Nowlin’s name is familiar to local food enthusiasts because he won the Chaine des Rotissuers competion for best young chef three years in a row. He started working in professional kitchens at age 14 and discovered his passion for cooking. After attending St. Philips College he went to work for Damien Vatel of Bistro Vatel for over 3 years. Followed by a six year stint at The Lodge working with Jason Dady.
Next came the ultimate dream job as a chef de partie at the French Laundry in Yountville, Calif. The restaurant, under the direction of chef Thomas Keller, has been recognized by many publications as the finest in the country. Chef Nowlin had such admiration for the owner of the NapaValley restaurant, he named his son Keller.
Today Nowlin resides at the Hotel Valencia as the Executive Chef and spends a great deal of time collaborating with other top chefs of San Antonio. Collectively, they create exciting events featuring the finest and freshest foods straight from the garden or farm.
One of those events is the Harvest Feast held at the Hot Wells ruins in San Antonio, Texas. It is annually hosted by Chef Nowlin and Justin Parr, an artist/owner of Fl!ght Gallery at Blue Star. Parr is the inspiration behind the gardens at the Hot Wells ruins.
Initially, Parr and Nowlin prepared and ate the foods they made with the fresh herbs and vegetables. They would always use whatever was currently in the gardens. They thought, this is so damn cool why not share this with friends? Thus the beginning of the Harvest Feast.
Robbie would come over and we would go pick from the garden and we started cooking meals influenced entirely by the produce…these nights of fun turned into the idea for Harvest Feast. – Justin Parr
Chefs drew inspiration from Parr’s 2,000 square-foot garden where you find herbs like thyme, basil, sage, swiss chard, carrots, a variety of onions, fennel, heirloom tomatoes and watermelons ripened by the warmth of the southern sun.
Rich in history, Hot Wells became internationally known as a health resort and spa. Streetcars ran to Hot Wells for a nickel. The days and nights brightened with social events drew hundreds of visitors with concerts, domino parties, swimming, and lectures. The 1904 International Fair and Exhibition at nearby Riverside Park drew even more guests.
The original hotel is long gone, destroyed by a fire. Only the ruins of the bathhouse and the crumbling remains of old tourist cabins from the 1940s remain.
In 1911, Star Film Studios opened on the grounds of the resort. Movie and stage personalities, like Charlie Chaplin, Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks, and Cecil B. DeMile stayed there including President Theodore Roosevelt.
Gambling also prospered at Hot Wells. With betting rooms set up on the first floor of the hotel and in the bathhouse. Guests could even bet on ostrich races. A fulltime bookie was at the resort for hardcore gamblers.
The coming of Prohibition in 1918 and the ruinous Great Depression 11 years later was the demise of the carefree days of Hot Wells. In 1923, the resort was sold to a Christian Scientist group that was used as a school. It burned down two years later. By the 1970s, only a few permanent residents remained in the trailers and the old bathhouse fell into ruins. Nearby residents still dropped by occasionally to soak in the hot springs.
In 1984 an archeological investigation was done by the Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Texas at San Antonio. What they found were the remains of the 1901 hotel building, foundation stones of a small adjacent building and the ruins of the bathhouse.
What remains now, is weeds that grow to the top of the decaying walls riddled with graffiti and broken walkways.
Raising money for the Hot Wells Conservancy was the motive for creating a “festival” style event with tents and live music. – Robbie Nowlin
When we arrived at the Harvest Feast at sunset, the scene was breathtaking. The clouds were a beautiful shade of pink and served as a back drop for the giant sunflowers which surrounded the ruins. There was a serene happiness in the air with the community coming together with huge smiles on everyones faces.
Talented chefs presented their dishes with a reflection of, less is more. Every morsel packed with intense flavor.
What was the appeal of the concept for Harvest Feast?
Honestly, I think Justin and I just wanted to bring the community together for a fun party. We were up in Steam Boat Springs Colorado on a snowboarding trip and it just came to us….”lets do 500 people”(we did a private harvest feast in 2013 for only 60 people) and so we did. Raising money for the Hot Wells Conservancy was the motive for creating a “festival” style event with tents and live music.
What’s it like working with Justin Parr?
Working with Justin Parr isn’t really like “working.” We are philosophically aligned when we pop ideas off each other. It usually goes something like this:
Robbie: “Justin we should get a live hip hop group to come”
Justin: “hell yes”
Justin: “Robbie, I should make a blown glass goblet for the first place chefs prize”
Robbie: “hell yes”
There was not a lot of “no’s” during the planning of this event. Again, us having the same vision on what we wanted the feast to become is really why it went so smoothly.
What was the best experience in bringing all the chefs together?
This is a great question. I loved the dynamic of bringing on chefs that were both restaurant owner chefs as well as chef de cuisines and sous chefs. I think a lot of times, events are thrown, or opportunities to do food and wine events are presented to “chef owners “only. This was HUGE for me to be able to showcase (if you will) chefs who may not get opportunities to display their creative side directly to the consumer.
Disaster stories are the best, do you have a story to tell?
Haha, yes I do. So during one of our meetings leading up to the harvest feast, I wrote down that we needed 500 pounds of ice. When the ice was delivered, the driver came up to me with some ice and asked me “where should I put this”? I replied “when you get it all out of your truck, let me know and I will show you where to drop it off” He said “this is all of it” ….so yeah I ordered 2000 more pounds! Learned a lot from that one.
What is the most essential feeling you took from bringing the community together?
Showing the city how many talented cooks and chefs we have. And the support and opportunities that chefs like Jason Dady, Jesse Perez and Johnny Hernandez have given us. The community as a whole is very grateful.
What inspired you to start a garden at the grounds of Hot Wells?
I used to work heavily with the South Presa Community Garden when I was younger, which got me into gardening. All I had wanted for years was a large garden of my own to experiment with, and eat out of.
How did it feel to see the first spouts of your efforts?
It’s amazing to walk out of my kitchen and pick herbs and veggies to augment whatever I’m cooking at the time. This feeling is contagious…
How did the idea first come about to collaborate with Robbie?
Robbie would come over and we would go pick from the garden and start cooking meals influenced entirely by the produce… these nights of fun turned into the idea for the Harvest Feast.
What was it like working and planning the Harvest Feast Event?
Its a huge event to put on with no dedicated staff other than Robbie, Cindy Taylor (the head of the Hot Wells Conservancy) and myself. Luckily, we are all more than capable of handling it due to our past … Cindy ran the Southside Chamber for many years, Robbie has worked under some of the best chefs in the world, and I’ve run a gallery ( FL!GHT ) that has had a new show open once a month for the last twelve years. This combined background in stress let us easily put this event together.
Do you see this event as a sustainable effort?
Then, Nowlin and Parr invited friends Pokell (Derwin Bios) and Dooley (Brandon McCormick). An experimental, nerd rap duo known as SAPD. Joining them was killer Dj Rasta Mike and together they headlined Harvest Feast.
If only for a short while, we lived in the spirit of Hot Wells past…eating our favorite chefs creations, dancing to conscious hip hop, drinking lavish cocktails and spreading the Love!
Hot Wells Garden Curator, Justin Parr (L) Exec.Chef, Robbie Nowlin (B) Pokell-Derwin Bios (R) Dooley-Brandon McCormick (C) of SAPD
I loved the dynamic of bringing on chefs that were both restaurant owner chefs as well as chef de cuisines and sous chefs. – Robbie Nowlin
The chefs, each with their own tents, food trucks and several bar stations were Christopher Lara (Las Canarias), Stefan Bowers (Feast), Ernie Estrada (Ostra), Mark Weaver (Jason Dady Restaurant Group), Zach Lutton (Zedric’s), Brandon McKelvey (Say She Ate), Jesse Perez (Arcade), Zach Garza (The Fruteria) and Jeff White (Boiler House Texas Grill & Wine Garden), And surprise chef — San Antonio native chef Josh Cross. Cocktails by Javier C. Gutierrez and Joseph Hernandez (Boulevardier Group) and tents for NAO, Rosella Coffee Co., Houston’s Rebecca Masson of Fluff Bake Bar.
Funds from the event go toward the Hot Wells Conservancy with the goal of turning the area into a county park where guests can learn about it’s rich history.
Video: Rick Canfield
Photographer: David Rangel