Riding high on the new Mexican wave
Austin Fry is not afraid to take risks. Tired of the Texas restaurant scene, he sold everything to move to Asia. Now he is risking it all on Brickhouse. His new restaurant serves Mexico City street food and potent Latin-inspired cocktails in an alley in Lan Kwai Fong. Judging from the buzz, his bet might just pay off. But Fry isn't too worried about it: 'This is what I know. This is what I do. Take it or leave it.'
You grew up in Texas?
I am from Texas, but I don't really go back there any more. Now my home is Cambodia. I own a guest house there, and I'm in the process of buying a mango farm. I live and work in Hong Kong, but Cambodia is home.
How did you end up in Asia?
About 31/2 years ago, I was burnt out, and I sold everything I owned and hopped on a plane to Hanoi. Then I made my way to Cambodia and I just fell in love.
How did you end up in Hong Kong?
I needed to make some money about 14 months ago. I went to my travel agent and said: 'I need the cheapest plane ticket to a metropolitan city in Asia.' So, four days later, I'm on a plane to Hong Kong. I'd never been here before, don't know a single person. I was sleeping in a room with eight other people in Chungking Mansions; that place is creepy. I got a job cooking barbecue at Blue Smoke. I didn't stay long.
Did you grow up eating Mexican food in Texas?
Oh, yeah, all the time - authentic Mexican from the Mexican side of town, mom-and-pop taquerias. It's the one thing I crave. This morning I came in and made myself a breakfast taco, and it's heaven.
In Texas, I was opening a little delicatessen in the W Dallas Victory Hotel when my investors decided it wasn't a good idea. Then they said: 'We have a Mexican food restaurant that's not doing very well. Would you like to come and take it over and turn it around?'
I said: 'That sounds great, but I don't cook Mexican food.'
And they replied: 'Well, why don't we go to Mexico City and party for a month?'
So, we just partied and ate street food and drank tequila, and it was an amazing thing. There is only one way to learn, and that's to engulf yourself in the culture.
What are your favourite Mexico City food memories?
The best ceviche I ever had, aqua chilli, was so simple. I'll put it on the menu one of these days. It was cucumber water and guajillo chillies, with Mexican lime and just shrimp, onions, diced cucumbers and black pepper. That was it, and it just blew me away.
Do you have trouble getting ingredients for Mexican food here?
Yeah, of course. It's a lot of work. I do get limes in from Mexico; they're very sweet, not so sour. They're absolutely phenomenal. Best limes in the world. I get in poblano chillies, jalapenos and habaneros [or Scotch bonnets]. But if I can support locals, I do. I think it's every chef's duty to do that. It's not just about local ingredients; it's that I support local people. That's what is more important to me.
What is your favourite thing to eat in Hong Kong?
It's taken me a long time to find good places. My girlfriend is Cantonese, so she helps me out. I lived in Sai Kung, and I would go and eat the Thai food in that little market area because they have all the condiments that are so hard to find here. It's insane. That's why I have yet to have a good Vietnamese meal here. I'm thinking: 'I could open up a Vietnamese restaurant right now and do better than anybody else.' It's ridiculous.
What is your vision for Brickhouse?
I wanted a lot of brick. I just love the rawness of it. I wanted it to be really industrial and really urban with lots of art. I just wanted to create a vibe, and I'm using local artists to help me achieve that. The trick is to take something so urban and raw and put that elegant touch on it, and that's the food and the drinks. We use high-end seafood, great produce; I don't skimp on ingredients. That said, you can come in here in a [singlet] and flip flops, and it's all good.
Are you as hands on with the alcohol as you are with the food menu?
Yes, the beer menu is completely mine. I think we have some of the better beers around. Every day I have to have a beer after work. It's religious for me. I love beer. All the cocktails are mine, but what I did was hire mixologists to come in and get them right. I'm not a bartender, but I have the ideas.