Interview with Intero’s Owners: Krystal Craig and Ian Thurwachter

The restaurant scene in Austin is changing, and the chefs and owners of Intero, Krystal Craig and Ian Thurwachter, have worked in the restaurants that have defined that change for the last twenty years. From Jeffrey’s to Vespaio Krystal and Ian have set their standards for the food your tongue experiences by learning from the best. From knowing who slaughters your meat to creating their own chocolate with rosemary or lavender your experience is going to be remembered.

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Intero has entered the food scene at a time Austin is still learning why farm to fork even matters when it comes to taste and their wallets. Intero is also educating Austin buds on true Italian food that does not have red sauces, alfredo, or crazy amounts of cheese. Seasonality is the peak decision maker.

The most beautiful thing about the restaurant is the relationship between the husband and wife who own it. They are each other’s biggest fans and would constantly compliment one another throughout the entire interview. Love is truly found in the food, the ambiance and wooden tables Ian made himself from reclaimed wood. Intero is a place that you will feel home.

 

Our Review:

 

Maybe they’re all starting to taste the same, I think as I traverse into another establishment that sources from the same farms and has yet another ‘I want to save the world through food’ mentality. The cult-like feeling penetrates my brain and I’m sure it will tickle my taste buds with the same recycled flavors. Perhaps it is because I am sick of caring so much about farm to fork and repeatedly learning that owners who flaunt it are pretentious and their food lacks inspiration.

Once I calm internal rants I remember many farm to fork establishments we interviewed and how they can all take the exact same ingredients and make them sing with different spices and textures to the point they are as different as a guitar played across genres. The harshness of peppers like rock music and the chaos of Indian spices in Jazz with the sweet touch of basil reminding me of bluegrass. But this one. This restaurant. The way smoke curls into the sauce reminds you of a time you do not remember; when food was made in the most intuitive of ways and then you feel the modern twist of science and the meticulous repetition of skills that makes every bite pure perfection.

We ate the spaghettini with fermented mushrooms and realized this was the defining dish of the restaurant. So rich and full were the flavors that each bite satisfied deeper and deeper parts of you. You tasted enough fermentation to lift the weight of cream while the smoke of the mushrooms penetrated the dish and the freshly made pasta was perfect, leaving you with comfort in your belly. Despite the full flavor of the dish you did not feel weighted down after due to how fresh and real the ingredients are.

 

The Interview:

 

Krytstal What is your background?

I wanted my chocolate to be not break your teeth sweet, but I enjoyed candy growing up and still wanted to put those elements into the chocolate in a natural way.

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I was born and raised in Austin and grew up in the restaurant industry. My friends and neighbors owned Juan in a Million down the street so I was always in there as a kid and it inspired me. My first jobs were in the sweets side of things as a baker. My mom was always bringing home chocolates in bags or from places she traveled to. I like healthier and gluten-free and vegan and noticed we did not have artisanal chocolate in Austin so I wanted to bring it here.

Ainsley: So there must have been a time when your mom was bringing you those bags of chocochips and you realized you had outgrown them as your taste buds grew up.

Krystal: My mom was always giving me dark chocolate and eventually other chocolate tasted like air. Chocolate flavored air. I wanted my chocolate to be not break your teeth sweet, but I enjoyed candy growing up and still wanted to put those elements into the chocolate in a natural way.

Ainsley: How many hours did you spend learning to make chocolate?

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Krystal: It took me a good year to learn how to make it. It is a skill and there are still times when it is challenging and the humidity and heat make it hard because it is hard to keep it in temper in Texas.

Jeffreys was just breaking ground and we knew them so they told us how hard it was and they were worried to run a special for a $10 steak because they thought no one would buy it, and now they sell for $50.

What has changed the most in the Austin food scene from when you grew up in it to now?

Krystal: There were not a lot of local restaurants growing up. Not fast food just not local restaurants. Mostly there were sandwich shops. It was about ten to twelve years ago we started to get cooler restaurants. We just hand chains. Olive Garden was one of the only local fancy restaurants. Jeffreys was just breaking ground and we knew them so they told us how hard it was and they were worried to run a special for a $10 steak because they thought no one would buy it, and now they sell for $50.

Ainsley: So how do you think the farm to fork scene is going here in Austin?

Ian: Well you have this huge push for local and farm to fork right now but you also have globalization to where you can get a kiwi from Australia right now. You can get anything you want from anywhere in the world at any time. So it is difficult to find balance.

There is a family joke about macaroni and a block of cheese. My dad literally thought it was macaroni and cheese so it was this giant blob of cheese in the middle with dry macaroni noodles around it.

Ian what is your background?

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I was also born and raised in Austin.  When I was a kid my mom would leave for college so my dad cooked and he was really really bad. There is a family joke about macaroni and a block of cheese. My dad literally thought it was macaroni and cheese so it was this giant blob of cheese in the middle with dry macaroni noodles around it.

Ainsley: You could definitely make that a badass dish in the restaurant with noodles being dipped in cheese or something.

Krystal: His dad is a great cook now.

Ian: Yeah he didn’t give up. It was interesting to watch him learn and that was a catalyst for me to be interested in cooking and learning how to improve.

Krystal:  I think also because your mom was a chemistry teacher that led into it. I love to watch you talk about food.

Ian: Oh yeah I totally nerd out on it.

Krystal: It is all the hows and the whys of cooking. All of the chemical changes are even talked about by him.

Ian: That is something you gain the more you cook. When you start you get it done quickly and then you watch how food works then start to manipulate it to achieve different results.

Ainsley’s: What’s the biggest thing you have learned from science that goes into food?

Ian: Something even as simple as turning an oil-based liquid to water-based liquid and even creating a simple vinaigrette that can otherwise break on you. You can introduce chemical stabilizers like xantham gum and soy lectin.

 

Do you have relationships with the farmers you work with?

My favorite farmer just quit the game because of rheumatoid arthritis. His name is Nathan and he had Pheonix Farms. He is a really cool guy and nerded out so much on farming that we really resonated. You have to do all these things or this beetle will go inside and if you cut the top off it can’t get inside Brussel sprouts and broccoli because some plants get into the plant and eat it from the inside up.

It’s funny because we always call it candy instead of chocolate. Kids come in and are scared of dark chocolate so we tell them to go eat it for a week and come back and then they’re like wow this is chocolate.

Do you integrate the chocolate into the food?

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Ian: Yeah I have a chocolate pasta on the menu right now. I use cocoa powder.

Ainsley: Chocolate and Brussels sprouts actually go well together.

Austin: This sounds weird but scrambled eggs and chocolate.

Krystal: I’ll try anything once.

Ainsley: Well and it’s not inherently sweet.

Ian: Exactly. That’s why we use the cocoa powder to get more minerality and earthiness. Then we also get the bitter and nutty aspects.

Krystal: It’s funny because we always call it candy instead of chocolate. Kids come in and are scared of dark chocolate so we tell them to go eat it for a week and come back and then they’re like wow this is chocolate.

Ian: That’s why we cook in season, is because that’s when things taste like they should.

They have someone make sure you put it in the dumpster and pour bleach over it to make sure it does not contaminate anything. They’re very very strict about it.

 

Why Intero?

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Krystal: Well, we knew we wanted to do a project together. I love his cooking and we have always loved Italian food. Chocolate is very Italian as well. When you go to Rome and Italy you find cafes that double as gelato and chocolate shops. He does whole animal butchering and product usage so that’s where we get the name Intero from which means “whole” or “entire”.

Austin: I’m trying to remember about this chocolate festival in Italy. It’s huge and they actually make sculptures out of it.

Krystal: I’ll have to go try it.

Ainsley: What if you go and fall in love and we lose a chocolatier though?

Krystal: Haha, I’ll just have to go and get inspired.

Ainsley: So you use the hearts and skins and everything from the animal.

Ian: Yes. Well, everything we can. In Texas, you can’t get certain things like the blood of the pig, or the lungs, stomach or spleen. You also cannot have the head of a feral hog.

Ainsley: It feels like one of those old traditions that has not found its way out yet. Like how women used to not be able to weave two types of fabric together.

So could you just give it to people for free as an amuse bouche?

Ian: No. You can’t have it in the facility. They have someone make sure you put it in the dumpster and pour bleach over it to make sure it does not contaminate anything. They’re very very strict about it.

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Pork and peaches. It is a pork loin that we brined with brown butter then pan roasted peaches with polenta that we made with popcorn with the pork from Richardson Farms.

Ainsley: Before you opened did you have any pop-up events for people to try the food?

Krystal: Yeah we had some for friends to try to get people excited.

Ainsley: What was people’s favorite dish?

Ian: I know what yours was.

Krystal: What?

Ian: Pork and peaches. It is a pork loin that we brined with brown butter then pan roasted peaches with polenta that we made with popcorn with the pork from Richardson Farms and used their popcorn they had. We just ground it.

Krystal: Then one of your fishes too. The cobia with grilled fennel, pickled lemon, and swiss chard puree.

 

What are your creative processes?

I like that. I would think you of more of the mad scientist then the la dee da oh that came out well.

Krystal: I’ll see tea or a nut or spice and think this will taste good with this. Or the season where I’ll think of maple coconut. I like to use seasons as inspiration.

Ainsley: Did you have on that you think failed?

Ian: I don’t think there have been any that really failed. Some just needed to be tweaked but no fail.

Krystal: Thanks, honey. Yeah, I definitely worried on some like basil and rosemary and they turned out really good. The funny thing about the basil one is that it only tastes like basil for five days then just fades. Rosemary definitely stays and lingers. It’s almost cloying.

Ian: My creative process has changed. When I was a younger cook it was about experimenting and failing and now it’s more about building off of what I know works. I don’t really get a lot of inspiration from seasons because everything is within a season and grown within fifty miles of the restaurant so it is more about how ingredients can be changed and integrated into flavor combinations that have worked in the past, maybe with a slight tweak. If something worked great with pumpkin I’ll try it with sweet potatoes. Then the sweet potato will spark a new dish and things change and evolve.

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Austin: What is one of your funniest mistakes.

Ian: Well they’re never funny at the time.

When I was trying to nail mortadella. Bologna is what Americans cause it. Krystal heard me cursing on many occasions. It is very temperature sensitive. If it gets above 45 degrees it’s toast. Things are constantly coming in and out of the freezer. I wound up setting the meat cutter in front of the walk in and I’m getting totally startled.

Krystal: I like that. I would think you of more of the mad scientist then the la dee da oh that came out well.

I think if we had opened in 2015 it would be better, but there is still room in Austin for restaurants like this.

 Do you feel like your staff is part of the process?

Krystal: Yeah. I really like it when people will offer ideas on what will go well together or just say they like that combination.

Ian: I feel like unsolicited advice is hard to give. I’m always trying to get cooks to think and be a part of it and to offer tastes. They find it hard because it is a very difficult kitchen. There’s a lot of change.

Ainsley: How’s the turnover rate?

Ian: It’s been very very low and situational. Some family emergencies, which are all fine now. The baby is beautiful. A little baby girl.

Krystal: even though it’s challenging I think people do like being challenged.

We even get Italians coming in and being like “Oh” (she says with a disappointment in the voice). They were expecting American Italian. Quote unquote greasy spoon Italian.

 

Do you think this was the right time for the market?

Ian: I think if we had opened in 2015 it would be better, but there is still room in Austin for restaurants like this.

Krystal: There’s still not a ton of restaurants that are like this. We have people come in and say why aren’t you here? Places where more restaurants like this are and are more established like D.C. or Chicago or California. Austin is a little harder still. A lot of people want what is really really familiar. Not that what we have isn’t familiar.

Ian: We’ve been very lucky in that the way we are doing things is very inexpensive. Everything we get has not been processed at all so there’s no fee that we pay for from things that have gone from too many hands. We go directly through farmers and then some liaisons we use like Windy Hill Farms.

Krystal: Things also not being Italian and local are odd to people and so we have people asking for chicken parmesan and alfredo and spaghetti and meatballs. You’ll notice we do have spaghetti on the menu but it is a contemporary preparation. It is an example of us trying not to throw anything away. We use smoked mushrooms scraps and ferment them and take the liquid from that and make a sauce with a taleggio cheese which is a soft rind cheese from Italy. We use the fermented scraps and turn that into a powder and use that over the top.  We even get Italians coming in and being like “Oh” (she says with a disappointment in the voice). They were expecting American Italian. Quote unquote greasy spoon Italian.

 

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Ian: It’s that hearty fare that is based in Italian cuisine but true Italian to me is based in seasonality and honoring the ingredient. So that is what we are trying to do here. In Italy when you go there you are not getting real spaghetti Pomodoro in the wintertime but in the summer because that’is when you are growing tomatoes.

Ainsley: So do you love teaching people what Italian people is?

Krystal: I do love those questions and people getting to ask.

We did have a guy come in and ask if we had chicken alfredo and we said no. He asked if we had spaghetti and meatballs and we said no. He asked if he could get a glass of rose and we said yes. He asked if he could get it in a to-go cup and we said no.

 

How long have you been open?

Ian: Nine months on the 23rd.

Austin: So with all that being said how do you guys feel being pioneers of the movement with the whole Italian concept.

Krystal: Well we were hoping to be huge pioneers. We were hoping more people would have paved the way.

Ian: We did not set out to pioneer but to do what we want to do and love to do.

Krystal: But yeah it is. More than we thought. It’s just interesting because I thought more people would understand super quickly but we want all of Austin to enjoy it and people tend to look a little scared but then they try it and really enjoy it. Haha. I did not think we were pioneers but I think we are.

Ian: We did have a guy come in and ask if we had chicken alfredo and we said no. He asked if we had spaghetti and meatballs and we said no. He asked if he could get a glass of rose and we said yes. He asked if he could get it in a to-go cup and we said no.

Ainsley: Tell us about the tables.

Ian: Yeah. My dad and my grandad are both woodworkers so I have a little bit of a background to it. Really this is really a restaurant we build from the ground up with prsonal connections and our own hard work. So it was really what can we do to make this restaurant be open. What can we do to cut costs and to put part of ourselves in the restaurant? So we just started building everything that we possibly could.

Krystal: Like neighbor’s fence wood that they didn’t need anymore or pallets that we connected.

AInsley: So you sometimes look at a table and think of how it was from Jane’s backyard.

Krystal: Haha, yeah. I was trying to jokingly name the tables.

Ian: Yeah, she wanted to name the tables from where they came from. This table would be the train stop. Oh wait, this is the neighborhood fence one.

Ainsley: Where do you see everything from here and how do you define success?

Ian: At the end of the day there are two types of success. Obviously financial but we aren’t here to make millions of dollars.

Krystal: I think we’ve been really successful at making really good food and meeting really good people.

Ian: I would say the other success is being contented and we are. We want to turn this into the new modern mom and pop restaurant. A real neighborhood restaurant where we know people’s name and what they like to drink and where they like to sit.

Ainsley: So it feels like they’re coming to your house?

Krystal: Yeah. It really is.

 

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Professional Background:

Ian ~ Began cooking career at 17yrs old and worked up to a Chef position at Vespaio from 2007-2012 great place to grow & learn in Italian techniques/cooking styles and develop kitchen management experience- then was ready for a change.

All between 2012-2016: Moved on to be a Chef at Lamberts to work with an original mentor chef from Vespiao, but did not want to stay in BBQ long. Had the opportunity after that to work as the Chef for Josephine House, then quickly moved next door as the Chef for Jeffrey’s… Left to create more time to work on Intero with Krystal but worked as the Chef for Elizabeth Street Café for 8months again between that time since the Intero project was taking a while with property development. Went back to Vespaio late 2016 until we were ready to open Intero.

Current Co-Owner & Exec. Chef of Intero

Krystal ~ Started in 1999 at 15yrs old working for Amy’s Ice Creams because I loved the company and ice cream- great focus on customer service, kitchen management and flavor combinations. Once I started college I was ready for a different job with more responsibility and in 2002 managed RJ’s Café (closed long ago) for a few years- great management training, customer interactions, and comforting food and desserts. I then started the first chocolate company with a friend at 21yrs old in 2005 with wanting to create better artisan chocolate products than what we had at the time in Austin. I also wanted to try out restaurant pastry and plus spent a short time at Uchi for that in 2009 but realized I just loved making chocolate more…. Developed second chocolate company in 2012 creating chocolate for other restaurants and hotels including Jeffrey’s, Hotel Van Zandt, etc. I participate with my chocolate products every year in the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar- this will be my 10th year for 2018.

Current Co-Owner & Chocolatier of Intero

Top Restaurant Choices outside of Intero:

Ian ~ Vespiao, Kome, Odd Duck, Evangeline Café, Fukamoto, Ramen Tatsuya

Krystal ~ Vespiao, Kome, Mongers, Fukomoto, Daruma, FoodHeads, Odd Duck … I love Ian’s food so definitely still Intero on my list 😉

 

 

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