Rebecca Meeker and June Rodil met when they were just 18 and 19, working shifts at the Driskill Hotel in downtown Austin—Rebecca in the kitchen and June as a cocktail waitress—and their time at the hotel sparked a friendship and partnership that has stayed strong over 15 years, as they each made their own way in hospitality. Both Texans, Rodil followed wine and earned her Master Sommelier diploma, while Meeker cooked around the globe—San Francisco, then New York and Taipei for Joël Robuchon.
Meeker and Rodil, now 35 and 36, finally teamed up again in Austin, most recently at the newly reopened and revitalized classic spot Jeffrey's, a Best of Award of Excellence winner. Rodil serves as the wine and beverage director for McGuire Moorman Hospitality Group, of which Jeffrey’s is the flagship restaurant, while Rebecca is the executive chef for both Jeffrey’s and its sister restaurant, Josephine House. Editorial assistant Sara Heegaard spoke to the pair about the evolution of the Austin dining scene, the benefits of working with friends, and the increasing presence of female leadership in the restaurant world.
Wine Spectator: What is the general feel of the Jeffrey’s neighborhood of Clarksville?
Rebecca Meeker: Clarksville is a historic neighborhood west of downtown. Until recently, everybody had lived here forever that was in the neighborhood, but now there’s lots of growth. There [are] a lot of people who walk their dogs right by the restaurant every day, and we know all of the dogs’ names.
June Rodil: We’ll have goody baskets or cookies for the neighborhood [during the holidays], and we go door-to-door and drop off coffee for them. I mean, it’s old Austin, you know?
WS: How did you strike a balance for rebranding Jeffrey’s, a neighborhood staple, in terms of its menu and wine list?
RM: Old Jeffrey’s was very southwest. We had a crispy oyster with habanero vinaigrette and mango and pico de gallo, and that was a signature dish. And we kept those [dishes]—we just made them our own. We added a section of the menu which is all beef—we have a Texas beef which is called Beeman Ranch, with a 32-day dry-age on it, large-format, different cuts, and then an 8-oz. Wagyu filet.
JR: I remember having my first fancy date with my ex-boyfriend at Jeffrey’s in 1998—that’s what you did. There was definitely that push to do a three-course meal, and I think [now], there’s definitely more of a choose-your-own-adventure style of menu. To me, I feel that dining is going into that direction. In Austin, they love the casual luxury lifestyle, but they don’t want to feel the weight of a 22-course meal.
WS: What is your general approach to matching food and wine at Jeffrey’s?
JR: After 15 years of knowing each other, as a sommelier, it is amazing to be working with a chef like Rebecca. If I say something like “Rebecca, please don’t put something spicy on it,” she’ll be like “OK, I get it!” I don’t know how many somms and chefs do this, but I’ll actually go to her house and we’ll have dinner and we’ll pop open things that she hasn’t had before, so there’s a level of trust that I think a lot of people don’t get to experience.
WS: Do you have a favorite food and beverage pairing on the menu at Jeffrey’s?
JR: Rebecca has some lofty white Burgundy fetishes! I have a dish, the shellfish risotto, and I eat it with a white Burgundy—a premier cru Chassagne-Montrachet is bomb.
RM: One of my favorite food and wine pairings at Jeffrey's is our seared Hudson Valley foie gras with rum-roasted pineapple, savory French toast, watercress and fennel salad paired with Royal Tokaji 2008 5 Puttonyos. It's not as waxy as Sauternes, but has the same sweetness to balance the intense savory notes of the foie, complements the natural sweetness of the pineapple, but still doesn't overpower the freshness of the salad.
And at Jeffrey’s, I also like to have a martini and the beef tartare.
WS: What would you say the effect is of including more female leadership on a dining team?
JR: There are many guests that still expect a male somm, but I think it’s important to be a woman and to be recognized as the beverage director of a large group. So when they do walk in to one of our restaurants, there isn’t ever that question of, “Where is the male sommelier? Where is he, the person who does this great wine list?”
RM: For me, as a chef at Joël Robuchon in New York, I just put my head down and worked really, really hard for the next five years of my life. Then, when I came back to Austin, I managed [a kitchen] as I was managed in a very male-dominated kitchen. Not until I got to Jeffrey’s did I really feel comfortable with being a woman in the kitchen and being myself. Looking back and seeing that what that I had done in the past was not really who I was. You have to make a conscious decision to be like, “Wow, that looks funny on me because I’m a really nice person, and I don’t like to yell a lot.”
I have a female sous chef right now, and she is super strong, she can cook circles around the boys.
WS: Do you have any advice for other chefs and wine directors working together?
JR: Go out to eat and enjoy each other’s company. We cook a lot together and have dinner, so we’re constantly learning more and more about each other’s palates as we have more and more experiences outside of work. When we get to work, we can be completely honest about what she feels about what’s on the plate and how I feel about what’s in the glass and how they’re going to work together.