Yolanda Diaz cooked her first meal at 15. “My father taught me to make a traditional American breakfast—bacon, eggs, hash browns and coffee,” she said. “I think he just wanted to make sure I could fend for myself.”
At only 26, Ciao Baci’s new executive chef has seen a medley of continental kitchens. She attended Le Cordon Bleu of Culinary Arts in her hometown of Austin and honed her skills in Washington D.C. before moving to the cathedral town of Albi, France to help jump-start a new restaurant. After only three months in Albi, population 52,000, she was hired at L’Epicuruaen—a trendy, internationally respected fine-dining eatery honored with a Michelin star.
Diaz spent two and a half years in France, learning French in classes and kitchens but “mostly in bars,” she confessed, “because that’s where people talk. I’d tell them I’m from Texas, and they’d get all political, and then we’d have a conversation.”
She also traveled, sampling Italian cuisine in Venice, hitting up mom-and-pop shops in Spanish border towns and exploring the nuances of Belgian pastries in Brussels. Her Ciao Baci menu reads like a travel diary.
There’s Chorizo Matador, a smoky, Spanish pork sausage, “with a lot of heat,” Diaz emphasized. The chorizo is stewed in apple cider and apple cider vinegar and flavored with cherries and dried figs “to make it warm and homey.”
The beef noisette is a tube of seared beef, marinated in hazelnut oil and balsamic vinaigrette, doused with a brie and caper cream. And according to Diaz, the seared duck with fennel and potato terrine, accompanied by Asian cabbage and ginger carrot sauce, is another crowd pleaser.
For dessert there’s fig pastilla, a pastry with sesame seed and orange zest, wrapped in pan-fried filo dough. With the pastilla, Diaz drew heavily on French Moroccan influences.
Before coming to the cozy Hillcrest tapas bungalow in late August, Diaz made pastries for the Capital Hotel’s Ashley’s. Her love of pastries manifests in the tapas she creates. “I like to mix sweet and savory, even in the same dish,” she said.
She changes her menu seasonally, not only because of changes in available produce, but because, “winter food should be heartier, more comforting and sort of home cooked.” She has a visceral, emotional bond with food. “My whole philosophy is love. Food is love, love is food. It gets me excited, it gets me tempted, it strikes all my senses.”