In Mississippi, it has been said that family will bring you home faster than anything else. For Jackson native Austin Lee, family, food and the eclectic Fondren scene are ingredients in the recipe for familiarity and his new life as Executive Chef of Babalu Tacos and Tapas.
At 14, Lee took a job as a dishwasher at Mazzio’s Italian Eatery near Metrocenter Mall. At the age of 18, the Mississippi State University college freshman began a tour of duty among bulldog country staples like Old Venice, Courthouse Grill and Veranda before landing under the tutelage of Chef Tyler Thames. “When Tyler opened Bin 612, he found me to be his sous chef,” Lee remembered, “since I had practically worked at every restaurant in town.”
That was in 2007, Lee’s senior year at State. By that May, a plan was hatched for he and a friend to attend Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Institute in Atlanta. During the fourteen month program, Lee took an externship under Detroit native, Chef Peter Golaszewski, who taught him how to adapt French and Italian staples with a southern twist. Four months later, plane ticket in hand and headed for New York City, Lee’s brother, Garrad, called from Boulder, Colorado where he was in school. The restaurant Garrad worked in was needing a head chef, so Austin packed his bags, headed west, and began a career at Foolish Craig’s Cafe. Known for their breakfast, Austin hoped to bring their dinner service in line. “One of my strengths is organizing the money side,” he said of streamlining Foolish Craig’s nightly offerings, putting his banking and finance degree to good use.
At the same time, Austin had become known in the Boulder music scene as a DJ (he spins under the name Brik-A-Brak), often driving to Denver to play shows. With Garrad moving back to Mississippi, Austin said he moved to Denver to be the number two for Fat Sully’s Pizza, who also had plans to open The Denver Biscuit Company. “I was sous chef, then executive sous chef over both, plus two food trucks,” he explained. “My life for four years was running that place, working every single day.”
Fast forward, to November 2013, and Austin said he began looking to the south again. With his brother Jesse’s family living in Memphis and brother Garrad and his wife, Catherine, living in Mississippi, he wanted to be around family. “I realized I had spent 7 Â½ years away and I missed home,” Austin said.
Another reason to come back? Fondren. “I kept seeing and hearing great things — from (music) functions Garrad puts on to the restaurant scene,” he said. “I’m not someone who left here because I hated it; I wanted to see what the rest of the country was like. I’ve always kept the love of Mississippi tattooed on me,” he said motioning to his left arm where the shape of the state is inked to resemble a turntable.”
“We’re always pushing, always making it better.”
Lee began asking around for jobs in the business and the majority opinion pointed to Eat Here Brands’ Babalu Tacos and Tapas. Trained first in Jackson, Lee was whisked away to become sous chef under Chef Tim Antignane when Babalu Memphis opened. “I learned so much there,” Lee said of his time in the Bluff City. “My whole style has changed because of what I learned from Tim.”
With Babalu Jackson’s head chef, David Ferris firmly in place, Lee wondered what his next step might be. “My strength is in opening a restaurant,” he explained. “If I wanted to show the company what I had, I believed I had put myself in right environment.” In Memphis just eight months, Jackson suddenly found itself without a head chef as Ferris took another industry job to spend more time with his family.
Officially dubbed Executive Chef one month ago, Lee says he has big shoes to fill. “David shaped the original concept and his creativity in the kitchen is something we all strive for,” Lee remarked. “Until Memphis opened, he was the sole driving force. Now we also have Birmingham, and soon, Knoxville and Nashville. We’re all working together, talking about tweaks and improvements to what we do. We’re always pushing, always making it better.”
While the menu is set, changing three to four times a year, daily specials are a big draw for Babalu’s regulars. Lee said it gives him a chance to help others shine. “We’ve got some guys who have been here for a while, who are ready to dive in,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing on my plate, developing new talent. They are hard workers, dedicated and hungry. I want these guys to have a hand in creativity – a team atmosphere – letting people know who made those daily specials.”
Lee is right at home, remembering back to Chef Golaszewski’s influence on his own culinary style. As Babalu is known for the same – taking Latin staples and infusing them with southern roots — Lee believes it’s also his way to continue to show his love for his home state. “In the beginning (of my career), I wanted fancy, petite, nice little dishes,” he said. “Now, I just want to make good tasting comfort food. It’s not about my ego, so if I can make food more universal, I’m making food I can sell. Customer opinion is the only thing that matters and that drive makes you work harder.”
So does an understanding restaurant group. “I was burned out when I came back here and didn’t know what I wanted,” Lee recalled. “The life of a chef can be a crazy life because you do what it takes to help the company push forward. But after I had that first interview with Al (Roberts, one of the partners of Eat Here Brands), he laid it out: he’s not just an owner, he’s been in this life, understands burnout, and works with us. (The partners) are fantastic people who are full of knowledge, yet open to great ideas. They treat us with respect and want us to have lives. You don’t find many owners who want that.”
And it’s that work-life balance that Lee says will “absolutely” make him stay for a while. “It’s so funny, in Denver, you tell people you need to go back to Mississippi and they think you are out of your mind,” he laughed. “We’re bored…no shoes,” he says of the stereotypes. “Then I get here and have had more fun and seen more interesting things than most of my time in Denver. What I was missing is community. With Fondren’s First Thursday, I see so many faces here, then I leave and go DJ a gig with Garrad and I’m immersed. Saltine has blown my mind, I really enjoyed CAET and I still think Table 100 is the best meal in town. To see this love, the locality, the people who are happy they are a part of the area, is everything I wanted.”
Back in the kitchen, Lee says the menu is simple: “I’m making the best food I can, using local ingredients, making something that puts a smile on their face. I just want to make people happy with food.”