Contigo Austin is undoubtedly one of the city’s hottest spots. After opening its doors just over a year ago, this casual eatery has garnered attention from Food & Wine, New York Times (my Instagram feed) and many others. The Austin Chronicle named it the Best Place to Celebrate Anything with All Your Friends. It was the gastro-ranch (yep, made that up) menu, seasonal ingredients, and cool artisanal design that originally sparked my interest in profiling the restaurant’s owners Ben Edgerton and Andrew Wiseheart for our Entertaining With series… but on the day of our interview, their warm and witty personalities, cool backstory and totally inspiring entertaining philosophies ended up being the icing on the cake. Click through the images (shot by Chelsea Fullerton) for all the details!
These friends-turned-business partners go way back… they originally bonded during summers spent at camp in the Texas hill country. Little did they know that their shared passion for bringing people together over great food would be the force that brought them back together and gave birth to a home run collaboration. After working as an advertising exec in NYC (Ben) and cooking stints at respected Napa institutions (Andrew), both guys ended up back in Austin, considering what their next steps would be.
Ben, who always dreamt of opening a restaurant, had the inkling of an idea to create an Austin spot inspired by his favorite Biergarten in Williamsburg. When a mutual friend mentioned that his old camp buddy, Andrew, was considering opening a neighborhood meat market, the two got together and the culinary vision for Contigo began to take shape.
The story behind the name? Ben’s family has owned the storied Contigo Ranch in south Texas for over 30 years. It was “the countless hunting trips, weekend retreats, cattle roundups, barbecues, parties, horseshoe and washers tournaments, and pachangas that served as inspiration for this restaurant.” Throughout every detail of the restaurant from the design of the tables to the family-style presentation of the food, the goal is the same: to offer people a place to relax, commune and enjoy great food.
The kitchen rule they rarely break.
Ben: I don’t know any kitchen rules, which probably means I’m breaking a lot.
Andrew: Do everything with purpose.
Ben: Even outside the kitchen, every decision we made was considered – the tables are for sitting with old friends and making new ones; shared plates encourage conversation and a communal experience. The bar has narrower tables where people can really talk and connect over drinks. It’s all about intention.
Andrew keeps the menu fresh by basing it on whatever’s seasonal (a new one is printed every day.) When I asked him for his “signature entertaining dish,” he answered: What time of year? Food is a communal thing – it’s about the guests and considering what they want to eat. When pressed for what he’d serve in the summer, he settled on a big bowl of the freshest tomatoes.
Above: Contigo’s most popular drink, the El Pepino: an addictive mix of tequila, cucumber, mint and lime.
A wall of Contigo’s housemade bitters, used in bar manager Houston Eaves’ award-winning artisanal cocktails. (His ‘Smokin’ Gypsy’ was named the Official Drink of Austin for 2011.)
Andrew, who hails from San Angelo, TX, grew up with a father who was an adventurous cook. On his family’s ranch, they’d skin and cook whole animals…and since the ladies of the house had little interest in sampling the results, Andrew became the default taste-tester which sparked an early interest in culinary experimentation.
Favorite items on Contigo’s menu.
Ben: Texas okra and ox tongue sliders.
Andrew: white bean dip and the burger.
Get the recipe for Ben and Andrew’s Texas Okra with Walnuts & Cherry Tomatoes here.
Contigo’s communal experience extends beyond the sharing plates (which are great for “entertaining” of any kind.) The restaurant itself was a collaborative experience that included so many talented friends and artisans. From the interior designer (Ann Lowe) to the furniture maker (Brian Chilton), each person who played a part in the restaurant’s design brought a shared passion to the experience. The guys have even created a film series to tell their stories, and I especially love the one featuring their friend Brian and the furniture he built for Contigo.
Andrew’s attention to detail is evident in this watermelon dish that he creates by compressing it in a vacuum-sealed bag with sambal. The result is a mouthful of mysteriously spicy fruit that’s infused from the inside… sprinkled with queso fresco and paired with shishito peppers and asian cucumbers, it’s heaven. I devoured the entire plate before the shoot was over.
My standard host outfit.
Ben: Jeans and a denim shirt is what I tend to wear all the time…and it doesn’t really change when I’m the host.
Andrew: Jorts and a pearl snap.
My entertaining style in 5 words or less.
Ben: Simple. Thoughtful. Honest. Intentional.
Andrew: Keep it real.
For a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the staff in action, check out this fun video of the Contigo team as they celebrate their anniversary at their namesake ranch.
Head over to Go Forth Creative to view more of Chelsea’s work.