Executive Chef at Tillie’s Andy Knudson shares his thoughts on hospitality, local foods, and chicken tenders.
“I was in a fraternity in college and that’s where it really started,” says Andy Knudson, the Executive Chef at Tillie’s. “That’s where I got a taste for entertaining people and having fun. I ended up working for Daniel Boulud and just seeing what that level of hospitality looked like was inspiring. The attention to detail, the passion, the incredible ingredients, the way the servers are dressed, the way the chefs were kept clean—if you're gonna do it, do it right.”
Chef Knudson has been all over the country, from the Upper East Side to Caesar’s Palace to the Bahamas. Now he’s back in his home state of Texas, taking hospitality to a whole new level.
“I came down to Texas in April of 2020. I think we did what everybody did in those first, like two weeks of COVID and played by the airport rules, and started drinking at seven in the morning. My wife and I were living in my parents’ casita and all of the sudden we had a friend base of like 70 year olds,” he laughs. “We were like oh, this isn’t that fun, we have to find jobs.”
The job he ended up finding was in line with his previous fine dining experience—a luxury hotel outside of Austin that’s a true piece of Texas history. The namesake of Tillie’s was Attilia “Tillie” Hancock, a world traveler, wife of Austin’s first banker, and the first female developer in Austin. Her great grandson, Whit Hanks owns Camp Lucy, the resort 30 minutes outside of Austin where Tillie’s is located. Chef Knudson describes the location as a key part of the dining experience.
“It’s really an all-senses experience, starting with the visual,” he says. “Our dining room is an old Vietnamese town hall that’s been rebuilt here in Texas. It’s from the 1700s and the walls are covered with Eastern and Western saints that are between 400 and 900 years old. People sometimes ask if it’s a religious restaurant and I tell them if it was, I think the majority of my team would've been burned up when they walked inside.”
When Chef Knudson started as the Executive Chef about a year and a half ago, despite the beautiful surroundings, the restaurant was struggling to find its voice.
“I took a step back and changed the format of the restaurant,” he says. “They were doing a prix fixe brunch, five courses, and it just didn't make sense. So I changed it to a-la-carte and gave them a more American brasserie-style brunch. Dinner service was heat the food up, wait for somebody to order it, and then just slap it on a plate cafeteria style. It just wasn't cooking. I wanted to elevate the food to the environment it was being served in.”
This started with sourcing ingredients locally as much as possible. This proved more of a challenge for some meats than others.
“The lamb chicken that I use are super local—both within about 15 miles of the restaurant,” says Chef Knudson. “For the most part, all of my fish comes out of the Gulf. I have a heritage seafood guy so I’ll get a call on his way down to the third coast, and then we just kind of base our menu off of what he has available for fish. We actually do less beef because it’s hard to find in the quantities I want,” explains Chef Knudson. “It’s too hot down here, the cattle don’t eat as much and you don’t get that great marbling.”
His focus on keeping the menu as local as possible has led Chef Knudson to improvise and try out different dishes, from his take on Southern classics to other experiments.
“We have a smoked chicken with dirty rice right now. The rice is grown south of Austin and the chickens are from here, so it's a very full circle, Texas kind of dish. Same thing with our shrimp and grits—the corn for the cornmeal is grown in Texas and milled right here in Dripping Springs and the shrimp comes out the Texas Gulf.”
Currently, Chef Knudson’s menu is also influenced by the intense heat. In the summer, he tries to use fewer grains, swap the butter for olive oil, and brighten dishes with the addition of citrus or melon.
“I try to look at cultures where it’s hot all the time and get inspired by them. For example, Middle Eastern food has lots of acidic sauces and condiments plus lots of pickling and probiotics to help with digestion, so you don’t feel weighed down by your food.”
There is however, one aspect of the menu that Chef Knudson is not flexible about—kids menus. As a new father, he’s looking forward to cooking for his child, but don’t expect a kids menu to appear at Tillie’s anytime soon.
“We get some picky eaters out here, and I tell them we’ve got chicken tenders, butter pasta, red sauce, pasta, and that's it. I refuse to print it. If it’s for a kid, fine but I don’t want to encourage drunk adults to order chicken tenders. My chefs came here to learn not to put frozen chicken tenders in a deep fryer.”
What Chef Knudson does want to do for his chefs is provide the same sort of learning environment that his mentor did for him. His philosophy is, even if people are coming in with less culinary experience, to give them a skillset that will help this grow into a career for them.
“You have to show your team that hospitality is more than just putting food on a plate,” he says. “It's a lot more about how you treat each other. If you put down a baseline of respect, decency, and kindness, everybody will follow suit. At the end of the day, a kitchen is basically just a mag wheel. If one of those spokes breaks, the whole place is going to fall apart.”