
I had saved enough money to live on but not to open a restaurant, so that was the hard part; going around getting funding was not something I knew how to do. But I managed to get really great people — again Mark, and David [Garrido], Josh Cross …
These people and more have all graduated from your kitchen to become respected players here and around the country. They have helped shape our dining scene. This must make you feel good. Now that you have Biga on the Banks and Auden’s Kitchen, are you ever nostalgic for that first place, those early days?
When you had to step over the cat to get into the bakery? My first son Berean [with his wife Debra, the baker with the welcome cat he met at Polo’s] was born in ’91 and he’s just graduating from high school this week. He even talks about wanting to be a chef, so that does make you look back.
Speaking of looking back, how do you see San Antonio cuisine now as opposed to 25 years ago?
Everything has happened gradually, I think. And, yes, it’s nice to have the CIA here. I have two grads at Auden’s Kitchen, but these guys are all going to look at the big picture when they graduate. I love the Pearl though; it’s turning into just what [the developers] wanted it to be. But with two restaurants and a family at home, I just don’t get out to explore new places any more. I wait for you guys to write about them. That’s the biggest change in my life — that and having Martin [Stembera at Biga] and Trish [Wenckus at Auden’s Kitchen] adapt to work around me and my schedule. It can’t be easy.
Right, and I had to get to you through Perny [Shea, his partner]. So two restaurants, that’s it? No more?
Two restaurants are incredibly hard to manage; I don’t know how others with many places do it. So, no. Though if Berean really does become a chef …
There go the next 25 years.
Ron Becthol has written about food and drink for the Current for a decade.