Chef Steve McHugh moved from New Orleans to San Antonio in 2010, when he balanced opening a new restaurant with treating his newly diagnosed lymphoma. It’s a success story on both fronts, as he beat cancer and quickly made a name for himself in San Antonio’s growing culinary scene.
Two years later, he opened his own restaurant, Cured, named as a nod to cured meats and to food’s curative properties. This celebrated restaurant netted McHugh a couple of James Beard nominations and cemented his place as one of the city’s best chefs. Now he’s taken all of that experience — plus a childhood informed by growing up on a farm in Wisconsin — and channeled it into a new project.
Landrace opened one year ago inside the Thompson San Antonio, a 20-story upscale hotel that sits above the River Walk. The restaurant’s kitchen is anchored by a Grillworks wood-fired grill, where McHugh and his team can lovingly coax big flavors out of proteins and vegetables, like a Berkshire pork chop with chipotle-lime butter, grilled oysters with charred lemon, and coal-roasted carrots.
The term “landrace” refers to heirloom plants or animal breeds that are allowed to evolve over time without interference, taking on certain traits indicative of the area. Plants may become better suited to their growing environment, while animals may take on the flavors and character of their surroundings. McHugh based his concept around this idea and his belief that food tastes better when it’s prepared and served near where it was grown or raised.
He first heard the term years ago from another chef. “I looked it up and thought it was a really cool way to think about things,” he says. “I’ve always been focused on heritage breeds and heirloom varietals, but never thought about things that get better over time due to place. I wanted to look at what Texas has to offer.” He cites the state’s year-round growing seasons, a diversity of foods that can be found and foraged, and responsible farming and ranching that’s symbiotic with the land.
“The farmers and ranchers dictate what I have on my menu rather than the other way around,” says McHugh. He admits that, in some cases, it would be easier to find purveyors who could source whatever he wants from around the country. But he trusts the surrounding land and its farmers to provide the freshest, best-tasting products. “You can raise a Berkshire pig in a barn on concrete, but it won’t taste as good as a pig that’s raised outside and allowed to be a healthy, happy animal.”
During the pandemic, McHugh learned that there’s also a competitive advantage to working with local farmers and suppliers. “Your supply lines aren’t as choked off,” he says. “These aren’t just business relationships, they’re personal, and that works to our advantage. When times were really tough, I could count on these people to continue to support us and provide really good products.” In turn, he supports them the best way he can, by showcasing their products on his seasonal menus. That includes everything from heritage pigs and Texas cattle to quail eggs, black garlic, edible flowers, and Bloody Butcher corn.
Over the past decade, McHugh has enjoyed his well-deserved reputation as the state’s foremost charcuterie guy, but Landrace has allowed him to stretch his wings with the wood grill and smoker, and by featuring seafood in ways he wasn’t doing before. He’s also hoping to champion San Antonio as a destination for more than just Tex-Mex.
“It’s an amazing part of our city and culinary culture, but it’s become what everyone thinks we are,” he says. “It’s an unfortunate circumstance of some shortsighted marketing throughout the ’80s and ’90s. Chefs in the city scream from the rooftop that we’re more than just Tex-Mex. We embrace the history and culture, but there’s so much more going on here than what you might realize from the outside looking in.”
This article was featured in the InsideHook Texas newsletter. Sign up now for more from the Lone Star State.