As Austin relates to Texas — an ambitious, hotly-desirable city, smack in the middle of an often-stereotyped state — so do Ann and Ben Edgerton relate to Austin.
The couple, a stylist and restaurateur, are working both together and independently to create spaces that feel at once necessary and progressive, quietly marching the city’s cache forward on inspired work edited for the community. Influenced by their home state, travel, and most importantly, the place where the two come together, both Ann’s and Ben’s work references how the dusty cattle ranch and the progressive artist unite, what Donald Judd saw in Marfa and what continues to ring true in Texas: the expansive landscape as a blank canvas for new ideas.
The couple’s most recent collaboration is Gardner, a restaurant where local vegetables take center stage in the creation of careful dishes that maintain the intricate artfulness of fine dining, edited for the unfussy ease of Austin. There’s a rough wedge of seared cabbage flavored with jalapeño; there’s a white asparagus small plate paired with blackberry; there’s pistachio-infused vodka; there’s a steak (this is Texas, after all). And while the menu — developed by Edgerton’s business partner chef Andrew Wiseheart — is about layering and depth, Gardner’s interiors focus on stripping back. Designed by Ann in collaboration with veteran Charyl Coleman, the minimal, detail-driven dining room feels like a slice of Noma in South Texas, with a focus on negative space and clean lines – everything in its place, everything with a story. There are handmade putty clay water pitchers next to crisp linens; stark walls are juxtaposed with a single branch Coleman found on a morning walk. And it’s working: the restaurant, which opened in late 2014, was in August named to Bon Appetit’s list of 50 Best New Restaurants in the US. At the same time, there are continual challenges (and it sparks an interesting conversation): what happens when a sophisticated, ambitious restaurant meets a city used to Micheladas and greasy tacos? How do you reconcile wanting to conceptually move forward with wanting to make a living? How do you successfully take on a challenging project in a community that values comfort and familiarity?
At home in East Austin with Ann and Ben, the intention carries over. Warm and inviting, their 1955 ranch-style house is an evolving gallery of objects with a provenance: the throwback sectional couch Ann impulse-bought at a vintage store; a pile of rugs purchased on a spring trip to Morocco; art made by friends, collected and traded. High and low, from here and there, it’s a mix of the careful and the go-with-your-gut, somehow all coming together to just make sense.
Start by telling us about your home. How do experiences you might have picked up in the restaurant business manifest themselves in a less formal setting?
Ben: When I think about food and Ann I think about meals that she’s cooked. It’s typically off-the-cuff…last week we had nothing in the house and she made this totally from-scratch pasta sauce with leftover olives, a can of tomato sauce, mire poix, capers, and a roasted spaghetti squash. Just watching her combine it all, completely casually…it was really amazing.
That’s kind of a perfect metaphor for your house: smart pairings that are casually executed.
Ann: We had a good place to start from. When I first saw the house it felt like a time capsule. The previous owners had bought it from the builder in 1955 and hadn’t changed a thing. Although we covered up most of the teal, took down the curtains, and ripped out the pink carpet the home still has this old depth and quality to it. We really love not having to deal with poorly-done renovations.
What aesthetic ideas are currently at the front of your mind?
Ann: I am currently interested in creamy 70’s-looking sectionals. The large one in the living room is one of my favorite things we own but I hope I don’t own it forever. I am pretty sure it may be one of those things I look back on and question my judgement. Almost all of the furniture in our home is vintage. My tastes are always evolving so buying inexpensive vintage items allows me to move things in and out without feeling too bad about it. My own home is the only place I get to experiment with new ideas so I really take advantage of that. Thank goodness Ben is up for my kooky ideas.
What’s your favorite possession?
Ben: I don’t really know that I have a favorite possession. I really like my hat. It was custom-made at Texas Hatters. I also like my guitar, but I think that is just because it is the only one I have. If I had a different guitar I’d probably like that one just as much.
Ann: One of my favorite possessions is Ben’s wedding gift to me – a solid mesquite (my favorite wood) table that functions as a small breakfast table or a butcher block at counter height. He designed the piece and had it built by a local woodworker. It can raise and lower from table height to counter height so we can use it in numerous ways. We have already shared many good conversations around it and I cannot wait to see how we use it over the years. It is by far the best gift I have ever received.
I also really love the large black lamp in the living room. I saw something similar in an image from Vincent Van Duysen’s home in Antwerp. I scoured thrift stores until I was able to piece something similar together. It is not nearly as nice but it does the trick.
How do you feel your taste — at home and in your businesses — fits into Austin?
Ben: I used to always say I was from Texas and people would say, “I hate Texas. Except Austin. But Austin’s not really Texas.” And I would always really strongly disagree. That’s completely backward. The reason Austin is so great is because it’s in Texas. If it were the same city with the same disposition located somewhere else, it would be one of those other cities. But what makes it so great is that it has this Texas independence quality to it, it has the Broken Spoke dance hall, it has the university…it’s not trying to pretend it’s not in Texas. You can wear a cowboy hat here and totally get away with it.
Ann: I love the laid-back nature of Austin, it’s not pretentious in any way and I hope my style reflects that: it’s comfortable and accessible and is made for living in. I think my style is pretty different, more minimal than the majority of Austin.
I want to distinguish myself as a Texas designer — I love the identity that place brings to your style. Growing up in the West, minimalism is inherent. There’s nothing there. It’s a flat line of nothing. I’m very into open space and balance. Western rugs, natural fiber, stone, leather. It all speaks to that landscape.
The vastness of Texas is it’s own form of minimalism. It’s minimal but not stark.
Ann: Exactly. Within a muted color palette there are so many layers, textures, and dimensions. I think that’s made me naturally pare down.
Ben: Austin brings those things together: it has the taste and discernment of anyone in LA or New York, but it has that dusty plains sensibility to it that makes it truly unique.
Gardner is obviously a reflection of these qualities. Can you remember the first conversation you had about the restaurant?
Ann: Yes. We weren’t even dating at the time, let alone married. Ben called me and said, ‘Hey do you want to design a new restaurant?’ We had worked together on Contigo (Edgerton’s first restaurant, an outdoor concept inspired by his family ranch in South Texas.) We met up a few days later and had dinner and he drew out the layout of the dining room.
And then between the initial idea and when the true planning began, you and Ben started dating.
Ann: Right. Ben didn’t know if he wanted to hire me because he didn’t want to jeopardize our relationship. My original thought was…I understand. Our relationship is more important than any job. But then I went out of town for a few weeks, and the entire trip I was thinking about Gardner. I came back and just said, ‘I want that job!’ I realized that if we were going to be together, there was always going to be something that we collaborate on. We might as well learn how to do it now.
The restaurant is clearly conceived, alluding to everything from Noma to South Texas: How did the idea come together?
Ben: It didn’t start with any Nordic influence, but actually just with wanting to do something that was the opposite of what we were doing at the time with Contigo. The idea began with wanting to open a vegetarian restaurant, and then expanded from there into being vegetable-focused, coming from an elevated and refined angle.
Ann, did the aesthetic similarly evolve?
Ann: After the concept came together we realized we wanted to include lots of natural elements like stone and wood in the design. The architect we chose is very modern, and the design that came from it was to set everything against a primarily monochromatic palette. I wanted it to be a place where you sit down and you’re all there: It’s all about the food and the experience. It’s a blank palette for the food to have its own life. That was the theory behind it all, to create a focused experience.
Even though now you both do different things, you independently have experience in the food industry, and I think your shared creative passion comes from what happens and what comes together at the table. How have you gotten here?
Ben: I worked in restaurants, worked in coffee, made sandwiches in college, and then studied marketing and moved to New York to work in advertising. The whole time through college and New York, I always talked about wanting to open something. It took a lot of shapes, but the common thread was creating experiences. When I moved back to Texas the choice was either to get back into advertising or to actually pursue this idea I’d been talking about for years.
Ann: When I grew up I had no idea that food was something that could be creative or play a part in a creative life. I went to college in California and worked at a farmer’s market on the weekend and thought, ‘Oh my god, this is a whole world I’ve never experienced.’ I got obsessed with cooking and reading cookbooks.
So is it about food or is it about “experience,” and what’s the difference?
Ann: I love the act of creation, and with food it’s so linear: you get it, you cook it, you eat it, and it’s done. I always thought that I wanted to combine food and art, so I dabbled in food styling, and then worked in restaurants, and then started a catering company with a friend before coming to realize that it isn’t cooking that I love, but the creation.
Ben: I, as well, am primarily focused on the experience of dining. The reason we go out to a restaurant is to eat food. The taste of the food is very important. But the atmosphere plays as important of a role…often that’s translated as only applying to expensive dining experiences. However, if you’re at a BBQ restaurant in small town Texas there are elements like the smoke-stained walls, ordering directly from the pit, and the weathered atmosphere that make it feel good. I enjoy what I do because I get to dream up experiences.