Interview: Chef Jennifer Etzkin, of Austin's Corner
Corner, at the — where else — corner of 2nd and Congress in Austin, Texas in the JW Marriott, will surprise you. If you’re thinking boring hotel grill, think again. Chef Jennifer Etzkin thinks locally and cooks globally, and the results are, well delicious.
Etzkin’s culinary roots are based in the South, and her sensibilities show it with menu items like cornbread, short ribs, mac and cheese, and shrimp and grits. Not to worry, there are nods to the beloved Tex-Mex with taco offerings from carnitas to crispy fish. And it would not be an exaggeration to say it is all delicious.
Etzkin graduated with honors from The Institute of Culinary Education of New York, and soon afterwards began working for Hillstone Restaurant Group across the country. Prior to her post at Corner, Etzkin served as the Director of Management Training for Hillstone in New York.
The JW Marriott is a gorgeous property in an ideal location for enjoying all things Austin. And the having Corner there just ups the hotel enjoyment ante. Here’s more from Etzkin on what makes her culinary clock tick.
The Daily Meal: From where did your love of all things culinary develop?
Chef Jennifer Etzkin: My mom and dad are from New Orleans and showed me a love of food and gatherings with friends and family from an early age. At family reunions, we wore a t-shirt that said, “And the Etzkins go on Eating….”
What would you say is your overarching food philosophy?
What grows together goes together. Grandmas in every region of the world know this in their soul and cook with this knowledge at the pulse of each dish. My most lofty goal is to cook as well as the most renowned grandma in any given village or small town.
How would you describe the vibe at Corner?
Energized, exciting, and comforting all at once. We hope to provide a great place to gather with friends or to make new ones. Our offerings are honest and imaginative without pretense.
Can you tell readers a bit about the inspiration behind your menus and what you are hoping to achieve with their offerings?
All of the menu items are inspired by the region. Everywhere from different areas of Texas to Louisiana to Mexico. I’m turned on by bright, vibrant flavors and try to bring regional comfort with a slight twist to each offering.
What do guests tell you they love the most about the restaurant, the menu, and the food?
Our zucchini cornbread is very popular with our regular guests. The 7-layer salad (a salad based on the Texan Dip) is also a crowd pleaser. Guests love the atmosphere and are impressed by the portion sizes. Many regulars love to get a seat at the outside bar. In fact, if I didn’t work here, I might be out there any given night of the week.
What are some of your personal favorite menu items?
The shrimp and grits are a favorite, definitely reminiscent of my childhood. The shishitos with Kaffir lime dip are unique in terms of how this dish comes at most establishments. I’m also a big fan of our brunch menu. The prickly pear stuffed french toast is an indulgence not to be ignored.
What are some of your favorite ingredients and/or cooking styles to experiment with right now?
I love fermentation. There’s always a batch of kraut or kimchee getting nice and funky somewhere in my life. In Corner, I’ve been able to explore the art of smoking as well. We have a gorgeous smoker and I’m constantly amazed with all of the foods that do great with a little touch of smoke.
What do you think is the most important thing that people don’t know about food right now?
Fine dining is wonderful but, to me, the true art of food lies in the basics. Anyone can sous vide a cut of meat, but braising a lowly cut of beef into the most luxurious bite of food you’ve ever eaten takes finesse and craft.
Can you speak to the bar program at Corner as well?
Our selections have been carefully curated to stay true to the regional influence, as well as explore national trends. We have an extensive list of local draft beers, showcasing the talents of the breweries in the area. Our bars include a large selection of fine tequila, and an ever growing collection of bourbon and whisky. Much like the food offerings, the cocktail list infuses those local and regional flavors while maintaining simplicity.
What’s it like being part of the movement towards turns putting real restaurants in hotels and doing away with the old guard of boring, low- quality restaurants that used to be the hallmark of hotels?
From the building of the concept of Corner until now, our main focus has been to be the restaurant that speaks for itself and delivers an excellent experience to our guests. Being a stand-alone entity as opposed to just a run of the mill hotel amenity has been incredibly rewarding. Our team goes home proud each and every day.
Anything else you’d like to share with readers about all things culinary at Corner?
I’ve never worked with a more incredible team. From each cook to each chef to each dishwasher, everyone has such a huge sense of pride and community. This culture makes me excited to come to work each day and inevitably ends up on each plate for each guest. We’re so excited for what’s to come and will be working on a slew of new dishes as the year goes by. Stay tuned!