Many chefs have esoteric styles of food preparation that they are known for; others are so completely wrapped up in the narrative behind the food or their own celebrity- sized egos that they forget about the needs of their customers. Not for Shawn Cirkiel, chef and owner of both Parkside and the Backspace. His easygoing and modest approach, evidenced by cooking a diverse range of food, has won acclaim and countless devotees in the city.
“It can be formal and organized or it can be a great burger and fries with a glass of champagne and oysters,” said Cirkiel. “When we came down here four years ago, we were the only ones down here. Now you have Second + Congress and Haddington’s.”
Indeed, anyone who scoffed when Cirkiel chose the space on a fairly desolate (food offerings–wise) corner of East Sixth Street is now eating crow. The most recent addition to his portfolio is Olive & June, an Italian restaurant, focusing primarily on the cuisine of southern Italy, in a beautiful space surrounded by plants and flowers. He spoke as pasta machines hummed in the background. All of the pastas at Olive & June are going to be made in-house, and he had spent most of his week sampling items off the menu.
The son of hippie parents who ran vegetarian restaurants and the great-grandson of a baker, Cirkiel grew up on a farm, and food has always been intrinsic to his life. A vegetarian until his mid-teenage years, he began working in restaurants at age 14 as a dishwasher, busboy and prep cook. His stints at Hyde Park Bar & Grill and at Martin Brothers were followed by studies at the Culinary Institute of America.
Cirkiel is a big believer in the ethos of “it takes a village,” giving credit to his hardworking crew of employees. “We treat everyone fairly,” he said. “We make everyone feel important, from the dishwashers to the guests.” He added, “Every year, we do a Christmas party for all the employees and they always give me a gift,” he said. “It’s just funny, because I feel more thanks for them.”
Like many in the food service industry, some of his em- ployees are young and still figuring out their lives. Cirkiel, who has worked in kitchens for 22 years, said his aim is to give them a home and a place to grow. Despite more than two decades of experience, he said that he’s always learning and still finds himself surprised each day.
“I really enjoy the service part of it, making guests feel important,” he said. “From a kitchen standpoint, we really try to make everyone feel welcome.”
Giving back to the community has always been vital for Cirkiel and his wife of ten years, Bria Madron Cirkiel. The couple has donated to a wide range of philanthropic organizations, including AIDS Services of Austin. The chef has also taught the finer points of cooking to students in the culinary arts program at Pflugerville ISD’s John B. Connally High School.
“We try to instill that (giving back) in our staff and with our kids,” Cirkiel said, adding that he and his wife are contemplating getting more personally involved with one or two charities this year. I want to be a part of something. It’s important for us to be stewards of our environments and our neighborhoods and to remember that we’re all in this together.”
That welcoming ethic has always extended to his gay and lesbian employees and patrons. For Cirkiel, it’s a matter of la famiglia. He smiled as he shared the memory of living with his Uncle Steve in Chelsea in the late 1990s.
“He hadn’t come out of the closet to the family yet. He had a doll collection and essentially a live-in boyfriend that nobody knew about,” he said, adding that when his uncle came out a few years later, no one really batted an eye. “It was awesome and great. But I didn’t tell anybody.”
His children, 8-year-old Noah and 4-year-old Dylan, are both comfortable in restaurant environments. Cirkiel said that, in fact, Noah has a more refined palate than many adults. “Every day as a parent is a challenge,” he admitted. “It’s hard, it’s always hard to be a parent. Our kids are both very unique.”
The stress of balancing parenthood and running two restaurants has put Cirkiel on a healthier path. After smoking for 20 years, he quit two years ago and cut down on his adult beverage of choice: red wine. This busy father and entrepreneur now works out daily and has run both a 5K and a 10K race in the last two years.
He’ll need all that stamina once the throngs of discerning food-lovers descend on his latest venture.