An Interview with Small Brewpub's Misti Norris, a Woman Kicking Ass in a Dude-Dominated Game
Misti Norris isn't afraid of whole pigs, but eyeballs freak her out.
To say that the culinary world is dominated by men might be the understatement of the century. Even as women continue to make strides in the industry, they're still fighting their way to the top. In Dallas in particular, the number of female chefs is embarrassingly low. But the women working in Dallas kitchens are having no trouble keeping up with the boys.
At Small Brewpub in Oak Cliff, Misti Norris is creating a kind of food hard to find anywhere in the city. Her quirky menu, full of offal and interesting housemade ingredients, is easily one of the most interesting we've seen all year. We sat down to talk with the FT33 and Nonna alum about dropping out of culinary school, working at FT33 alongside Matt McCallister, and what it's like to be a woman in the world of butchery.
How did you get your start in the kitchen?
I started culinary school at the Art Institute and dropped out in my second semester. I never really had much formal education, but from there, I just started working in kitchens and worked my way up. I worked at Nonna for about four years, and after working with Bombaci, it really shaped where I wanted to go. I saw how food could be and how different it could be. After that, I worked at Bijoux while I was waiting for FT33 to open. I also was fortunate enough that David Uygur would let me come hang out when they got their whole pigs in, because that was something that I was really interested in learning about.
What made you decide to quit culinary school?
I had been working in restaurants for a while, and it just didn't seem right for me. I don't think it's a waste of time, but it wasn't something that I wanted to finish. Even when I was at culinary school, I was always told that my food was a little off-the-wall. They'll give you a recipe and you use it as a base, and I would always go off and do something really ridiculous. I had a lot of people tell me that the way that I was cooking just wasn't the way that people wanted to eat. That I wasn't doing things in the right way, especially when I was younger.
I worked at a country club and he was always doing competitions, and I would never get anywhere with those. Chefs would tell me that I had to have sauce, starch, protein and veg, and I wanted to something weird. Because I wasn't sticking to their guidelines, I wasn't accepted. So I just stepped back and kind of accepted that I was going to be a little different than what most people expected.
Seems like FT33 would be a really good place to learn how to do something different. Can you talk about how your food evolved in the time you were working there with Matt McCallister?
It was a great place to be, definitely. Matt is a really great chef, he's very creative. I learned simplicity from him, in a way. If you have good product, don't mess with it too much. His focus was always on not overcomplicating things. I definitely took that in from working there, and I also got more into foraging. It was such a huge part of what they do there, and it really intrigued me. I had done some foraging before, but I started to pursue it on my own time. I'm still learning and finding new spots to search, and that's something that Matt taught me how to do.
That's kind of odd, right? Everything you were cooking at FT33 was very produce-driven, and the menu at Small Brewpub is all about meat.
I have a love for both, but I think my main love is butchery. I love butchering whole animals, I love learning about different cures and hanging times for charcuterie and curing. I really do have a love for meats, even offal and the odd cuts that people don't really eat that often. To me, it's a challenge. It's my challenge to take something that people wouldn't consider to be food and make it taste really, really good. When they try it, I want them to be surprised at how nice something like that can be.
What was your first introduction to butchery?
My love of food started a long time ago. My dad's family is all Cajun, so I was exposed to a lot of things that other people weren't. Like alligator and actually going out and catching frogs for my grandmother to cook. They would buy half-pigs and break them down, and it freaked me out when I was younger, but as I got older, I gained an appreciation for it. The first thing that really shocked me was when I was working at Nonna, and we were doing venison saddles. It's not even a big deal, but it was the first time that I had ever seen a cut of meat that was that big, and still attached to the animal.
Having to butcher that, I was really taken aback. I didn't know how to do it. I hate to admit that I don't know how to do something, especially when I was younger. I was so determined, but that was my first introduction. I started doing some curing when I was at Nonna once Bombaci started letting me do things, and then I asked David Uygur if I could come hang out with him. That was the first time I had ever seen a real, whole pig completely taken apart.
Do you think people don't expect for a woman to be really interested in a field that has been traditionally so male-dominated? The cooking world is already so male-dominated, but butchery has to be even more so.
I don't think it's an odd place for a woman to be, but it is unexpected. I love Mary at Jimmy's Italian Deli, and before we opened, I would go and bring her some of our charcuterie to try and get some feedback. I'd walk in, and Mary would tell all her guys in the back that I was the girl who was curing all that meat. They thought that was crazy, and I think a lot of people do. Breaking down a whole animal is mind-boggling to people anyway, and when that person is a woman, it's even more shocking.
Do you think people underestimated you because of that?
I had a lot of people tell me that this would never work, that my food would never be accepted here. We're all really fortunate because people are really starting to get it. We had people who came in from the beginning, people who knew me from FT33 and the vision that I have, who were ready to try anything. The owners have given me the freedom to really express what I wanted to do, and I've started to gain people's trust. That's a really neat feeling.
Were you surprised about that?
Yes, very surprised. I was totally and completely shocked at the response that people have had to this place. I had done a couple of wine dinners around Oak Cliff before we opened, and immediately I realized that people here are really adventurous eaters. They're not scared to try glands or feet or whatever -- they want whatever I'm working on back there. I appreciate that.
Is there any part of the animal that is too weird for even you to put on a plate?
Eyeballs. I will not. Uh-uh. There are some people that have done things with them, but that's it. I won't even touch them. They freak me out. I'm also really squeamish about blood, which is funny. Animal teeth are weird, too. Touching them is like running your finger across a zipper, so that freaks me out. But you've just gotta get past it and do it. You'll probably never see eyeballs on any of my menus. Probably.
Were there any ingredients that you were weirded out by before you really started to dig into the menu for Small that you love now?
Not really. I've always wanted to do a chicken feet dish. I brought it up at FT33, and it didn't ever really happen. I thought it would be cool to do a take on them that fits this place and my food philosophy.
What about the charcuterie program? How does that process work?
It's at least three months out. At least. That's the bare minimum. I would love to have more time, really. We try to play around a lot with different techniques. We've pretty much gotten our pâtés down, and we make a lot of different sausages and rillettes. I just love rillettes -- fat and meat together is always good. We try to not just do cured meats, we want to throw in different textures and flavors. We did a veal heart tasso ham, and that cures for about two weeks. We get whole goats in, grind them up, season them, and make this mousse-like goatwurst. It's fun, but it's a lot of work. We're kind of doing whatever we want and trying everything back there. One of the partners brought in wildebeest, so I made summer sausage out of it.
Where the hell did you find wildebeest?
He actually has a friend here in Texas who is a big game hunter, and he had the meats certified and processed so that we could use them. It's funny -- a lot of people tell me that their friends hunt hogs, but if they can't be certified and processed properly, we really can't do anything with them. We'll be weird here, but not that weird.
Is it difficult to train your staff in charcuterie? That's a lot of stuff to learn.
We've been lucky in that, because charcuterie is hard. I have one cook who knows a lot about charcuterie because we've worked together, but everyone, including myself, still has learning to do. We just get it done, and that has a lot to do with being able to focus on making the program great. I'm still having to bring people in and train them on the process, because charcuterie has to be done right. I don't want to make anyone sick.
What about the beer that you guys are making at Small Brewpub? Are you involved in that process at all?
Not really in terms of flavors yet, but when there's a new batch, we all try it. It's fun to see how they change throughout the making process. They'll bring different stages of the beer for tastings, and you can see how they evolve. I try to use the byproducts and ingredients, grains in particular, on my menu. I rummage around over here in the brewing area and learn about the ingredients from the brewmaster. I also use the malt pretty often, the sweet and funky flavor works well in the butters and other dishes. We try to use different beers and beer vinegars -- whatever they have, I want to figure out how to use it.
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