People 2015: Misti Norris Works on the Cutting Edge of Meat

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In this week's Dallas Observer we profile 20 of the metro area's most interesting characters, with new portraits of each from local photographer Can Turkyilmaz. Click here to find all our People Issue profiles.

From the first taste of her grandmother’s boudin, Misti Norris knew she wanted to cook. “It blew my mind,” she says of the traditional Cajun sausage. “That’s one of the first things she taught me how to make.” She started learning everything she could about cooking and took her first food job at a retirement home in Cedar Hill. “It was fun because I got to hang out with all the older people and listen to really cool stories,” she says, “but it’s something I probably wouldn’t do again.”

And she won’t have to: Since then she’s worked her way through a string of increasingly impressive positions at critically praised restaurants, such as Nonna, Bijoux, FT33 and now Small Brewpub in Oak Cliff, where she’s head chef.

She accomplished all of this without formal training. She did go to culinary school in Dallas briefly but dropped out after a few courses. Instead, she has learned from mentors in the industry. At Nonna she began learning charcuterie and butchery. “The first thing I made was lardo,” she says. “I thought it was the coolest thing, and for some reason I’d always had this interest in butchery.” Then David Uyger at Lucia showed her how to break down a whole pig. “After doing that a couple times, I was addicted to it,” she says. When she got to FT33, she was in charge of butchery and the charcuterie program.

Six months ago she opened Small Brewpub with Joshua Dawn and fellow FT33 alum Benj Pocta. “This has allowed me a space to do what I’ve always wanted to do,” she says. Her partners have given her the creative license to work with unusual ingredients like chicken feet — and her favorite, pig tails. They hope to eventually expand Small, potentially to include an adjacent butcher shop that will “encompass my quirky personality but still put out a really awesome product,” she says. (For a hint of that quirky personality, look no further than her pet snake, Mosh Pit.)

Small has been getting lots of positive attention since it opened, and much of it centers on the novelty of Norris, 29, being a young woman who’s into butchery. “I don’t like the fact that I’m being grouped in or almost put in this category based on me being a woman,” she says. “I’ve busted my ass for years and found something I really love. But at the same time I think it’s meant as a compliment.”

At the end of the day, she wants to be known for her work. Right now she’s obsessed with fresh charcuterie, like pâtes, and cultured butters. “I’ve got six different cultured butters right now that are aging.” Given how closely she works with meat and animal products, you might be surprised to learn that Norris was a vegetarian for five years. “I couldn’t even eat eggs. The texture disgusted me,” she says. But for health reasons she made a complete reversal. “I have such respect for animals. A lot of what I do is making sure their lives meant something, that they’re not just going to be wasted.” 

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