Food Truck Gets its Ducks in a Row
After learning the ropes of the Austin dining scene on a confined food trailer, a brick-and-mortar location gives five partners a real chance to flex their culinary muscles.
Odd Duck’s roots trace back to its days as one of Austin’s most celebrated food trucks where sales were so robust that a brick-and-mortar reincarnation was sure to follow.
“The food truck was awesome,” says Sam Hellman-Mass, a chef/partner at Odd Duck. “We had really talented chefs, but the logistics could be difficult because all the food had to be prepped somewhere else. It was a big challenge and really a very inefficient way of doing things.”
Since the truck didn’t have a full kitchen, the menu had to be simplified and consequently there were restraints on culinary creativity.
So last December, four years after the original food trailer was purchased, Odd Duck opened its doors, the collaborative blood, sweat, and elbow grease of five talented partners ranging in ages from 28 to 30. Since the beginning the mission has been to serve creative dishes prepared with the freshest local ingredients composed in plain view of the guests.
“We spend a tremendous amount of money with local farmers,” Hellman-Mass says. “One of the things when you source locally is the food is not generic. It is very vibrant and different from what you would see at a lot of other restaurants.”
The all-star team at Odd Duck is composed of co-chef Mark Buley; Bryce Gilmore, who operated the original Odd Duck Farm to Trailer from 2009 to 2011 and also opened 40-seat Barley Swine in Austin in 2010; his brother Dylan Gilmore; Hellman-Mass; and Jason James, who is Odd Duck’s general manager.
Chefs Gilmore, Hellman-Mass, and Buley first met when they worked as line cooks at The Little Nell Hotel in Aspen, Colorado, struck up a friendship, and eventually migrated to Texas. Hellman-Mass says the group sought a project to tackle, one that could showcase their talents, ideas, and passions for the restaurant business. “We knew we wanted to do something together, something a little bigger than [Gilmore’s restaurant] Barley Swine,” says Hellman-Mass, who cooked with Gilmore on the food truck before launching Odd Duck.
When it comes to respect, the Odd Duck team have earned plenty of it—not only from food critics regionally and nationally, but also from the restaurant’s guests, who have embraced the concept since day one.
With a rustic-casual, farmhouse ambience, the 140-seat restaurant, which is located on the same lot that housed the original food truck, features a central bar with a wood-burning fireplace that serves as Odd Duck’s focal point.
Now with ovens, burners, walk-in refrigerators, and a full kitchen, there is a lot more variety in menu offerings and plenty of opportunity for the chefs to flex their creative muscles and inspire others to do the same.
The philosophy at the restaurant is to encourage cooks to come up with new dishes that make it to the guests’ tables. “It is a very collaborative environment,” Hellman-Mass says. “If someone creates a dish, he will pay a lot more attention to execution. We try and give employees a real sense of ownership.”
That freedom has paid off. The menu, which changes regularly, has such intriguing offerings as grilled butternut squash salad; goat confit; foie gras mousse; braised whole rabbit; pretzel with ham, cheese, and béchamel sauce; lime leaf pancetta with watermelon granita; soft-cooked duck egg with fried rice, oyster mushroom, shiitake, and pickled squash; and fried chicken smothered in orange sauce with steamed buns.
“When it comes to our food we borrow from all kinds of cultures, but we steer it back to Southern,” says Hellman-Mass. “And because we start with local, it’s all very Texas-oriented as well.”
Beverages, which account for 30 percent of sales, likewise rely on local ingredients as part of the mix and have produced such crowd pleasers as the restaurant’s prickly pear margarita and Aunt Polly, which showcases Mezcal, elderflower, and chili pepper.
Odd Duck employs about 80 people, is open seven days a week, and is only closed for Saturday lunch when staff heads to the farmers market on the hunt for local product. Ticket averages hover at around $20 for lunch and $45 for dinner, while food costs run around 30 percent.
On a busy night Hellman-Mass says the restaurant can clock almost 350 covers.
“I think the community is really excited about what we are doing,” he says. “We are a group of young guys who took a big risk, and we are trying to do everything right, from the way we source food to the way we treat employees.”