I’ve started and stopped writing this post about two dozen times. Working in a real kitchen was exhilarating and so much fun, but at the same time the realization that countless people do the same thing day in, day out with real pressure and consequences puts things into perspective. No one wants to trivialize real line cook’s jobs and hopefully this all won’t come off that way. If you work the line, I now have the faintest understanding of what you do.
Local food guru and all around awesome person Russell Reeves Jr. asked me if I wouldn’t mind lending a hand with his Wild Foods Of Texas pop up restaurant. My response was almost instant: Yes, yes, and yes. I had visited an earlier pop up Russell had done with a Cajun theme, and there I ate the best boudin of my life. All of the options were well-thought out and particularly delicious, and it’s because Russell only sources the finest ingredients for his dishes and the techniques used are well honed. How could anyone who loves food turn down an offer to be part of something so wonderful? As you can see above, the theme for this particular pop up was “Wild Foods of Texas”, so it was likely to get a plate of food with every bit of it sourced from some place in Texas. All of the meat was brought in from Broken Arrow Ranch, which is famous for its high quality free-range venison, antelope, and wild boar meat from truly wild animals. Top notch chefs from around the country use their wares including Emeril Lagasse and Chris Cosentino. Iron Chef America has featured some of their products as the mystery ingredient—twice! Here’s the whole menu with explanations of where it all came from.
Alligator Queso with fresh fried totopos. Alligator was surprisingly hard to find. We finally scored some from Quality Seafood but damn it it was pricey.
Texas-style boudin with smoked Texas longhorn beef brisket, jalapenos and green onions.
Wild Antelope Chili Texas Red-style. We got a big shipment of antelope meat and antelope bones (for stock) This is a genuine Texas Red, damn near impossible to find in Austin these days. Nothing but antelope meat, antelope stock, ground chiles, masa and garlic. It will be available Frito Pie -style for no upcharge. This is Texas damnit!
Braised Wild Boar Hog. After a multi-day brine (a la Michael Ruhlman) we’re going to slow braise this beast in a bath of pork stock, garlic, Texas sweet onions, shallot, and white wine.
Green beans with Texas sweet onion.
Bourbon Chocolate Quattro Leche Pecan Bread Pudding w/100 Grand Bar Creme Fraiche. Yeah.
David Norman, the top baker in Texas, is custom baking some wild Texas yeast bread for us down at Easy Tiger. Pain Au Levain y’all!
There will be a keg of Jester King‘s wild Texas beer Das Wunderkind.
Sounds amazing, right? And the best part is that Russell doesn’t do this to make buckets of money. He keeps the margins of each pop up razor thin so everyone can come out and eat a feast without breaking the bank. Prices ranged from four bucks up to a measly twenty five for a huge plate of boar. So now that I’ve set the background and menu out there, it’s time to get to the event itself.
Tamale House East has been hosting Russell’s pop up gigs for the past few months, and it’s a great fit for us in a few different ways. The place closes down at three in the afternoon, so we show up then and try our best to stay out of the way of the ladies in the back.
Inside, the place was buzzing with energy. When we opened up at six, we already had people waiting in line. After doing two of these, I’ve learned one thing: we sell out of things quickly. All options were 86’d in two and a half hours. The alligator queso went in under 30 minutes or so.
Here’s Russell taking orders and recommending items on the menu. He also ran food out to tables when he had the chance. I guess he was confident that the people working in the back wouldn’t muck things up.
And here’s why Russell was able to play in the front of the house. Nick was a hired gun that does catering and other cooking jobs while he isn’t pumping out prepared food at the Whole Food HQ. It was a real pleasure working along side him and in turn we doled out a lot of high quality grub. When the options ran down to almost nothing near the end of the evening, Nick managed with whip up a flavorful swiss chard with avocado and egg dish on the the fly. The whole event boils down to me working the line constructing plates of food and pouring queso. It was a simple, almost mechanical two and a half hours. There were few questions aside from which food needed to be taken where. At one point I ended up running food out to the tables, which allowed people to throw comments at me. They were all fairly complementary, “Great food!”, “We really loved the chili.”, “The boar was so tender we didn’t need a knife.”. “Could we get some salt?” The last one is something people in the kitchen don’t want to hear. It means we under-seasoned something that’s sitting right in front of a customer. Something they are not enjoying as much as they could be, and that’s the whole point of selling food, right? To give people a food amusement park for their tastebuds. Not using salt correctly is a mistake, and it was addressed in the next pop up.
Out of all of the menu items listed above, this plate was primarily my doing. Braised wild boar with mashed potatoes, green beans with caramelized onions and a thick slice of Easy Tiger bread. Tasting happens constantly when your cooking for other people, but I never got the full flavor of the boar until getting back home later that evening. Despite the wacky amount of boar available in my immediate vicinity my wife and I rarely eat it and thus had nothing to compare it too. This was tender hunks of piggy meat in a rich gravy that managed to complement the gamey flavor profile. It was excellent in my opinion and it made me happy knowing that I had served it to people.
The next pop up was all about a specific breed of heritage pork known as “Large Black” hog stock. The breed also goes by the names Cornwall, Devon, and Lop-eared Black.
The lop-eared name comes from the way the breed’s ears tend to grow forward which can sometimes obscure it’s eyes. If you want a lot of in-depth info on the breed, here’s a link to the Wikipedia article. It’s a neat read with history dating back to the 18th century and a bit where they mention that the Large Black breed almost ended due to changes in the industry, and that in 2011 it was listed under the “vulnerable” category on the watch-list submitted by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, meaning that there are believed to be between only 200 and 300 breeding females. Using info from 2008, there are roughly 300 or so breeding females in America. Getting to cook with pork from a Large Black was a rare treat, and Russell went all out with the menu because of it. These pigs are huge—up to 800 pounds—and are known for their unique flavor.
Bacon Steak (cured & smoked heritage pork belly, confit w/duck fat)
Porchetta (heritage pork belly,handmade chorizo,roasted)
Pork Loin (heritage pork-sous vide,cast iron)
Pork Shoulder Steak (heritage pork-sous vide,cast iron)
Each of the above items came with a dousing of pork demi glace and a sprinkle of chicharron gremolata (hog dust,parsley, garlic, lemon zest). Two sides—sweet potato mash with Vermont maple syrup, brussels sprouts with caramelized Texas sweet onion—and a slice of Easy Tiger bread completed the plate. Other options:
Chile Colorado (heritage pork,pork stock,red chiles,masa,garlic,hominy) totopos
Boudin Sausage (pork, beef, green onion,jalapeno,rice) cracker
Here are Paul C’s pictures of the evening:
This is the motley crew that managed to weather the orders and make it look easy. On the left is Paul C., then me, Russell, Robert and Homer.
Here is Russell doling out thick slices of Porchetta.
And here’s Homer giving them a proper charring before cooking.
Brussels sprouts and caramelized onions.
In the back is the chili, and up front are all of the sweet potatoes we ended up turning into a mash.
People were lining up before we opened the door. The slow trickle of tickets quickly turned into a tidal wave. Russell punctuated each addition with the announcement, “Walking in”, and ended up saying that phrase over and over as we slowly got into our respective grooves. The night just flashed by. All I can remember doing is dancing around the kitchen, doing whatever was needed to get the plates out the door. I poured chili, garnished plates, grabbed band-aids, swept the floor, and cleaned pots. Being that flexible allowed me to concentrate on the smaller details, making sure the T’s were crossed and the I’s dotted. All in all, we did 200+ covers in a little under 2 hours.
I have to say that if I weren’t ridiculously lucky to work at an amazing company with a kick-ass job, manning the line wouldn’t be a terrible option. The thrill of trying to put together the absolute best food possible while maintaining my personal standards of quality and attention to detail cannot be understated. I don’t smoke at all in my day to day goings, but ask Russell and he’ll confirm that I bum a hand-rolled cigarette or two from him after every service.
Yeah, it’s that good.
Thanks to Paul C. and Robert O. for the pictures!