When talking to Callie Speer, executive chef and owner of the new Austin restaurant Holy Roller, it quickly becomes evident that weirdness is currency with her. Thinking outside the box, being a little bit off and causing people to do double-takes all make her tick. So much that, after building her lauded pastry chef career in other people’s kitchens, she realized she needed an outlet for her own ideas, a place that would let her freak flag fly. So, she decided to strike out on her own and open a “punk rock” diner in downtown Austin.
Except that’s not exactly how it happened. While the idea was hers, during planning she called around Austin and asked several people she worked with to see if they wanted to be on board. To her surprise, they ended up all being women and all completely down for the adventure, meaning she all of a sudden had a brand new team on her hands. From the get-go, she insists Holy Roller, which opened in July 2017, has been a team effort. PRØHBTD sat down with Callie to ask her thoughts on her new venture, the use of the term “female chef” and whether or not cannabis has a place in cooking.
How do you feel about the term "woman [or female] chef" being thrown around? Do you think cooks who are women need to be identified as such?
I think a little bit of both. It’s definitely something we should move away from because women cooking is more common now and it wasn't for so long, which was why there was a big move to point it out. Generally speaking, today, we should be moving away from pointing that out, but I do also think it is still important to say for certain crowds.
I like that there are still a lot of younger generation cooks who are trying to come up in this world that may struggle with the fact that they are a woman in the kitchen and need someone to look up to. They may need that swift kick in the ass that tells them, “This is possible for you.” I guess, generally, the only reason I like that “female chef” is still used is to inspire people who may otherwise feel like they wouldn't be able to do it.
What is punk to you? How does that relate to food?
I'm, in general, a huge fan of punk music, which is where this punk-inspired thing came from. To me, when I hear the word "punk," I think more of a mindset and a "don't give a shit" and a whimsy that you can do whatever you want to do, or be whoever you want to be or believe whatever you want to believe. That's really the mindset that we were going for when we opened the restaurant. There are all of these expectations of restaurants now: What kind of thing you're going to serve, who's working there, how's it going to look? That was sort of what I wanted to break away from.
How does Holy Roller exemplify punk?
To give someone my food on my terms, what I like to cook, and what I hope you will like to eat in an environment that is a little bit surprising and different than you're used to. That was our philosophy. When we say it's a "don't give a shit," well, we obviously very much give a shit. We just want you to feel like we took all these ideals you had in your head about what was to be expected and threw them out the window.
How does the food reflect that? What on the menu has that surprise you referred to?
I think, in the food, one of the more surprising things we have is a kolache, which is a pastry. People are used to it being a smaller kind of sweet roll that's usually filled with fruit or sausage, but we have taken a kolache and blown it upto where it's almost the size of your head. We fill it with migas and top it with queso and cover it with hash browns, jalapeños and cilantro. It’s Texas food in pastry form. Both of which you wouldn't expect to see in that capacity.
As far as the bar is concerned, people are in love with this one drink we serve called The Heretic. It’s served in a Coco Lopez tin can that has "stolen from Holy Roller” printed on there, so it kind of encourages thievery, which is funny to me. The drink itself is Jägermeister, pineapple and coconut milk. It’s these handfuls of things that sound completely horrible to me when I read them on a piece of paper, but it's the best thing ever. People are in love with it. I think it's kind of taking these ideals you have, or these preconceived ideas, and taking you out of your comfort zone a bit.
Tell us about the other women on your team. How did you choose them? How do they figure into the restaurant?
We have a bunch of ‘em! Generally speaking, we're sort of a perfect storm. I certainly never planned on it being this all-female powerhouse that it turned into. Everybody was either unhappy where they were or kind of just looking for something different, and it all came together at the same time. It was a cool thing because we had all worked together before in some capacity.
Our General Manager, her name is Sarah Bevil, she's like the mama bear and Captain Hook wrapped in one. Jen Keyser is the beverage director, and she's the most outstandingly creative and think-outside-the-box person in general. Whenever she says, "Do you have a second? I have an idea," I know it's going to be the best part of my day. And she's a little bit weird! Like I am. Britt Castro is our pastry chef. At this point, she's so great she's like the boss. I tell everyone to talk to her. I'm just the hype man, the Walmart greeter. She's the glue that holds my world together. They're all so awesome, they're like my sisters.
What is Holy Roller doing differently than other restaurants in Austin? In the country?
In general, I feel like I might be a little bit different.
In what way are you a little bit different?
I'm just weird. I don't know. Say, the other day, one of my friends who works on this project with us… he measured me for a life-sized coffin for Halloween. Generally, you'd think, why the hell would you want a coffin? And for me, people look at me and they're like, "This is a normal Wednesday around Holy Roller."
I think that my ways of thinking are a little bit unusual. I have worked to build myself a home here, where all my strange ideas can come to rest and make sense. I think, for me, it was important to cultivate this environment where we, as a staff, had this ability to think outside the box and get a little creative. Have fun with the food and have a good time, and be able to trade weird ideas.
I think that translates to the guests. Recently someone said that it was a great thing to come in and see that we hadn't covered the entire place in white marble. That it was a little bit off the beaten path as far as trends were concerned. We just try every day to do our own thing and do the things we're excited about in that moment and pass that on to the guests. I think that's what they feel when they come in here.
What's the future of sit-down dining and how does Holy Roller fit into it?
It seems like there's this push towards the casual. For a long time in Austin, there were no restaurants. Then we had a handful of successful casual and fine dining establishments. And then there came this influx of everyone wanting to open a fancy restaurant, and everyone wanting to live their restaurant dream. It's almost like people are realizing that it's not realistic to eat fine dining every day… so now more people are opening casual concepts.
We are definitely more of a casual concept. There was thought put into that—with the neighborhood we're in, with the people we're hoping to serve, the kind of food and the kind of places I like to hang out in. I think that movement towards casual is on-trend in the city. The interesting challenge, for Austin, is that it's growing so quickly. It's becoming so expensive to live here so a lot of places struggle. It's hard to take the "mid" route. You're either fast food or fine dining, and it's hard to do the middle. Austin is in an interesting spot with that, so many things are opening and there is only room for so many.
How do you see Holy Roller fitting into that scene then? Is it a combination of quality and casual that hits the right notes for success?
I think that's a portion of it. We're in a neighborhood—downtown—that is very bar-centric. There's not really a lot of food down here. There are a handful of finer dining spots within a block or so of us, and the only other thing down here are pizza trucks. So, I think by nature of the fact that we're one of the few things that is not going to cost a hundred dollars to go into, I'm hoping that will help for some time.
I'm a firm believer in—as long as we're excited and we can convey that excitement to other people, and they get excited in turn—I think that in and of itself is a draw.
What are your feelings on cannabis, cooking and its future, if any?
I think that I've done and heard quite a bit of research, and when I say research, I say making cannabis work in food and primarily in a pastry application. Not here at the restaurant, but I've personally done a lot of edibles and worked on them. I think it would be silly of anyone to say there wasn't a place for that in the future. That is 100 percent happening, especially given the advances in medicine regarding cannabis. People are realizing, "Holy shit! This stuff really helps a lot of people out."
Already, there are all sorts of underground cooking movements within cannabis in Austin, the same as anywhere else. I'm not up on the current political goings-on to know what the legal standing on that is, but we're in Austin, which is the only blue spot in this giant red state. Our views on things here are alarmingly different from 30 miles up the road from us. I have so many friends that are going and starting farms and investing in cannabis because it is in our future. It's silly for anyone to think that won't one day impact the food community—everything does, and so will this. I don't know if it will be so mainstream that it becomes an everyday ingredient in your food and cocktails, but there are already TV shows about it. It’s already happening. So that's definitely the way it’s going to continue to go.
Photo credits: Robert Lerma and Cultivate PR.