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Toasting Texas

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Toasting Texas
By Veronica Meewes / Photos by Nick Simonite

A SPRING BRUNCH AT HOTEL SAINT CECILIA FEATURES DYNAMIC WOMEN, DELICIOUS FOOD AND DARING DESIGN

Austin’s Hotel Saint Cecilia is the kind of place where, upon check-in, you find yourself secretly hoping for rain. A Texas spring shower is good not only for wildflowers, but also for sinking into a luxe Swedish mattress, enjoying a leisurely bath in a soaking tub, and lingering in one of the carefully curated, Instagram-worthy rooms at the Saint Cecilia. And for today’s brunch in particular, a sprinkling of life-giving raindrops couldn’t be more appropriate, as a group of Austin’s movers and shakers gather over food to celebrate motherhood, both present and future.

Greetings begin on the ivory veranda, which wraps itself around the main house, a nineteenth-century Victorian gem formerly known as the Miller Crockett House. Massive live oaks open protectively over the property like lacy parasols as guests ascend the stairs. There are excited introductions then laughter as hugs result in a belly bump between Shaleiah Fox and Catherine Weisnewski, two moms-to-be in the last throes of their pregnancies.

Photo by Nick Simonite
Photo by Nick Simonite

Molly Salvi of Squash Blossom Vintage, visiting for a timely trunk show at the hotel, invites everyone to peruse her impressive vintage collection procured from travels across the country. Her silk kimonos and gauzy caftans are cozy, flattering, and fitting for the occasion; she wears a floral piece that flows beautifully over her own baby bump.

Molly’s collection of vintage baby clothes includes tiny crocheted rompers and pint-sized bohemian shirts. Kathy Green, public policy director at Capital Area Food Bank and mother to an eight-year-old and eleven-year-old twins, says, “I don’t remember mine being this small!” Shaleiah smiles as Catherine holds up a tiny sundress. In a matter of days, they will be dressing their own little somebodies.

“Everyone says I should stop working, but I would just go crazy sitting and waiting,” says the due-at-any-moment Shaleiah, who is founder of Fresh Chefs Society, an Austin-based nonprofit created to introduce foster youth to the art of cooking. Having just recently been awarded a grant from the Austin Food & Wine Alliance, this really is no time for the influential woman to slow down.

“I worked all the way through my pregnancy,” says Gina Whittington from her seat under the hotel suite’s glittering chandelier where she’s nursing two-month-old Scarlet. The founder of an event company called The Whitt Experience even set up an entire wedding the day before she gave birth.

Lise Ragbir local curator and museum consultant, enters the parlor with her two-and-a-half-year-old who is donning a pink polka-dot jacket, purple tutu, jeans, white cowboy boots, and a wild halo of curls. “She chose this outfit,” Lise explains. “You’re your own woman—right, Nella?”

They proceed to the porch where the Saint Cecilia’s chef Alex Gates has set up a beautiful brunch, one almost too pretty to eat. Black-and-white folk dishware and an aqua-striped tablecloth provide the canvas for delicate ricotta-stuffed crêpes splashed with a vivid Champagne rote grutze, crunchy chicken schnitzel crowned with sunny-side-up eggs, golden chili shrimp brightened with citrus remoulade, and amulets of fig and goat cheese nestled in taffeta-like butter lettuce.

Andi Scull Cheatham, founder of Austin’s HOPE (Helping Other People Everywhere) Farmers Market offers her seventeen-month-old Avory little spoonfuls of yogurt. “Now that her teeth are coming in, she seems to only want soft things,” she says with a shrug as Nella reaches toward bowls of glistening berries and toasted-brown granola from her mom’s lap.

Glasses are raised in a toast before conversation inevitably turns to advice for the new moms. “Balancing all these decisions is stressful!” exclaims Catherine, a Montessori teacher raised by a Montessori-teacher dad and midwife mom. “The baby’s not even born yet and I’m already understanding the weight of so many decisions.”

“You’re going to second-guess yourself a thousand and one times every day, but just trust yourself and your instincts because nobody gets it one hundred percent right,” assures Kathy.

“When you tap into that instinct, you find pieces of yourself that you just didn’t know were there,” adds Lise.

Conversation quiets as dishes are passed and silverware clinks. Plates begin to fill, but more dishes keep arriving, much to everyone’s delight. Someone cuts into an asparagus frittata perched on a milk glass pedestal while another discovers a hobnail-glass cake stand displaying quiche lorraine topped with herb-roasted tomatoes. Next, Alex arrives with the centerpiece—a whole cold poached side of salmon accompanied by verdant asparagus, rich dill cream, and a savory sauce gribiche. The table of ladies audibly approves.

Alex grew up foraging, preserving, and cooking with her parents in California and her grandparents in Switzerland, and her cuisine showcases a lifelong love of freshly grown food prepared with European sensibilities. Now a new mom herself (she and her husband have begun the foster-adopt process with a 12-year-old girl), Alex has already started teaching her daughter how to make the same egg-based breakfast dishes she prepared with her own mom.

“I love feeding people, and, as it turns out, I love teaching people too,” says Alex. She became involved as a chef mentor with Fresh Chefs as soon as she met Shaleiah and recently donated her former food trailer so that Fresh Chefs can develop an employment-training program for foster youth in the future.

Lise and Kathy have both signed on as Fresh Chef board members too, adding to the network of strong and supportive women whose industries span art, food, and social work.

“It’s a medium we can all connect on,” says Shaleiah, a former foster kid who is well aware of the many issues faced by these youth—particularly the population of teens who are “aging out” of the system.

“When you start to get ready to be on your own, to leave care, there’s so much that the state and your caregivers are focusing on making sure that you have,” she explains. “The simple idea of whether you know how to cook—that’s not on anybody’s radar. But we know that being able to cook for yourself is such a powerful element of control. And it’s an easy one that we can give youth in care.”

Photo by Nick Simonite
Photo by Nick Simonite

“I love feeding people, and, as it turns out, I love teaching people too,” says Alex.

Fresh Chefs is made of up a number of programs, from a home-cook mentorship program and community apprenticeships to demos by guest chefs and outings to restaurants. But each branch of the program stresses an important cultural piece to the youth participants—the same one practiced at this very brunch, on this very porch in South Austin.

“We talk about what foods they remember from their family, but then we also talk about how you can use food to create your own sense of family,” says Shaleiah. “It doesn’t have to stop because of whatever lack of connection you have. You can create it.”

There couldn’t be a more fitting observation for this gathering of women who feed Austin in so many valuable ways, proving that great things often start at the dinner table.

Chef Alex Gates’ Recipes

Cold Poached Salmon
Quiche Lorraine
Granola
Asparagus Frittata
Crêpe with Champagne Rote Grutze
Chicken Schnitzel with Sunny-Side-Up Eggs

Mentioned in this post:
Alex Gates