Photo : Elizabeth Van Huffel Photography
Parkside and Uchiko alum Sterling Ridings is opening his first restaurant, dedicated to what else—fickle, fussy, fragile yet amazing seafood.
It’s been a stormy year for Texas, chef Sterling Ridings tells me on the phone. Usually, when his grouper guy, Ben McBride of Heritage Seafood, heads down to the the Gulf Coast, he drives back with a truck full of ice and fish. But the waters along the Third Coast have been rough, scaring away fat grouper from coming further inland. So, McBride hooked up Ridings with Boston fisherman Sam Gorton—“You have to go into the seafood business with that last name,” Ridings jokes. McBride raved about Gorton’s amazing halibut catch, so Ridings tried it himself and was easily sold. And that’s the story behind a simple line item substitute of halibut in lieu of grouper served with deviled black trumpet mushrooms and confit broccoli at Guild, Riding’s seafood-centric restaurant opening in Austin next Friday, March 9.
That’s just one of the many reasons Ridings loves working with an ingredient as fickle, fussy and fragile as seafood. He was first introduced to working with the product as a stagiare at Uchi. “It was a sacred thing that I wasn’t allowed to go near or touch,” he says. Then he got a crash course in handling fish under Shawn Cirkiel of Parkside, where he was set at the oyster-shucking station and watched his mentor break down whole fish the Japanese way. Ridings later ended up at Uchiko, where his love of fish continued to grow for the fresh, pristine products that graced the kitchen. But one thing bothered him.
“I noticed that what we got from our own American coasts was just as good as the stuff we were flying in from Japan,” says Ridings.
As he was thinking of leaving Uchiko and was starting to dig more into domestic catch on his own, he was introduced by a mutual friend to Stuart Thomajan, the founder of Chameleon Companies, which has Swift’s Attic and Wu Chow in Austin. Thomajan was thinking about opening a restaurant all about seafood. And that’s how Guild began.
Here, Ridings runs wild with his imagination and love for the product. He cures yellowtail, steelhead trout or halibut at any given point with a house-made Thai chile sauce and apple cider vinegar—“We let them get to know each other,” says Ridings—and tops it all with cucumber and blood oranges. He does a take on boules aux crevettes (shrimp and dumplings) with fluffy gnocchi parisienne, pan-roasted shrimp and a viscous coconut broth. And Ridings is finally debuting a dish he’s been working on for a year now: oyster sabayon. Inspired by Thomas Keller’s famed “Oysters and Pearls” at The French Laundry, he makes a savory sabayon with eggs, dashi and a bit of green Sichuan peppercorns, then serves it with ginger-poached oysters, bone-marrow yogurt and nasturtiums. “It’s my favorite thing I’ve made,” says Ridings.
The breezy space designed by Michael Hsu Office of Architecture and LFI Design has nautical hints—octopus and seahorse wallpaper line the bathrooms, blue tones throughout. And the menu lists the kitchen staff, an important piece of information to share with the customer, according to Ridings.
“The romantic idea that I’m the chef of the restaurant, rule with an iron fish and do everything by myself simply isn’t true,” he says. “I have amazingly talented individuals on my team, and though this restaurant started out as my vision, it’s become ours.”
So when he’s not floating from station to station in the kitchen, helping get his cooks out of the weeds or shucking oysters, Ridings is in constant contact with his seafood guys. He’s working with up to 11 seafood purveyors at a time, fielding text messages and emails to see what’s in and what’s out, if the grouper’s back or a new fisherman has something special.
“A lot of ordering in the restaurant business has gone online, but the fish business isn’t like that. It’s really old-school, but it’s also really personal,” says Ridings. “I don’t think there is any part of my career where I’m not learning about fish. This is kind of in my blood.”
Article originally published in Food + Wine.