Chef Alejandro Munoz has always been drawn to bringing people together with food. It’s what led him on his current career path after studying a very different field, mechanical engineering, in college. “I started to throw dinner parties for my roommates [while at school], and it brought back this whole idea of family gatherings and really sparked my pursuit of cooking after that.”
After leaving college—and engineering—behind to enroll in culinary school, Munoz went on to work in a number of top-tier Texas restaurants including as Sous Chef at Counter 357 and Apis Restaurant and Apiary as Chef de Cuisine. In April, 2018, he came to Kristen Kish’s Arlo Grey as her first hire, assisting in all aspects of operating the lakeside restaurant.
In his current role as Executive Chef at Arlo Grey, Munoz applies his unique cooking techniques and generous point of view to tell stories through food and build a sense of community. Working with Kish, he has developed the restaurant’s menu with a unique focus on local ingredients and creativity. Expertly crafted large plates and dishes draw from international influences ranging from France and Italy to the American Midwest.
We caught up with Munoz to talk about his guiding principles, the best ways to source local ingredients and the one pantry staple he can't live without.
You've spoken a lot about growing up and cooking tamales with your family. How do those early moments still influence you as a chef today?
Those moments have influenced a lot of what I do today. My culinary journey is really based on family and group gatherings. The tamale dinner was an all-day affair. My mom, my aunts and my grandma were the ones cooking, but it was a neighborhood event because even the neighbors would be invited. It was like the whole community was more of a family. So I just like that idea, and we try to instill that in our dining experience. This restaurant is a “family share” style of restaurant. It’s less about the idea of a single plate going out to a single person. These large plates come out, and you're sharing and making conversation. I’m trying to create an experience based on that.
How does that change your approach when you’re creating dishes that are meant to be shared and experienced in that way?
The tough part is really trying to build the plate in a way that you don’t have to explain it to the guests. We want them to figure it out on their own. That's part of the fun—that you have this large plate, and you can build your own bite with what you grab. Each bite can change. That way, it kind of puts the creativity in the hands of the people eating the dishes.
What are the larger guiding principles behind your cooking?
A lot of it is really around what's local—what I'm able to get my hands on. Last year, we ended up doing a farm guidance thing with a local farmer that I was introduced to through a chef friend. It was basically a field guide to the basics of farming. We rented out a plot from a farm with these 200-foot rows. We were able to plant and grow things there that we used for the restaurant.
How do you feel you're able to tell stories through food? What does that mean to you?
To me, it’s the whole experience a guest has when they come in. You might walk in and look and think: this is a fine dining restaurant, but we're not really a fine dining restaurant. We're a restaurant in Austin, and we like to be friendly. We have a nice space, but that doesn't mean we have to be uptight. We want to be open, we want to laugh. Being playful with the food is important, but we try not to strain the food in any way that makes it unrecognizable. It's just good food thought of in a different way—maybe with higher-end ingredients or a little bit of a new approach.
What are the main influences behind Arlo Grey? What are you drawing on in terms of what you're putting together?
We really draw on [French, Italian and Texan] influences among others, but it’s also from Chef Kristen's experiences. As much as we have the French and Italian techniques, our flavor profile can be from anywhere in the world. It's really based on Chef Kristen and where she's gone and the experiences she’s had, as well as myself. That's why the menu is based mostly on Texas ingredients, but we also have certain aspects based on Chef Kristen's travels.
Are there any current menu standouts that are popular at the moment?
Our mafaldine pasta. It's [pasta] in a champignon sauce with a mushroom cream sauce. We cook the mushrooms three different times, three different ways to make this sauce. It's very simple, but it's meant to be reminiscent of the Hamburger Helper that Chef Kristen grew up with. It’s the idea of Hamburger Helper but better, using higher-end ingredients. Crispy Rice is another staple that comes to mind. Crispy Rice is basically fried rice re-imagined through Chef Kristen and through us. It's a crispy rice cake with crab, bacon and saffron aioli.
Do you have any advice for home cooks who want to secure more local ingredients?At the very least, just know what's in season. As convenient as a grocery store is, a lot of things are coming in from wherever. If you know what's seasonal in your area, most of your local grocery stores will try to stock local first. It's a little bit more cost-effective for them. So at least knowing the seasonality in your area is a good idea.
Is there something you love to make for yourself at home?
My favorite thing to eat at home is short grain rice—I like using it because it's a thicker rice. Basically, I cook that and make a rice cake with it. Then, I season it with some rice wine vinegar and basically make sushi rice with it. After that, I put it into a patty, fry it and then take some salmon, skin on, and crisp that on one side. Then, I put it over the top. Finally, I add just a bunch of random things—some marinated cucumbers, some marinated tomatoes, some sauteed mushrooms. I love cooking Asian ingredients.
What's the one pantry staple you can't live without?
Do you have something that's always in your freezer?
Yes. Yuzu, as well as graded citrus zest.
Do you have any family recipes from growing up that you've yet to master?
I still haven't mastered tamales. Every time we make tamales, my mom has my grandma's recipe on a piece of paper, still handwritten in pencil. She brings it over every time we make them and we go through the recipe and do it. Finally this year, I got the masa perfect—the proper consistency without actually overworking it and just really filling it out. Still, tamales are definitely one of those things I keeping working on.