How a Texan Chef is Making his Mark on Auburn

Chef David Bancroft puts his Texas-sized stamp on Auburn.

Story by Chtistiana Roussel and Photos by Stephen Devrie

There is a Texas boy crushing it in Auburn. No, we’re not talking about running back Kam Martin or offensive lineman Justin Osborne. The Texan we’re referring to is acclaimed chef, David Bancroft, who hails originally from San Antonio, Texas. And since he first stepped foot on the Auburn campus back in 2001, he has been destined to leave his culinary mark on this town, one that many Homewood residents (and Auburn fans) will happily drive down Highway 280 to enjoy.

 Following his older brothers to Auburn University might have been the last time Bancroft took the traditional and prescribed course of action. He’d intended to get his degree in accounting and finance and return to Texas, but somewhere along the way, he listened to his inner voice—the one obsessed with producing the perfect brisket—and changed the course of his life, one meal at a time. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of dining at either of his Auburn restaurants, Acre or Bow & Arrow, you are oh-so-very happy he abandoned the spreadsheets and P&Ls for comeback sauce and black Angus beef tartare.

To be sure, Bancroft has achieved a level of success that most former fraternity house ‘kitchen stewards’ might only dream of. He crushed it on Iron Chef Showdown, beating his competition handily, and has been a James Beard Foundation Award semifinalist four times—no small feat for an Auburn-based chef. But it is his work away from the stove that might satisfy him even more than the industry accolades.

In a world of bad boy chefs and those with egos the size of well, Texas, Bancroft is one of the good guys. He and his wife, Christin, have made a point of establishing a culture at Acre and Bow & Arrow that is almost counter to anything you ever read in Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential memoir. “Every Wednesday, we host a small group (Bible study) here at Acre,” Bancroft says. “It is open to anybody, not just our team.” While Bancroft worked in a number of other restaurants before opening Acre, a Bible study was not something he witnessed in other kitchens. He adds, “One of the hardest things to talk about in the restaurant industry is how to love people. And my wife and I wanted to make sure that we had that here. That people know that we love them for working with us, not for us. This place is an extension of family, an extension of the community. We really have to live that.”

When asked what that looks like in practice, Bancroft has a few answers, but most distill down to the sense that being a Christian, and how that gives he and his wife a foundation for providing an environment that supports their staff.  There’s talking the talk, but then there’s walking the walk when he says, “When we first opened this restaurant, we had the standard (practice) of staff drinks after service—just go to the bar and get a drink—but it didn’t feel like it was the direction I wanted to go in, with my staff. So, not long after that, I just instituted a no-drinking-at-work policy.”

He and Christin are clear about how they aim to live up to these standards: “We’re not asking anybody to be a Christian; it is just what informs our decision-making process, to protect our staff. It provides an environment that does protect them. We also want to speak to our staff better, be available for them more. We wanted to dig deeper with people.”  

   That spirit of digging deeper extends beyond the four walls of the restaurants as well. The Bancrofts have helped spearhead numerous philanthropic events, and the chef is always willing to step up and assist fellow chefs in their efforts as well. Just this past April, he partnered with Top Chef winner, Kelsey Barnard Clark, to raise more than $30,000 for Lee County Tornado Relief, which is as local as it gets. Their Bourbon & Beef Family Supper showcased some phenomenal Brasstown beef entrées and more than a few bourbon-infused creations. The team created a signature cocktail for the evening, the “Goodbye Earl” (see sidebar).

Lucky for us, it looks like this Texas boy has put down deep Alabama roots and is here to stay. We couldn’t be happier

What’s in a name? Why Acre?

That is an easy question to answer as the restaurant sits on an acre of land. Not content with simple boxwoods and Zoysia grass, Bancroft and his team have transformed much of the property into an agricultural goldmine. “When you walk up to the front door, you’ll see Meyer lemons, blackberries, Arbequino olives, and apples growing by the fence,” he says. “We’ve got plums growing up the other side and peaches in the back by the apartments. There are pears in the median by the valet stand, figs and persimmons in the corner, and a watermelon patch. Blueberries run up by the gas station, and guava grows behind the building. A bay laurel tree was planted by the exhaust for the A/C units, which keeps it wintered over. There’s lemongrass over there as well. We have satsuma oranges growing behind the fireplace in the hearth, which keeps them warm in winter. And there are four raised beds with tomatoes and herbs in them.” Christin adds, “It has been interesting to notice that a lot of our plants bloom and produce earlier than in surrounding areas, and we think it is because it is in a parking lot which keeps the whole area warmer. Last year, we had peaches almost a full month before anybody else.”

Bow & Arrow—a Texas version of the Alabama meat & three

Bow & Arrow is THE spot for some of the best smoked meats anywhere. Bancroft prides himself on perfecting practices that produce the best quality entrées for generations. “There are certain things that are just nostalgic to me, and growing up in Texas that is smoked meats,” he says. Come hungry to Bow & Arrow, and don’t rush through the line where you’ll select from a veritable potluck supper’s worth of side selections. But save room for dessert—Christin suggests ordering Memaw’s Chocolate Éclair. She notes, “It is not your standard French-style éclair, like a filled pastry. Growing up, this was a dessert that my Memaw made just for me—it was MY DESSERT—and it never had another name. But it is so simple, with only three ingredients: French vanilla pudding, graham crackers, and this homemade fudge on top. That is literally it. It is like a deconstructed éclair.”


RECIPE

Chicken Fried Quail with Honey Hot Sauce

Quail and Brine
4 whole quail
6 Tbsp. salt
2 Tbsp. sugar
2 Tbsp. garlic powder
1 gallon water
3 cups ice

Dissolve all seasonings into 1 gallon of warm water. Add 3 cups of ice to chill. Add the quail, and refrigerate overnight.

To fry the quail:
Remove quail from the brine and place directly into chicken fry mixture. Fry in oil until golden brown or until internal temperature reaches 165°. Top with pecan streusel and honey hot sauce.

Chicken Fry
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
2 tsp. kosher salt
2 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. black pepper
1 tsp. paprika
1/2 tsp. thyme

Pecan Streusel
1 1/2 cup pecans
1 cup brown sugar
½ cup sugar
2 Tbsp. all purpose flour
2 tsp. kosher salt
2 oz. butter

To make the streusel:
Pulse all ingredients except butter in food processor until a crumble forms. Do not over mix. Remove from processor, pour into bowl, and mix butter in by hand. Bake at 350° on a baking sheet for 7 minutes.

Honey Hot Sauce
1 cup local Wildflower Honey
2 Tbsp. Crystal Hot Sauce

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