Homey style

I’ve always wanted another neighborhood restaurant, like we had at the original Biga,” says chef and restaurateur Bruce Auden. It’s mid-January, and the sign for Auden’s Kitchen is being attached to the building outside the windows. His Stone Oak debut is a mere three weeks away, but if the lanky Englishman is tense, it doesn’t show. Instead, Auden still seems mildly surprised that his “neighborhood” restaurant is on a major thoroughfare in a Northside subdivision that couldn’t be farther in spirit from the original Biga’s funky two-story house in historic Tobin Hills, and that many longtime San Antonians equate with soulless sprawl.

Auden, for instance. A Bexar County resident since 1985, he used to drive through Stone Oak on his way home from downtown without pause.

“I must admit, I never thought of it as a community,” Auden says. “But it’s just a different way of living, of developing.”

Now he’s banking on a one-to-three-mile radius in this land of bedroom communities and strip malls for the core of his new clientele. In return for their loyalty, he’ll serve them upscale comfort food at reasonable prices, and sell Biga’s renowned fresh-baked bread and coffee (and pretty much anything else the restaurant offers) to go. Auden has a simple recipe for maintaining the high dining standards Biga on the Banks is known for at prices that encourage regulars.

“I just brought all my cooks up from Biga,” he says.

The meal tabs at Auden’s Kitchen will be notably different (under $30/per for dinner is the goal, and lunch “a lot less”), but humbler doesn’t mean less chef-like.

“It’s hard to get away from how you were taught,” Auden says, mentioning from-scratch stocks and four-cheese macaroni. He had just tried a short-rib dish that needed “something else” — “In this case I fortified it with more veal stock.” Auden says his team will source ingredients locally and sustainably when they can, but “first and foremost, it’s got to taste good.”

Auden is credited with jump-starting contemporary upscale dining in San Antonio, and a demand for Southwestern haute, in the mid ’80s with Polo’s in the Fairmount Hotel, and then with Biga — both of which made Esquire’s Best Bars and Restaurants list under his leadership. Auden remembers his early days in San Antonio as driven by experimentation and rapid-fire global influences: “What was the next thing we were going to do? ... It was ripe for anybody to come in and break new ground. I had such free rein in what I could do here.” He also had a supplier “who would get anything I asked for.”

Now, he says, Auden’s Kitchen follows in the footsteps of other well-known chefs, here and abroad, who are downscaling.

“When you’re younger, you want to impress,” he says. But now he’s “looking for a place I want to eat with my family and friends. As I get older, I certainly want to do things more simple.”

In keeping with that lived-in ideal, well-known San Antonio designer Jill Giles reimagined the interior for Auden, bringing the orderly bustle of the kitchen into the dining space with tall racks filled with cooking and serving implements and wine bottles. The palette is cooler than it was in the original Davis Sprinkle-designed Tresca (in which my husband was a partner), but the effect overall is welcoming and informal. The bar is still in place, serving wine and a smart, edited beer selection.

“I don’t know what we’re looking for yet,” Auden says. “We’re definitely looking for people to come in and sit around and enjoy their wine.”

Auden’s relative calm in the face of this venture is owed in large part to his new head chef, 28-year-old Chicago native Patricia Wenckus.

Wenckus is tall and rangy, like a high-school volleyball player, with a narrow angular face that would suit a Picasso portrait. Biga’s publicist was pushing her tattoos ahead of our meeting, so she goodnaturedly obliges with a little show and tell. She has a sexy vixen wielding a bloody cleaver on her left side; a scrolling banner reads “Compliments to the Chef.” And on the inside of her left pointer finger is a fine Hercule Poirot mustache, which she got as part of a running joke in cahoots with a friend named “Old Style, after the Chicago beer,” at a parlor in Providence, Rhode Island.

“If it hadn’t been free, I might’ve thought about it twice,” she says.

Wenckus moved to San Antonio in 2007 with the J. Alexander’s chain, which had offered her a sous-chef position. Her sister, who like her brother is in the military, was stationed here at the time. When J. Alexander’s made her a bar manager instead, she quit, pulled out a Zagat and found Andrew Weissman, who sent her Auden’s way. Wenckus is a graduate of the highly regarded Johnson and Wales College of Culinary Arts, but the Biga on the Banks kitchen was “a lot more creative” than her previous gigs.

“I was reading books all the time,” she recalls. “In a corporate restaurant, you have to follow recipes. I’ve tried to just challenge myself.”

Auden, fortunately, was collegial and encouraging.

“I’ve worked for a bunch of different chefs,” Wenckus says. “Some who were more strict, others who wanted to be more mentors.” Her goal as a head chef is to be more like the latter, more like Auden. “I want `my staff` to walk away saying they’ve grown as a cook.”

Wenckus and Auden have collaborated to develop the Auden’s Kitchen menu, and when we met tweaking was still under way.

“After a while, we forgot whose idea was whose,” Wenckus says.

Asked to pick their ideal meals, she lists the braised lamb with fresh pappardelle pasta and peas. Auden laughs: “I thought you were going to say the turkey burger.” Wenckus convinced him to put the burger, which is served on a dill bun from Biga’s downtown bakery, on the menu (there is also a shrimp roll, served on fresh ciabatta). He settles on “one of each of the appetizers,” which are set to include a Scotch egg, a chicken-liver mousse, and a chicken crêpe.

This happy partnership, which appears as foreordained as chocolate and almonds, almost didn’t happen. Wenckus had left Biga on the Banks before Auden was ready to launch Auden’s Kitchen — she was back in a chain gang at Maggiano’s, looking for an opportunity to transfer back to the Windy City, when Auden called.

“When Trisha left Biga, I just had it in the back of my mind that we would have another opportunity to work together,” he says.

His new head chef’s key quality? “She’s level-headed. And that’s the best attribute in a chef, even if they can’t cook. But in Trisha’s case, she can cook as well,” he says, laughing, before adding, “Her taste buds are great.”

“I know it’s important to be even-keeled for the kitchen, because they will feed off of my energy” says Wenckus. Supervising people who are often her same age can be a little isolating in a career that’s so consuming, she says, because she can’t really socialize with them, but there’s often room for little else. (Please folks, if you happen to see her outside of work, buy her a beer!)

Wenckus is aware that the rash of television and cable shows devoted to cooking, adventure eating, and competitive show-off chefs have added a veneer of glamor to her job that doesn’t always jibe with reality. To young pro-kitchen hopefuls, she suggests, “Before you decide to go to culinary school, you need to work in a kitchen first.” Not only will you discover whether you’re really cut out for deboning chickens or mincing your weight in onions, but “culinary school should be a way to further your schooling, not teach you the basics.”

“`People` think being a chef is so awesome, but they don’t understand the responsibility,” Wenckus says. After a moment of reflection she adds: “It is pretty awesome.” •

Beginning February 8, Auden’s Kitchen will be open seven days a week at 700 E. Sonterra Boulevard. Visit audenskitchen.com or call (210) 494-0070 for hours, reservations, and more.

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