Austin restaurateur Ned Elliott grew up in a family that valued gardening and cooking. After training at the Culinary Institute of America, he worked at various restaurants in New York City, such as the prestigious Essex House. Since arriving in Austin five years ago, Elliot has become known for his fusion of Appalachian cooking, complete with unusual cuts of meat, and creative, nouveau cuisine. His intimate North Loop restaurant Foreign + Domestic is an Austin favorite for unique and innovative meals and its light, modern design. In this conversation, he talks about his experiences growing up as an interracial adoptee with two mothers, his goals for the restaurant, and the appeal of unusual food.
Tell me a little bit about your childhood. Where did you grow up and how did that influence you as a chef?
I’m from Cincinnati, Ohio, and was adopted by two women, Sandra Elliot and Linda Dewitt. I had two older sisters who were both adopted, and our folks are both PhD psychologists, so with two doctors we grew up in a house where education was a big deal. I think my sister Nora was the first or second interracial adoption in the state, Megan was the third, and I was something like the fifth. I remember having a conversation with Sandra and Linda, and they were always worried that, being in Ohio–it was very much the Ronald Reagan heartland in the mid 80s early 90s–so they were always nervous being state certified and also, same-sex marriage wasn’t legal. But they were always nervous about what would happen if somebody saw that it wasn’t two separate households, this is just two moms with three children. It’s funny now, people are always like “that’s so amazing,” and well, I guess it is, but I don’t know anything different. That’s all I really know, that’s how I grew up. But also, at that time it wasn’t at all seen as something quote-unquote progressive, or had a title, it was seen as something way different. Also being interracial– I’m black and Puerto Rican, my sister Megan is black and white, and Nora is just black. and there were certain words and things that were said to us that were tough at times, but it was a pretty fun childhood.
What about your childhood was so much fun? Are there any specific memories you could share?
I have memories of a huge garden every summer, and at that time I was like “great, we have four yards of mulch that we have to take onto the flowerbed and the garden,” but looking back on it I’m so glad I was exposed to doing stuff like that. I was just telling my cooks, because everybody was complaining about how cold it was–we grew up in this old Victorian-style brick home, and [my parents] wouldn’t keep the heat above 55 or 58 degrees, so we’d wear long underwear, hat, gloves, socks, and then wool socks over that, and then blankets and a huge down comforter. I remember sometimes waking up, and you’d see your breath a little bit, when the heat hadn’t been turned up yet. We had a huge wood oven and we’d chop wood–there was a huge woodpile in back that we had to replenish throughout the year.
You are very open about your moms’ influence on your restaurant website. Why did you feel that was important to highlight?
One of the things I think kitchens have taught me is that some people feel like they don’t have a voice or an outspoken same-sex marriage and the lesbian gay bisexual and transgender–I wouldn’t even call it a movement–it’s a human rights movement. I was never ashamed of it, but as a small kid, I didn’t understand it. Now I understand why it was kept from us a little bit when we were young: there was a lot more political climate back then, and rights were being taken away…. or maybe us kids being taken away. [My mothers] helped me out time and time again, and I thought it was a good opportunity to recognize that.
How did you get into cooking?
I’d always been interested in it from afar– I watched my folks cook and helped them cook. I worked as a busboy the summer after my freshman year of high school. That’s when I was really like, “Whoa, what’s going on in the kitchen?” There were all these dudes who seemed a little mysterious and a little, like, you don’t want to mess with these guys. It grew out of that.
Since you opened it in 2010, Foreign + Domestic has become a favorite for north Austinites in search of new and delicious cuisine. Could you tell me a little bit about how it came about and what you’re trying to accomplish?
Foreign + Domestic was started with my now-ex-wife Jodi. We moved here in 2009, and if you’ve been in Austin since then, you’ve seen the food scene really explode. We thought we’d try to create a neighborhood restaurant that’s focused, smart, quality, chef-driven, and still affordable, like in Chicago or San Francisco or New York. Hopefully it has helped bring good creative food that I think people enjoy. That’s the biggest thing as I get older and cook more, I just want people to come in and have a great time.
Foreign + Domestic is known for its interesting and eclectic selection of food. What are your influences and what’s the thought process behind the unusual choices you’ve made?
Well, my background is French training in the kitchen, but when I think about what spoke to me when I was coming up for ideas for dishes, it was everything I grew up on. Sandra’s family has roots in Ohio and down into Tennessee and Kentucky. We’d always have tongue sandwiches and beef heart– I remember one year for Easter we had three whole rabbits. We had brains and eyes. As a kid it wasn’t like “Oh I want to eat this!” it was more like, “Eat this, then in three years I’ll tell you what you had to eat.”
So one of the things that spoke to me was the challenge of incorporating some of those things into the food that I love to cook. From day one we were sort of tagged as a place that served weird unusual cuts of meat. Between 2009 and now, people have gotten much more adventuresome: they are realizing that there aren’t just certain cuts you eat, you don’t have 50 pounds of filet on a cow. It is sort of hard because it’s not quote-unquote ethnic food, which is where people are often exposed to weird cuts. It’s fun for us, for my team, because we don’t really have many rules.
What kind of traditional meals did your family prepare around the holidays?
Around the holidays I remember having crown roast of pork for Thanksgiving with some sort of chutney, some false-fruit chutney, that my folks would make, and then Christmas we would always have a ham and a duck. And I think in that era, the 70s and 80s, people were getting really into French food, stuff like duck a l’Orange where you roast the whole duck and things like that.
With Thanksgiving coming up this week, many people will be busy putting together the perfect holiday meal. As a chef, do you have any advice for people cooking at home for the holidays?
If I’m cooking for my girlfriend or my daughter, I’ve noticed that I’ll make an entire meal basically using one cast-iron pan. The best thing to do, especially around the holidays is to do what you know and do it simply. It’s one of the things that sticks out about dinner parties or Christmas celebrations where someone goes all out: you want the food to be great but it’s also a time and place thing. The food is good when it’s hot and seasoned and it doesn’t have to necessarily reinvent the wheel– the conversation’s good, the wine is good, and that’s what makes the meal amazing. Rather than you suddenly have some creation where you’ve been cooking for five days and it’s stressful.
Interview by Janet Jay