Joe isn’t the typical chef.
He’s always smiling, which baffles me. Chefs usually have a permanent scowl etched onto their brow but he’s different. I first met Joe while training to open VOX Table last year. I was thrilled to be part of the opening team, which was considered to be Joe’s baby. VOX Table is all-encompassing, mostly due to Joe’s vision of what the dining experience should be. From the environment to the food, the components are experimental yet approachable, which works in a town like Austin.
He’s Los Angeles born and bred, which is something we bond over. His Saturdays weren’t spent in front of the television watching cartoons, he could usually be found at his family’s tortilla factory, where he learned the ins and outs of making fresh tortillas, from production to right off the conveyor belt. He credits his love of the industry to his family, mainly his grandmother and mother. They’ve kept him grounded - you can tell when he adoringly mentions that he still dreams of their homemade tamales and carnitas.
At seventeen, his father passed away on New Year’s Day and he was left to care for the factory, along with his grandmother and uncles. He ran his father’s part of the business but couldn’t keep up with the demand and strain that was put on a teenager and eventually left to take a year off.
He struggled to find what he wanted to pursue. One night he noticed that his apartment was bare bones: just a couch, television, and bed. Yet his kitchen was filled to the brim with tools: knives, glassware, pots, and utensils galore. Cooking is what made sense, it was in his blood.
Joe toyed around with the idea of leaving Los Angeles for San Francisco but instead found himself at the Southern California School of Culinary Arts in Pasadena. Days were long and hard. Ten hour school days were followed by work at local restaurants, all while finding time to socialize. His graduating class consisted of eleven students and only two of them still pursuing a culinary career today.
During this time, Joe was taken with downtown Los Angeles and the solitude found in the early hours, before the local markets opened up. His vigor and enthusiasm when recalling local produce and fish is inspiring. His face lights up, his hand gestures become even more extravagant as he stresses that quality is the most important aspect of selecting ingredients.
Seizing the opportunity while within his grasp, Joe embraced a six month tour in Spain, having worked under chefs such as José Andrés. “It was amazing working in a place with so much natural beauty”, he recalls while warmly reminiscing about vast greenery and numerous meals enjoyed all over Spain and France.
His experience overseas went home with him to Los Angeles, until he and his wife decided to move to Austin in 2011. Joe promised himself that he’d take it easy in Austin and decided not to pursue a job for at least three months. He lasted only one month before the itch to get in the kitchen took over. After a brief stint at Uchi, Joe found himself at Eleven Plates, where he revamped the menu and eventually met Vincent Maguino. Together they collaborated on what is now VOX Table. With a second restaurant in the works, Joe doesn’t have any plans to slow down.
His work ethic shines through his food and you can tell that he cares from the moment that you step foot into the restaurant. Joe is always on the front line, ready for service, while speaking to his cooks of how they can embrace the trade. “To be a chef, you have to be a mentor”, he says with all seriousness. Several of the members of his opening team are still working under him to this day, a true testament to his leadership.
While at VOX Table, Joe always mentioned that I was welcome in the kitchen to relive my glory days, post-culinary school. I took him up on the offer recently, helping him prepare a special for a Friday night. He let me help him with his dish of sea bream, paired with morels and ramps, and topped with a parsley vinaigrette.