One of the best hidden gems in the greater Austin metropolitan area apparently closed over the weekend. The Hollow, the amorphous farm-to-table bistro from chef Jacob Hilbert, ended its three year-run. The end of the restaurant, which I reviewed positively in 2016, was fittingly accompanied by a passionate, lengthy letter from the chef, one full of energy and romance and devoid of many grammatical strictures. I say “apparently closed” because a Facebook post makes it seem like the closure is not definite, and I say “fittingly” because in recent years, I (and l presume others in media) received several similar impassioned letters from the chef who opened the Georgetown restaurant with his wife, mother-in-law and father-in-law in 2013. Also, fittingly, the very long letter buried the lede: Hilbert says he has plans to open a farmhouse restaurant on the Jester King Brewery property with the brewery owners. But more on that in a minute.
The letters from Hilbert over the past few years would sometimes explain a temporary closure or a wholesale menu change. They could be filled with abstruse ramblings or poignant vulnerability, but at their heart they showed the soul of a creative person struggling to come to terms with his gift and his place in the world (and specifically his place in Georgetown).
The letter that came last week detailed Hilbert’s formative years as a promising baseball prospect and the heartbreak that came with a career-ending injury, along with the manner and style in which he aborted graduate school, leaving behind the pursuit of a career as a therapist to follow his love for food. Like good food memoirs, the letter waxes rhapsodically, with the eventual chef describing his departure from academia thusly: “I became drunk in vats of menudo and posole, my thoughts were irrational, my studies lost in the steam of simmering pots, and I quit.”
Of his pursuit of culinary bliss, Hilbert writes sweetly about his late mother, ominously about his life-threatening drug problems of the past, achingly about Little League baseball and wistfully about Allen Ginsberg. He saved his most heartfelt words for his wife, Lynda.
“Lynda believed in me when she should not have, she loved me when I did not deserve it. She did not give up. She did not give up through lies, infidelity, grotesque dedication to my lost craft, absent fatherhood, narcissistic rants. I took her to hell, and she stood among the perils of tectonic consequence. I did not ask her to be stoic, but she was, and I am now just a slight reward for her suffering, the miracle being that I may just be enough for her, as I am, without dazzling plates or articles extrapolating my character, without my be anything to anyone other than her. She is a hand that reaches out in the breathing light of day.”
But, then, this …
“When I first met with Jeffrey & Michael from Jester King there had been much talking prior, however the question or the statement had not been made. I said ‘I know this is crazy, but I want to make one of the best restaurants in the world.’ Without so much as a hesitation and in harmony the response was, ‘we want that too.’
“So this letter begins a story, a story that asks a question. How do you build one of the greatest restaurants in the world? I suppose we’ll find out together.
“This year the farmhouse will open, a more casual accessible restaurant built on the cuisine of nomads and ancient peoples, there will be fire and spit roasting and vegetables cooked in mud. We will muddle sauces in ancient ways and walk the land looking for tomorrow, we will bake bread and we will preserve things. The goal is to have the restaurant completely self-sustained, growing all of the produce, milking the cows and goats, making the cheese, hanging the charcuterie. Over the next two to three years we will be building accum. The restaurant that will change everything about the cooks working there, about the service and will make every effort to be great, even if it fails.”
Dramatic, intense, romantic and vague … sounds like Hilbert won’t be changing too much in his new setting.
Reached for comment, Jester King founder Jeff Stuffings confirmed that the group is collaborating with Hilbert on a restaurant on the property in Southwest Austin.
“We’ve had a great relationship with chef Hilbert over the last five years though beer dinners and events, and we’re really excited to have the chance to work with him directly,” Stuffings said. “For now, we’re focused on a more casual, family-friendly restaurant, which we seek to open this year. In the future, we’d like to open a smaller, more focused restaurant that’s an extension of our nascent farm. The latter would have a multi-year timeline.”