The hook on the restaurant website says, “Begin with an elevator ride to the fourth floor—that’s when the Geraldine’s buzz starts to kick in.” As I walk into Hotel Van Zandt off Rainey Street and those elevator doors close behind me, I do indeed start feeling the vibe. The vibe of fancy life.
When the elevator doors open, I find myself in a dimly lit space that makes me forget it’s lunch time and I am here for an interview. I wish I could sit at the bar and say something like, “Pour me some whiskey, sugar” to the bartender. Not that I like whiskey or have ever said anything so glamorous in my life.
The Geraldine’s menu includes items that may sound intimidating: corn yaki cake with tonkatsu sauce and bonito salad; bourbon glazed cauliflower with pistachio gremolata; and Akaushi steak frites.
So it’s surprising to meet Stephen Bonin, the man behind these creations, and realize he’s one of the most down-to-earth, humble chefs I’ve ever met. While the names of the dishes sounds fancy, a closer look reveals their inspiration comes from the southern states, and homely Cajun cuisine in particular, all a nod to Bonin’s homeland.
Hunting, Fishing, Southern Cooking
Bonin, who grew up in southeast Texas on the border with Louisiana, calls himself a “Cajun transplant.” His family tree is rooted in France, Germany, and Ireland, a rich mixture of cultures and cuisines for an aspiring young boy. And when I say young, I mean pre-adolescent. The future chef of Geraldine’s was confident about his calling from a young age.
“In fourth grade, I told a teacher that I want to be a doctor, a chef, or a baseball player. And I didn’t even know what a chef was. I’d never been to a fancy restaurant. We had a Dairy Queen and a Tex-Mex restaurant,” Bonin explained.
Though he’d never stepped foot into a fancy restaurant at that point, he had already dived into the world of food and followed his passion early in life. By the age of 10, not only was he cooking alongside his grandmother, but he was also hunting and fishing. The daily menu included rabbits and–on occasion–squirrels. “Until I was 18 years old, I thought everyone ate squirrels. That’s how far removed I was from reality.”
From Cajun Country to Fine Dining
When Bonin finally decided to turn his passion into a profession, he moved to Austin to attend Le Cordon Bleu, a famed culinary school that could not be in greater contrast with his humble upbringing. Moving from country and soul food to sophisticated French cuisine wasn’t an easy transition, but the experience was eye-opening, Bonin admits. Eye-opening not only where it came to food preparation, but also in relation to meeting people of different backgrounds. “I can have a conversation with anybody. If I learn how to cook, I can sit at a table and–no matter where we are from–we can talk.”
Traditions Meet Modern Techniques
Bonin’s creations often represent the intersection of modern techniques learned at Le Cordon Bleu and inspiration drawn from family recipes. He admits it’s hard to put a finger on the exact style of his food, but “it always starts with that home feeling.”
Bonin’s lima beans dish, for example, was inspired by his grandmother’s butter beans. But it’s served with foie gras to add a touch of sophistication.
Another amazing example is the chef’s “pig face” candy bar ,which is not as odd as it sounds. The candy bar is actually a country-style pork terrine shaped into a bar. It is served with homemade cheese crackers (inspired by simple store-bought crackers), and pear and jalapeño chow-chow (Bonin’s grandmother’s recipe). At a recent art show, the chef used an edible ink printer to create an image for the top of the candy bar, before brûléeing it. Talk about modern technology!
Breaking Hotel Restaurant Stereotypes
Since earning his culinary degree, Bonin has worked at some of Austin’s top restaurants, including Epicerie, The Driskill Grill, and Odd Duck, before finally moving from independent restaurants to Geraldine’s, located on the fourth floor of Hotel Van Zandt.
Working at a hotel restaurant can be challenging, but Bonin insists he has a lot of room for creativity. Apart from overseeing Geraldine’s, Bonin is responsible for the room service menu, Café 605 in the hotel lobby, and banquets.
The main difference with working in a hotel restaurant is the clientele. With national and international guests flying into Austin, it’s a lot more challenging to keep everyone happy. The menu has to be diverse to satisfy varying tastes.
Ketchup on Steak?
What surprises me most is how easy-going Bonin is about his creations. While many chefs are almost aggressively defensive of their style, technique, and presentation, Bonin simply wants to people to feel welcome and happy. Even at the cost of putting ketchup on his steak.
“We get a lot of different people. Some people don’t want bones in their chicken; some want ketchup on their steak. I am okay with that. They [guests] are traveling. I don’t know where they just came from. Maybe it reminds them of their home. Maybe they need something comforting. Maybe it’s going to make them feel better. I used to get angry, but I’ve grown. I think it’s a part of the maturity process.”
From a boy who spent hours watching Justin Wilson’s cooking show with his grandmother, Bonin has become top chef at one of Austin’s premier restaurants. Yet he’s stayed humble. “It’s not all about me. I cook my food, but I also have my team behind me. I couldn’t do it by myself. I want to have a sense of community, hospitality. A little bit of story, a little bit of background. It is egotistical for me to say: ‘Oh, this is my story!’ Who am I? Another person. I am not special.”
5 Quick Questions
Who inspires you? My grandmother, my mom, and my older sister. Also, Daryl Nash, Bryce Gilmore, and the guys I work with every day.
Favorite foodie destination: Spain.
Favorite ingredient: Paprika. Everyone teases me about paprika. I might use it too much.
Favorite dish to cook at home: Roasted chicken with lime juice, parsley, and garlic.
Must-try at Geraldine’s: Blackened red fish with tomatillo relish; pork chops; scallop with grilled peaches, black garlic puree, and candied kumquat.
Live Music at Geraldine’s
Apart from a gorgeous setting and delicious food, Geraldine’s music program is another reason to pay a visit. Lauren Bucherie, director of music at Geraldine’s, is committed to supporting and cultivating local musicians. The restaurant ensures there are live music acts at the restaurant 365 days a year. Yes, that’s right. You can catch a free live performance any night of the week.
Every month, Geraldine’s picks three local artists or bands to play the stage once a week, as part of the Artists in Residence series. On the weekends, guests who join Geraldine’s for brunch can expect to be entertained by a live DJ (Saturday) or jazz band (Sunday).
Geraldine’s spends approximately $130,000 each year hosting local musicians. The restaurant spends an additional $20,000 to $40,000 in private gigs Geraldine’s refers local bands to. These combined efforts easily result in over $150,000 going back into the pockets of Austin musicians on an annual basis.
605 Davis St. – Website
@theAustinot wants to know:
What’s your favorite Southern dish?
Disclosure: My meal was comped for the purposes of this review. All opinions are my own.