Blind Butcher Chef Oliver Sitrin on the Science of Sausage and Food-Infused Booze
For decades, steakhouses have been the driving force behind the Dallas dining scene. As any experienced local chef will tell you, here, meat is king. Recently, though, an increased focus on lighter, produce-driven dishes has diversified menus and put the city on the radar of national food critics. With his hand-cranked sausages and decadent poutines, The Blind Butcher's chef, Oliver Sitrin, is providing a sharp contrast.
Sausage may be one of the oldest and most common foods in existence, but the links that Sitrin and his staff create from scratch daily barely resemble the average backyard sausage. I sat down to talk with Sitrin about concepting The Blind Butcher, the painstaking process of hand-cranked sausage, and their top-secret new offering.
What made you decide to showcase meat instead of local produce?
Well, we are using local produce and local goods, too. I think they work in tandem together. We're using meat from Local Yocal, produce from Tom Spicer. I think that's just where everyone is trending towards, and that works with my style. I don't waste stuff. I try to use local as much as possible anyway, and I think it goes hand in hand.
But our concept from the beginning was meat-centric, meat-driven, and it goes without saying these days. I want to use what's around, in-season, and what my local producers can bring out. A meat-driven restaurant in a time in a time when everyone seems to be going the other way is just what Matt, Josh, and I dig. That's what we're into. I've always been into big meat stuff anyway, so it was a really great fit. A lot of places that inspired it were also this kind of style.
What restaurants helped inspire the concept for The Blind Butcher?
Well, Matt and Josh would definitely say Easy Tiger in Austin. It's kind of a sausage spot, and their friend owns it. I don't want to list a whole bunch of places, honestly. Some spots in New York, some Colorado places.
Sausage is a huge component of the menu at The Blind Butcher. How long did it take you to hone your sausage-making skills?
I've made sausage for a long time, starting in culinary school. Throughout my career, any time a chef wanted to make a sausage, I was always the one who wanted to jump in and do it. I've collected recipes since culinary school, like late '90s on, and I've always played with it. Perfection is something that we're always striving for. I feel like we have some really rad sausages, but nothing is perfect. We're working every day to make every single link as badass as we can.
What is the most difficult part about making a good sausage?
Everything is. You have to start with the freshest ingredients, you have to season properly, and the meat-to-fat ratio has to be on point. It's a science versus just throwing some shit in a grinder. It's weighing out your meat and fat, or using a fatty cut of meat that you know the ratio is appropriate. Then, seasoning it properly, testing it before you stuff it. The way that I do my sausages, I grind, and season, and test to get them exactly how I want them. Then, I cryovac them and let them rest overnight because that really helps to meld all the flavors together. I feel like that's one of the key points to making good sausage - the patience that it takes to wait until the next day to stuff it, because that really infuses the flavor.
What are your favorite proteins to make sausage with? Are there any that you haven't worked with and want to?
My favorite, of course, is pork. As far as want to? I don't have a steady connection for rattlesnake. Rattlesnake meat is really expensive here. In Texas, there is a rattlesnake round-up where people are, I don't know, paid by the pound to catch rattlesnakes. It does kind of sound awful. Some of the purveyors that we work with sell some that is frozen, but it's just inconsistent. I feel like it would sell here. I want to use everything that we have around us. If it's alive in Texas, I want to eat it. Except maybe armadillos, because they're full of salmonella and that's not good.
Upscale bar food is something that has been tried one million times, and it usually fails. But it seems like you have something different going on here?
I would hope that we were perceived as a gastropub instead of just "upscale bar food" because we already knew when we set out that we were going to make an epic, really cool bar. I just wanted to do some rad food that I like, and it's a good combination of booze and food here. Coming from my background in kitchens, this is really simple food here. This is ramped down from where we were at, all of us. Almost all the kitchen comes from fine dining, and we want to execute things properly. If you're making something with bacon, you make the bacon and do it properly, you know? The food is hot, and fresh, and using as much local stuff as possible.
Do you guys cure and prep every single meat on the menu in-house?
Yeah. We make as much stuff as possible in-house. Pickles, fermenting our own cabbage for sauerkraut. I do our butcher's mustard. I only open one can in the kitchen, and it's for tomato paste. If I could make that myself, I would, but tomatoes are ridiculously expensive. It just doesn't make sense for us.
How did you get hooked up with the guys from Goodfriend?
I live in Lakewood, but I've known Josh [Yingling] for years. Back in the day we used to play video games and drink and stuff, and when he worked at Vickery Park, I would end up over there for drinks. We just kind of kept up. That translated into me meeting Matt [Tobin], and when I was working at The Marquee Grill, they approached me to do some consulting. After that, it just kind of escalated into where we're at right now.
Coming from The Marquee Grill, do you prefer this kind of food more than the emulsions and foams of fine dining, or do you like doing both?
I like doing everything, so it's really tough to balance. I'm wearing a t-shirt right now, and this is the first time I've ever been able to do that for my work uniform. I really enjoy the laid-back atmosphere. It's still a shock on the regular some of the stuff we're allowed to do and be more chill here. But the hardest thing is me translating dishes into this setting because my mind is all over the place, and I'll come up with things and we have to either scale them back, or decide that it would be better for a beer dinner than the regular menu. Back here, we are doing a lot of experimenting and I let my guys do a lot of experimenting. We play a lot, and think about things that will work for the future.
Do you think you'll gravitate toward more of a fine dining focus in the future?
You never know what the future holds, but probably not. We're not shooting for fine dining here. We're wood tables and t-shirts, and we're going to stay at a certain baseline of approachable. I think our food is very approachable, even though we have pig ears and chocolate cake with foie gras. That's just normal to me. We'll always be who we are, and we're not going to change because someone's copying our dishes down the street or there's a new restaurant across the way.
Aside from that chocolate cake dish, foie gras has a pretty prominent place on your menu. A lot of people have ethical concerns about serving it. How do you feel about that?
Well, this is one of those answers that when worded poorly could sound bad, but people have been making foie gras for a long time, you know? They raise those animals, and it serves its purpose, and it's not wasted. From what I understand, animals like to eat. And if you give them a funnel and more food, they're happy. But I really don't have any problem with it, as long as the animal isn't wasted. It is what it is.
What about the logistics of hand-cranked sausages? Was it more difficult to do that on demand than you thought it was going to be?
Yes. It requires a lot more space than one would assume. That's really it. It takes a lot of creativity and planning and a lot of hours of getting guys in here super-early to do what get done. Resting the meat, seasoning them, and then actually hand-cranking them. It takes a lot of scheduling. The pork butt has to be here on this certain day so that we can get it to the right temperature so that we can grind it, season it, mix it and rest it. And all at the right temperature. Everything has to be cold, cold, cold. As cold as you can possibly get without it being rock-solid frozen.
Why is temperature so important when you're making sausage? Was it difficult to get your staff trained on all the intricacies of the process? So that it doesn't all turn into paste. You want different textures of the fat and the meat, and not just all smeared together. Every person I have in the back of the house is a rock-star, and they want to learn. They're dying to do new stuff on the daily. Everyone experiments and tries new things. Brian Bell, one of my sous chefs, he kills it every day. He works his magic on every sausage he twists up. The more you do it, the faster you get at it. We have people to help us, and everyone is really efficient and learning how to be more efficient as much as possible. Regularly, everyone has an idea to make something about the process move faster.
So even for this food that is "simpler" than what's done in fine dining kitchens, there's still this really detail-oriented process?
I wouldn't call our food simple. There's got to be a different word that sounds better than that.
But simple is a good word! Simple means being accessible and good-quality without being overly complicated.
Okay fine, I can agree with all of that.
Are there any elements of what you learned at the Marquee and working with Tre Wilcox that have influenced this menu at all?
Every chef that I've worked with has made an impact on me. The cuisine that I've tasted has influenced this menu and every menu I'll ever put out. That's the thumbprint that every chef that has trained me to do what I do has left on me. Whether that's how a dish is plated or its textural components, every chef has definitely made their mark on this menu.
What about the way that the bar menu and the food work together? Can you tell me a little bit about the planning of how you wanted those two things to complement each other?
Well, we're a killer bar, so we've got to have things that are going to make you drink. We want to use some of the beers and liquors in the food that we're doing. It's just natural for us. I see all these taps and all this liquor, and that's just more ingredients that I need to figure out how to use in my food. Like the Herman Marshall Rye that we're infusing. We just put it into barrels on Tuesday.
What are you infusing it with, or is that a big secret?
We're doing a pastrami rye. It's just natural. I think we were just talking about infusing shit, and we were like "dude, rye bread, pastrami, come on! Herman Marshall Rye, they're from Texas, bada boom bada bing."
So what's in that infusion?
All the stuff that makes pastrami taste good. Garlic, juniper, black pepper corn, coriander, and love.
But no meat?
Maybe. We'll see.
Do you want to do more of that, food-inspired infusions?
Oh yeah. We're going to take it slow for a while, but we have a lot of stuff that we're playing with. But we're not going to put out some shit. We're not going to put it out until we're like "oh yeah, this is it." We're not going to infuse like 15 different things, either. We're going to do one or two at a time, move slowly, and get it down to our science of infusing and using the alcohol in the food in some way. We want to do it right and not just name-drop 15 things on the menu because if it's not good, then who cares.
Did you decide to do the booze infusions just because you like to drink, or because it's a good way to make your bar food come together?
I just thought it'd be cool.
There are definitely some "weird" foods on the menu here, too. Do you think some people come in thinking that they would never eat something like pig ears and walk out the door loving pig ears?
It's definitely happened. I hear "I feed my dog pig ears," and I just think "you're missing out dude," because pig ears are really delicious. I had pig ears for the first time when I was really young, I think. My mom let me try all kinds of food, and it was in Asian cuisine. It was really slimy and a weird texture for the American palate, but they were weird and good at the same time.
You've been open for just a few months, and it already seems like things are moving pretty quickly for Blind Butcher. What can we expect in the next year?
I'm glad that you guys think that it's moving quickly, but I feel like we're trying to go slow. In the next six months, it's going to get real hot, and we're going to try to lighten up the menu a little bit.
How do you plan to do that?
Whatever the ingredients tell me to do, I'm going to do. The food will speak to us as a team, and we'll go from there. I just threw a new poutine on the menu, which is pretty light as poutine goes. Our shrimp poutine is really spring-y, and oh my gosh, delicious. For french fries covered in stuff, it's a much lighter poutine than say, the duck poutine. We're going to re-tool with what we have available. We're going to do some stuff with melons and when the tomato prices are right. We're always going to have sausages in the house. We're working on some lamb and some goat, but I don't want to freak people out right away. People were already a little reluctant to try some of these things, but I wanted to put a lot more Texas stuff on the menu.
How do you feel about that reluctance to try something weird on the menu?
It just gives you insight into people who enter your facility. Some people are freaked out by some stuff that we would think would be simple, like pig ears. People have also asked me what a vegan hot dog is, so I don't know.
What gave you the idea to do that, put a vegan sausage on the menu? Obviously you are not a vegetarian.
Matt's wife is a vegetarian, my sister is a vegetarian, and I have an adopted sister that is partially vegetarian. I promised all of them that we would have a vegetarian option. We started with the vegan hot dog and moved on to a changing vegetarian selection because it just got stagnant. It got boring, honestly. I changed the vegan hot dog four or five time, and it's really tough for a meat-eater to think that a vegan hot dog is really great.
What do you even make a vegan sausage with?
Vegans. Actual vegans. Before, we started out doing a sausage with vital wheat gluten, chickpea flour, black bean, rice, mushrooms, beets, and lentils, and there were ten seasonings in it. There were a lot of ingredients, and it was a pain. You then had to steam it in its own foil package because you don't want to expose it to grease or anything. We were also putting it on baguette because it's vegan, and I just thought our hot dog bun was so much better. We start with a vegetarian option, but can make it vegan to keep things interesting. But with a name like The Blind Butcher, you'd think...
Yeah, I don't think I could see a lot of vegetarians walking through the door on purpose.
You'd be surprised, but that's why we have really rad salads. There is nothing wrong with any of our salads, they're awesome. I felt that was good, to have an entree salad for a vegetarian that can be vegan. It's important. I know some people who won't go to a restaurant if it doesn't have a vegetarian option, so it matters.
It does seem like the menu covers all kinds of bases - if you're drunk, you can get a snack, or you can have dinner. Was that intentional, or did it just kind of come together that way.
When working on the menu, my idea was to cover a lot of bases. A lot of snacks for chilling, drinking, hanging out with friends. Poutines for when you're already drunk and partying and you want to keep partying. You just grab that poutine and you're ready to go. It's all about sharing. Dining is an experience with the whole table. Everyone should be trying everything.