Authentic Italian cuisine isn’t something you often hear in Texas. But, one chef is bringing the refined Italian experience to Austin.
The stars at night are big and bright, deep in the heart of Texas! Everything is bigger in Texas, especially the cuisine in Austin. Austin is a place of magic. It is home to some of the most unique, artistic, and influential people and renowned chefs and restaurants. It’s no wonder that Chef Harvey Harris returned to Austin from Italy and made it his home.
He is the Executive Chef and mastermind behind the award-winning and romantic Siena Ristorante Toscana. For over 20-years, Siena has been fascinating everyone in Austin. Chef Harvey has successfully brought Tuscan Italian food to the other side of the world. His knowledge extends from decades of working in the industry, studying in Piemonte, and cooking in the top restaurants in Italy!
As soon as you drive into the parking lot of Siena, you are transported into a small Tuscan paradise. The trees surrounding hug you, the green pastures with their herbs and veggie garden that Chef Harvey planted himself, accompanied by the stunning restaurant architecture, will leave you breathless. You are greeted by sweet smiling faces, low dimmed light, and a big romantic fireplace inside the restaurant. The vibe is so homey that you will understand why when you meet Chef Harvey and taste his food.
Tell me about yourself.
Chef Harvey: I was born in a small town in west Texas and moved to Dallas when I was 15. To avoid the draft, I enlisted in the Navy and spent the next 3 years traveling the world. When I got out, I used my GI bill to go to college and supplemented my income by working in restaurants. I have been working in the kitchen since 1975.
My first job was making pizzas and cleaning the restaurant. Six years later, I got my first Sous Chef position, and 4 years after that, I had my first Chef’s position. I became interested in cooking when I spent summers on my grandparents’ farm. Eventually, I was cooking more than playing. I’ve been cooking now for 40 years, and in 1998 I attended the Culinary Institute for Foreigners in Costigliole d’Asti, Piemonte, a six-month Italian Masterchef program.
What’s your fave dish to cook?
C.H: My favorite dish to cook is Braised Rabbit. You can change up the ingredients, get creative and serve it with anything from risotto to gnocchi, potatoes, beans, pasta, etc.
How has the restaurant and eating changed with the pandemic?
C.H: The pandemic and employee shortage forced us to rethink our business hours, pay scale, and menu choices. We went from being open for lunch and dinner to just dinner 6 nights a week. The public response has been amazing! Being a dinner house has given us larger check averages, bigger profits, and better pay for our employees.
Can you tell me about your studies in Italy?
C.H: Going to I.C.I.F in 1998 was the best thing to happen to my culinary abilities and career. I had been cooking Italian food since 1986 here in the states, and I had worked with Sicilians, Italian Master Chefs, and my Sous Chef at Mezzaluna was from Milan. He was a big influence and got me interested in the similarities between Texan and Tuscan cuisines. The school and my internship at Il Pino in San Gimignano and the Michelin starred Arnolfo in Colle di’ Val D’Elsa opened my eyes to the beauty and simplicity of Italian cuisine. As Guiliano Hazan once told me, “It’s not what you put in. It’s what you leave out.” It’s all about the quality of ingredients and using time-tested techniques to coax out their maximum flavor.
Some media outlets have said you revolutionized Italian food in Austin; can you speak more to that or what makes your food so deliciously unique?
C.H: If I revolutionized Italian food in Austin, I did it by avoiding all of the “Americanized” versions of what people think is “real Italian.” No Caesar salad, no Fettuccine Alfredo, no Spaghetti and meatballs. I simply stuck to my Tuscan guns and cooked the food I enjoyed in Italy. I sourced out quality ingredients and gave them minimal attention to make their natural flavors shine. I showed people a different side of Italian food. It’s not all garlic, red sauce, and mozzarella.
If you are in the neighborhood, we suggest you stop by at Siena and have one or many delicious dishes by Chef Harvey. Andiago recommends the best restaurants to check out! And while you are out and about in Austin, don’t forget to save the places you would like to eat and drink to your Guides.