For chef Shawn Cirkiel, food is a way to build bridges across generations and cultures, and his favorite opportunities to do that come around the holiday season. The Austin native grew up visiting extended family in two very different settings: one side of his family hails from the Bronx in New York City and the other from the woods of the Ozarks. The city mouse/country mouse combo gave him experiences from bustling urban restaurants to well water and wood-burning stoves.
“I always joke that I grew up very confused,” he says. “But I grew up lucky. My grandparents and extended family are very close, and in our house, we always cooked. That’s how I ended up where I am.”
Where he is, is the executive chef and owner of Parkside Projects, a company that operates the restaurants Parkside, The Backspace, Olive & June, Bullfight and Jugo. Event venues 800 Congress and a soon-to-open “7Co” round out the businesses that keep this father of two moving all day, all over town.
With Thanksgiving, Christmas and a family birthday to celebrate, Cirkiel finds this time of year especially busy. But amid the holiday hustle, he made time to sit down and speak with us about food, family and the traditions he hopes to pass along to his kids.
AFM: Tell us about your family.
Cirkiel: Noah will be 14 this year, and my daughter Dylan just turned 10. My wife Bria and I have been married almost 16 years.
My son’s birthday is actually Christmas Day. Everybody was in Santa hats and elf stuff—it was so weird at the hospital. But we had to figure out a way to make his day special. So, we always celebrate the holiday together, and then that night, we celebrate his birthday. We invite friends and extended family over, and have it right at the time he was born, which was 7:11 p.m. This way, he gets his own unique thing.
A few years ago, we started cooking a theme meal for his birthday. We’ve done Japan, Vietnam, India, Morocco. We do 15 to 20 different items. This past year, we had almost 60 people at the house. He and I cook it all together from scratch and serve everybody. It’s kind of his birthday party and present. That’s become our Christmas holiday.
AFM: What did food mean to you growing up?
Cirkiel: It was what connected people—strangers, visitors, friends, family—whether it was eating together or cooking together, it was always that thing that brought everyone together emotionally and culturally. It’s really what—I think—defines all of us and gives us a sense of place. My mom would always invite people from work or kids’ families to join us for the holidays. And we’d always have a random 10 people from the Sudan on a cultural exchange or something. So, as I travel around the world more and more, I see how much the act of cooking and eating connects us all. It’s the one thing that everybody does. You know, everyone has an opinion about it, which is great, because it really is the great emotional connector. It’s that sense of togetherness and hospitality that’s super special.
AFM: What foods and traditions are you passing down to your kids?
Cirkiel: I try to pass down the emotional connection to the food, whether you make it with your hands or that cleanup is part of the process, taking care to finish it all the way through, and entertaining others. To me, it’s a tradition of togetherness, of helping, of working hard and spending time with your family. It’s not necessarily a recipe; it’s about togetherness.
AFM: You’re very busy! How do you manage family time and work time?
Cirkiel: I try to go back and forth. It used to be that the kids would come to the restaurants a lot. We do family meals at all the restaurants every day—all the staff eat together—and so the kids would come for that. But as they’ve gotten busy, I’ve had to adapt, and so I’ll come home and either cook them dinner or do their soccer or their sports and then come back to the restaurants.
AFM: Have your kids shown any interest in becoming chefs?
Cirkiel: Both very much love to be in the kitchen. They love to help out. My son enjoys cooking at home, but he doesn’t want to do it for a living. And my daughter’s too young to know yet.
AFM: Do your kids expect three-course meals at home?
Cirkiel: No, not at all. We have those little microwavable macaroni things for snacks after school. Just like every parent, I have one kid that’s more adventurous with food than the other. They do articulate certain things in different ways, whether it’s talking about cheeses or the texture of something, because they’re just more aware of it on certain levels. And they’ve traveled and eaten all over the world so much. But ultimately, they’re kids.
By Sherida Mock