Interview: Chef Michael Cerrie, of Austin’s Stella San Jac
Stella San Jac, in Austin’s gorgeous Westin Hotel, has become quite the hot spot, no doubt in part because of Chef Michael Cerrie. He has woven the energy of Austin into the food of the South, which was no easy feat.
Cerrie spent six months with a tasting panel testing, crafting, and perfecting the Stella San Jac menu to ensure its vibe encompasses all that is Austin. He is certainly the man to do it, with twenty-five plus years of experience in food, including feeding
celebrities, movie stars, and dignitaries, as well as live on Good Morning America.
The chef, who hails from Erie, Pennsylvania, attended the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute in Pittsburgh. After the Institute, he continues his study in the Caribbean, Cuba, and Jamaica. And, prior to Stella San Jac, Cerrie served as the executive chef at urban, four years as the executive chef at Bayfront Grille, as well as four years as the executive sous chef at The Erie Club in Erie, Pennsylvania.
Both the food and the drinks will get you in trouble at Stella San Jac if you are trying to avoid eating and drinking in excess. This is not the place for restraint. Sure, you could order the beautiful bale & Brussels salad or the quinoa zucchini, which are both delicious. But then you would miss the heavenly lamb meatballs, pork belly, and the bone marrow, oh how I love the bone marrow. Let me count the ways…
The best advice? Go with friends and order it all. Or go alone and take it the extras home. Or stay in a swanky suite at the fab Westin Hotel where Stella San Jac resides and you can eat yourself silly for days. Between the atmosphere and the service at both the hotel and the restaurant, you just may never want to go home. Here’s Cerrie on why.
The Daily Meal: From where did your love of all things culinary develop?
Chef Michael Cerrie: I fell in love with cooking as a child. I used to tag along in the kitchen and garden with my grandmother. She taught me an appreciation for not having any waste at a very young age. We would cook with what was picked for the day and many times canning or preserving when there wasn’t an immediate need. I took my first job at a restaurant at 14 and haven’t turned back since. It really is all I know - the best part is it’s all that I love.
What would you say is your overarching food philosophy?
I believe food should be cooked while in season, preparation kept simple, and dishes executed well. I like to call it “unmolested food.” My obligation to our diners is to not screw up what mother earth already created, showcasing the ingredient.
How would you describe the vibe at Stella?
In one word, I would just say, energy. It’s really great to walk through the dining room seeing people just celebrating. In the evening, Stella is usually packed full of couples and groups ready to hit the town for fun or to celebrate an occasion. At brunch there are usually giggling about what they all did the night before. Austin is a fun town and Stella is fun, too.
Can you tell readers a bit about the inspiration behind your menus and what you are hoping to achieve with their offerings?
The menu at Stella San Jac was designed to reflect what we as a group thought Austin was: young, fun, and comfortable. The food has a lot of southern and regional influences. It is meant to share. It is meant to add to the experience of Stella.
What do guests tell you they love the most about the restaurant, the menu, and the food?
It’s always fun to walk a new guest through the subtle guitar designs throughout. After they get a smile on their face from that, they usually rave about the biscuits with me.
What are some of your personal favorite menu items?
My two favorite dishes on the menu are the deviled eggs and the Berkshire Pork Chop. Both plates use just a few high quality ingredients and are kept simple. I would definitely recommend the biscuits – however; I personally have eaten more than my share considering it cost me 5 weeks and 15 pounds creating them!
What are some of your favorite ingredients and/or cooking styles to experiment with right now?
This past winter it meant one thing; braise. A great braised dinner is the best. I even have occasion to pick up a calf’s tongue for dinner at home. At the restaurant, we have been curing meats and playing around with terrines. We sell them on our “cured and cultured board.”
What do you think is the most important thing that people don’t know about food right now?
Three things: go to your local farmer’s market and support them; take time to cook with your family and friends, it is all about the experience - make it a fun one; and
stay away from processed foods and GMO’s.
Can you speak to the bar program at Stella at corner as well?
The program at Stella would surprise most. These guys bust their butts to make almost everything in house. That is only part of the reason that the cocktails are so delicious though - they really care about making a great drink that is balanced and fun. My personal favorite thing about the bar program is that they make their own ginger beer. I scoop a cup of their fresh ginger juice when they do and drink it - I love ginger.
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?
I think it is the most exciting thing. We can celebrate with our hotel guests and, more often than not, our neighbors. I think that stigma is going away. There are some REALLY great restaurants in hotels. Shortly after we opened Stella, I started to notice that most of the guests coming in were from the neighborhood-not hotel guests. One Saturday night, a woman pulled us over and asked, “What is that? Is that a hotel lobby?” She was genuinely surprised; but, for us, it made us feel Stella was that much more accomplished.