Native to Austin, restaurateur Chef Shawn Cirkiel and Parkside Projects are best distinguished by an organic path to success and growth. Sometimes, simply a great location, plenty of investors or clever branding can build one profitable restaurant or an empire, but this has not been the narrative for Chef Cirkiel. The life story of each restaurant is one of finding customer loyalty in unlikely locations and with limited resources. And rather than a series of lucky moves that led to success, it has been Chef Cirkiel’s kitchen philosophy as a cook, first and foremost, and his willingness to always adapt and try new systems —or, as the chef says, always get better— that has enabled Parkside Projects to flourish.
Parkside, Chef Cirkiel’s first restaurant, pays homage to the Bronx, N.Y., housing project where his father grew up. In 2008, Parkside opened on historic Sixth Street, a decidedly non-culinary destination, as a farm-to-table concept long before that or casual fine dining became buzz phrases in Austin. Every night since, Parkside has been filled not so much by tourists, but by a mix of downtown locals and surrounding Austin’s destination diners. Two years after launching the Parkside concept, Chef Cirkiel opened The Backspace, Austin’s first true Neapolitan pizzeria, directly behind Parkside. The better part of a decade later, the corner of Sixth Street and San Jacinto Boulevard continues to anchor the downtown dining scene.
In 2012, at a time when few chefs wanted to venture from downtown, a beautiful three-story building surrounded by a 200-year-old oak tree became available in the Bryker Woods neighborhood in Central Austin. In just a few months, Chef Cirkiel transformed the space into authentic Italian eatery Olive & June, named for his and his wife’s grandmothers. The restaurant features the most dynamic Italian wine and Amari lists in Austin, and prepares a dozen different pastas in-house daily. Now an established neighborhood favorite, Olive & June celebrates its fourth anniversary in 2016. Chef Cirkiel’s newest restaurant, opened in 2015, also has an organic family connection. Bullfight, a modernized take on a classic Spanish concept, was built on the Airport Boulevard site of his grandfather’s post-World War II service station, and has already gained much critical acclaim.
Ingredient-driven Inspiration All this diversity is fueled by commonality in food and operation. Chef Cirkiel attended the Culinary Institute of America in New York, where he found his passion for ingredient-driven food, a tenet readily noticeable at each of his restaurants. After culinary school, he honed his skills in Napa, Calif., at Domaine Chandon, and in New York City’s Café Boulud, influential culinary experiences he brought back to Austin, where Chef Cirkiel took the helm at Jean-Luc’s Bistro as Austin’s youngest five-star chef, before opening Parkside. Inspired by these culinary ventures and the purity of ingredients, Chef Cirkiel adheres to strict yet basic cuisine standards at each of his restaurants: The ingredients are local, the recipes are made in-house and, most importantly, the dishes are uncomplicated. Ingredient-driven means every dish highlights three or four ingredients, sourced and prepared at their best. Where some see the achievement in an entrée with 15 components, Chef Cirkiel sees the beauty in perfectly seared chicken or potato gnocchi cooked not a second too long. This simplicity breeds efficiency and perfection.
It’s All About the People Consistent with its lineage, Chef Cirkiel’s Parkside Projects restaurant group is a testament to sustainable growth, and is built entirely by the staff and systems perfected in each restaurant. If his love and respect for food are the inspiration behind his resume, it is the people he’s developed and the systems they implement that have led to growth without diluting the experience. Any chef will agree a key metric of success is when a restaurant operates well, regardless of whether the chef is on-site. This is how a restaurant successfully grows, and this is what Chef Cirkiel and his team have mastered.
Harlan Scott, director of operations for Parkside Projects and Chef Cirkiel’s front-of-house counterpart, and Allison Gueli, director of events, have been the foundation of Chef Cirkiel’s team since 2009. Operating one great restaurant is an achievement, but moving beyond that is impossible without the development of people and theaffinity for service and operation standards that Scott brings to the table. Parkside and Olive & June feature the largest restaurant event spaces in Austin, and host a variety of private parties, from corporate events to weddings, almost nightly. Gueli has been the dedicated constant in nurturing client relationships, developing staff and menus, and executing successful events for many years. Olive & JuneExecutive Chef Justin Rupp opened Parkside with Chef Cirkiel, and continues to build systems and implement the standards that define the restaurant group. Many, such as Rupp, have grown from cooks to great chefs under Chef Cirkiel’s tutelage, but even more have used their time under Chef Cirkiel’s mentorship to become executive chefs at many of the best restaurants in Austin and beyond.
Looking ahead, Parkside Projects prepares for 2016 with more than 150 employees. Chef Cirkiel has added to his team acclaimed restaurateur and Pastry Chef Erica Waksmunski (Congress, Red Star Southern), and Beverage Director and Advanced Sommelier Paul Ozbirn (Paggi House, Wink). If a restaurant’s greatest asset is its people, not the food, then Parkside Projects’ equity is much greater than its foot traffic. But people join a team in the first place for one reason or another, and at Parkside Projects, those reasons are clearly the food and the chef.