Lenoir’s Expanded Horizons

Lenoir restaurant in Austin focuses on cooking food prepared in climates similar to South Texas’. The result is an eclectic mix that never feels out of season.

By Mark Stenberg, University of Texas at Austin

Food in Texas tends to run a little schizophrenic, constantly stuck in an identity crisis resulting from its multi-ethnic background.

Unfortunately, while delicious, many of the cuisines adored in Texas are ill suited for summer consumption. When the mercury rises, the temperature dictates not only what to eat, but how to cook it. Lenoir restaurant in Austin, Texas, proposes a novel solution to this problem, developing a menu not based on cuisine, but latitude.

The idea goes that long ago, cultures developed their cuisine based off of what grew around them: The climate dictated what grew, which dictated what people ate. Since what they ate came as a direct result of their geography, different locations produced entirely different cuisines. Food cultures developed inextricable ties to their surroundings: local animals ate local plants and were cooked over local wood with local spices.

Lenoir Melissa Moss

Chef de Cuisine Melissa Moss

As people moved, they tried and failed to transplant their cultural recipes, as necessary plants failed to grow in new climates, required spices were unavailable, and traditional animals were nowhere to be found. However, technological advances eventually created an international marketplace of ingredients, and food cultures formerly restricted to geography became untethered.

Unfortunately—although limiting—cuisines benefit from matching their climate. Eating heavy, fatty food in hot climates discomforts the consumer, and light, raw food feels inadequate in cold, demanding climates. It becomes evident that the natural symbiosis of food and geography exists for a reason.

Recognizing the disconnect between Texas food and Texas climate, chef/owner of Lenoir, Todd Duplechan, opened the restaurant with an idea to cook food suited to the climate.

Interestingly enough, his philosophy expands rather than limits. Texas shares latitudinal coordinates with countries such as Mexico, Morocco, Egypt, India and Thailand—all countries with climates similar to Texas. Inhabitants of those countries tailored traditional foods to work well in hot weather. Although littered across the globe and using different, indigenous ingredients, they share the same ideology—keep food light, fresh, spicy, raw, and clean.

Unlike cold-weather cuisines, which heavily feature hearty, rich food to counteract the lower temperatures and often utilize cooking techniques such as roasting, braising, and baking, countries nearer the equator pickle, ferment, and acidulate many of their foods, often preferring to eat raw, uncooked ingredients. At Lenoir, they use techniques and recipes from these climate-paralleling countries, and combine them with Texas ingredients to make remarkable food.

Melissa Moss, the chef de cuisine at Lenoir, says eating locally simplifies the entire equation.

It goes back to how people originally developed their food cultures—by eating what grew in their region.

The climate dictates what can grow in an area, and correspondingly, local vegetables and fruits suit the weather. So eating locally takes the guesswork out of the equation, because if the ecosystem can’t produce it, it doesn’t suit the climate.

It may sound a little Birkenstock, but considering the complex interdependence of ecosystems, it makes sense to let your location determine your diet. In fact, in a somewhat macabre but poignant example, Lenoir has a signature springtime dish in which they serve buttermilk-braised rabbit with vegetables that the rabbit would’ve eaten, illustrating the interplay between climate, geography and cuisine.

Moss says that the Texas climate makes eating locally easy, because the abundance and variety of local products allows for massive variety, most of which can be eaten raw—ideal for the summer. She gravitates toward tomatoes, citrus, melons, chilies, and foods high in water-content, and she advises using recipes from geographically similar countries, such as curries or herb salads, and anything spicy or acidic.

For bonus points eat food (not meat) raw—nutritional content is highest in uncooked food, but more importantly—less cooking means less heat, which results in more temperate foods and more pleasant kitchens.

The tiny kitchen at Lenoir has adopted this concept literally, as cooking in their miniature alcove immediately heightens temperatures to uncomfortable perspiration levels. During the summer, the chefs strive to introduce as little unnecessary thermal energy as possible into the kitchen, keeping both the food and the staff temperate and appealing.

If a small kitchen overheating sounds familiar, it should. The philosophy at Lenoir aligns in several key junctures with typical college cookery.  In fact, several college students work at Lenoir, and Audrey Alberthal, a future transfer to Texas State, described how the hot-weather food philosophy aligns with preexisting college-cooking practices.

First, because of the emphasis on vegetables and fruits, it’s inexpensive. Especially over the summer, the back of the house at Lenoir leaves the produce relatively unadorned, opting to let the vegetables and fruit speak for themselves. For students, a foray into the vegetable kingdom can result in delicious, affordable food, as expensive accoutrements and proteins become unnecessary.

Spend money on quality produce, cook it lightly, and the food will taste amazing and still cost less than other options.

Second, most college students lack the time or gumption to prepare elaborate meals, instead just wanting to eat something quick immediately. Collegiate sloth again fits into the Lenoir philosophy, because eating raw or barely cooked food means less time in the kitchen, and it keeps your small kitchen from turning into a human oven.

Alberthal suggested preparing produce at the beginning of the week to cut down on meal prep-time, in addition to providing easier access to temperature-appropriate foods. And, Moss says if you do have to cook, grilling is the way to go. It takes very little time, but it also keeps the heat out of the house and yields cooked, but not overly heavy proteins—perfect for avoiding the sluggish feeling that fatty, rich foods will create.

Finally, if at all able, Moss suggests frequenting the farmers markets, as they simplify the processing of buying local food—it takes the guesswork out of the thing that takes out the guesswork! The food will be fresher, seasonal and local, and it can be interesting to see varietals exclusive to Texas. If impossible, which it often seems to most college students, simply purchasing produce that could grow locally will help you achieve nearly the same results. Or, you can avoid all the hassle and just go to Lenoir—your choice.