Chef Francisco Baca: Shaping Culinary Culture at Blind Salamander
A 14-year veteran in the culinary industry, Chef Francisco Baca has made his way back home to Texas as the Executive Chef at Blind Salamander Kitchen & Bar. Through his cooking journey across the United States, Chef Baca has brought the flavors and culture of Texas with him and grown as a leader in the culinary industry.
Where It All Started
Originally from El Paso, Texas, Chef Baca was surrounded by a variety of flavor influences that he incorporates into his technique. Once he left Texas, he continued to learn from the people and kitchens he encountered in New York and San Francisco.
“I grew up in a border town, so I spent half my life going back and forth. I got to see what Tex-Mex was in El Paso and how different it was just from ten minutes away or just walking over the bridge. You get what Texas is about when New Mexico is about and what Mexico is about. When I took off to school in New York, I went to Saint John’s University, I met people from different backgrounds and got interested in where they’re coming from, what they eat, how they do things. My roommate was from Japan and instead of his drawers being filled, filled with clothes, it was food.”
Every kitchen was a classroom for Chef Baca and each experience and mentor contributed to his development as a chef, showing him leadership styles and techniques he would carry on into the future.
“When I was a line cook, after a year, year and a half, I would leave. I would leave the kitchen for another kitchen. And everyone thought ‘You need to stay and grow within that restaurant.’ But for me, it was like taking a class. I was ready for the next one because it’s like reading a book, you’re done and it’s like, where do I go next? That’s how my culinary experience has been in the last 14 years. Working for different chefs, they had different backgrounds. Some come from Michelin star, some come from learning from their mom or grandma, some worked for one self-taught chef, but was an amazing chef.”
However, no career is all smooth sailing. The commitment of the culinary industry can take a toll on chefs, but the community and passion for food was able to reignite Chef Baca.
“We all get burned out. And there was a time where I was 6 or 7 days, and then on Saturdays and Sundays we were working brunch and dinner. So after a while, I decided, like, you know what? I don’t want to cook anymore. And, took a break. Then I saw that they’re going to open up a smoke shop in San Francisco and you can learn about animal butchery, that was something I kind of wanted to do. The chef that I met there re-inspired me to keep cooking. His name is Dennis Lee. He was one that actually did turn my career around for me.”
Returning to Texas
Though his career took him out of his home state, Chef Baca has returned to Texas as the Executive Chef at Blind Salamander Kitchen & Bar at the Omni Barton Creek Resort & Spa. Where he has taken all these influences and experiences to create an amazing kitchen and spectacular food.
“I’ve had a great opportunity. Moving from San Francisco to Austin, I was stressed out [thinking] ‘What am I going to do next?’ And I got an opportunity at Omni. Since day one I’ve had the opportunity to bring new menu development to the restaurant, new structure to the kitchen, and [impact] the culture there. It’s been a really positive experience.”
And now that he’s back in town, he had to show off what he learned away from home. On May 7, Chef Baca competed in the Austin Heritage Fire Tour and was crowned the Heritage Hero champion.
“I’ve been in those events, but I’ve never as the leader of the event, I’ve always been either sous chef or line cook to my chefs. So, [going from] being bottom of the ladder and getting experience by helping out chefs doing those events, to then you’re the leader and you’re taking charge and you’re showcasing what you can do, it’s crazy. I’m representing the whole state of Texas in the finale. My mission when I left San Francisco was bringing everything I learned back to Texas and showing people what food’s all about and giving people different experiences with food.”
But even great careers have sacrifices. As a father of two with one on the way, navigating parenthood while balancing a time-consuming career has been a challenge and learning experience, one that so many other parents can relate to.
“[Heritage Fire] was a tough one because at the same time, my son had his championship baseball game. I felt very uncomfortable because I’m like, I’m not there for my son to support him, and it’s a big game for him. But, you know, it was a big game for me too. Luckily, we both won.”
Experiencing burnout is a part of so many careers, but after his time in the industry and with his position as executive chef, Chef Baca can create the kitchen he would have wanted to work in as a young professional in the culinary industry.
“I think it comes down to where you work and the culture you’re part of. There were times when I was cooking that I dreaded going to work, and I don’t want to have that culture in my kitchen. So I make sure my cooks wake up every day looking forward to working with me, and I work side by side with them. And no negative energy, it’s one team, one dream. Because when you have one loose screw it’s going to break down sooner or later.”
What’s next for Chef Baca?
“At the end of the day, just making the gas for the customer is happy, but I just want to put Blind Salamander on the map. You know, rumor is, maybe a Michelin star might come to Texas. You know, I’d like to be the first chef from Omni to get a Michelin star for them. That’s that’s the goal right now, putting Blind Salamander as one of the top restaurants in Austin.”