Featured Foodie: Dan Stacy
He’s cooked professionally for nearly a decade in two of the top foodie cities in the world: first New York and now Austin. When Dan Stacy moved south in 2008, he and his new wife Kristen knew they wanted to start a food business. A catering company that sourced primarily local, organic ingredients was a missing niche in the food-movement-friendly city, and Dan and Kristen began Royal Fig catering to fill the void. Like most new business owners they started slowly, capping their reservations at only two weddings per month. Soon, though, demand outweighed their caution, and Royal Fig took on more customers, more employees, and more food. Now, it’s nothing unusual for Dan to cook for 1,000 people in one weekend. Cooking in the New American style, Dan’s creations are both seasonal and regional. Given his Texas roots, his menus are meat-appreciative — pork belly, strip steak, even whole pig roasts — but he never skimps on the seasonal, local vegetables — spring beets and carrots, summer tomatoes and squash, fall pumpkins, potatoes, and butternuts. And because Dan sources his produce from the farmers themselves, the taste is unfailing.
Last year, Dan added a new addition to Royal Fig, a mobile food truck called The Seedling Truck. It’s still Dan’s signature style, only mobile! He still sources local and organic ingredients whenever possible, retaining his food’s quality while showcasing the casual good nature that characterizes his entire menu. This month, Royal Fig is moving into yet another arena — an event space in the Hill Country called The Harvest Room. In the interview below, Dan gives us his unique perspective into life in the food business, not just from behind the kitchen counter, but engaged in an entire city’s food scene.
1. When and where did you start cooking professionally?
I started cooking professionally about 10 years ago, when the salad guy at the restaurant I worked at called in sick. I held my own on the station and came back the next night.
2. How long were you cooking in restaurants in New York City? What was the atmosphere like?
I cooked in New York for 2 years. The atmosphere in the cooking world in New York is unlike any I have ever seen. It used to be that as a cook you went to Europe to earn your chops and/or respect, now New York has the same type of mystic. There are so many great line cooks in the city that you have to be willing to do very unglamorous work for little money to make it there. Once you have established yourself it becomes a big game of free agency, I have even heard of chefs trading their line cooks away for a cook who makes better pasta. I would never go back, but I would not change my experience in New York.
3. What brought you to Austin, Texas, and when did you start Royal Fig Catering?
I always loved austin. I lived here off and on for eight years. While in new york I met my now wife and we wanted to start a food business of some sort. We knew that we would never have the capital to do so in New York, so the food centric city of Austin became an obvious choice. We started our first business, Royal Fig Catering, after we got married and couldn’t find a caterer that did what I wanted. I saw a void in the market for a high end niche caterer, we intended to be small and do a couple weddings a month, somehow what we were doing caught on and it started picking up steam very quickly.
4. How would you describe your cooking to someone who has never had it?
I cook seasonal New American food.
5. How did you become committed to sourcing local and organic ingredients?
I saw that there were no caterers at the time who were market driven and put a premium on ingredients. Farm to table has become something of a marketing cliche recently, but I still like it.
6. Is cooking for large groups, like wedding receptions, different than cooking in a restaurant?
Absolutely! Not only do i have to have 150 meals at once, but I also have to try and cook something that everyone will enjoy. To cook for a table of 4, you can spend time plating the dish and paying attention to small details, catering is more about playing a big game of chicken. I say playing a big game of chicken because it is all about when to fire off certain things so that they are ready for service, but you can’t sit too long and lose their integrity. It takes nerves of steel. One example that comes to mind is a wedding for a chef who wanted whole lobes of foie gras roasted on a carving station. I am not a religous man, but I did a hail mary to myself before I started cooking the 12 lobes for that wedding.
7. How do the New York and Austin food scenes compare?
Very similar and very different. Similar in that the people eat out a lot. Austin has the most restaurants per capita of any city in the us! The difference is in the fine dining scene. Fine dining as you know it in New York doesn’t work well in Austin. People here like feeling relaxed while they eat. The prime example is BarleySwine, if that restaurant were in New York there would be suits and cocktail dresses everywhere. But here in Austin you can feel comfotable going in jeans and a nice t shirt. Still, both cities are full of adventerous eaters and wonderful chefs.
8. Tell us about the Seedling Truck — why did you want to start a food truck?
We talked about doing a food truck before we had the catering operation, but we felt that because there were so many trucks out there we had to wait until we had a solid bussiness behind it. We saw a fellow caterer in Los Angeles who shares our food style and commitment to farms start a truck. It made us think that we could use a truck to have an outlet to sell excess product from our catering side, therefore keeping the costs down.
9. Where is Royal Fig going from here? Do you ever see yourself back in a brick and mortar restaurant?
There has been talk of a brick and mortar. I don’t see it in the immediate future but you never know how things are going to go down.
10. What’s your favorite dish on your menu at the moment?
Probably the poached egg on polenta with kale pesto. This dish happened by accident, throwing a bunch of pantry items together at the last minute to create a dish, and now if I dare take it off for one night I get people asking for it. I think as long as Seedling Truck is around, this dish will be there in some form. See the recipe below!
11. Name one Key Ingredient you always have on hand.
Photos: Bonnie Berry and Eric Hegwer