6/12/2013 11:57:00 AM

A Chat With Swift's Attic's Zack Northcutt

Photo courtesy Swift's Attic
The good-natured, talented sous chef at Swift’s Attic has quite the resume: Jean Georges, Haddington’s, Mulberry and more. He’s also the king of meat, having helped Banger’s Sausage House and Beer Garden develop their menu and throwing chef potlucks called Meaty Monday Madness that even Bon Appetit took notice of. These days you’ll find him chained to the kitchen at Swift’s, collaborating with chef Mat Clouser (whom we chatted with earlier this year) on creative dishes with wacky ingredients like Pop Rocks and squid-ink emulsions.

Zagat: So you’re a meat guy. Have you always been into cooking?

Zack Northcutt: I’ve found pictures of myself at five years old carrying racks of sausages into the smoker with my mom’s friends in Bryan, College Station. I was raised around barbecue and outdoor parties around bonfires. Just kind of gets in your blood after a while, being in Texas.

I fell into cooking after I fell out of art school and decided to go to culinary school instead.

Zagat: I heard you have a tattoo that says “Praise the Lard.” 

ZN: I used to have a stencil that I would spray-paint dumpsters of restaurants that I liked, and it said “Praise the Lard.” It was a crucified pig. That was for the guys I liked. I was working on another stencil of a four-horseman apocalypse, like instant mashed potatoes and pre-cut onions. That one started getting way too elaborate and I couldn’t do it. I also kind of grew up and stopped spray-painting random things. I figured, Why not get a tattoo?

Zagat: Because you’re so into meat, do you have any advice for people who are trying to work with meat at home or make sausage? 

ZN: Having a good-quality grinder will save your life. Do it again and again and again. Patience. Read the charcuterie book. Read Paul Bertolli’s Cooking by Hand. There’s not a lot of recipes but more methodology, the reasons why you do things certain ways. Don’t pay attention to seasoning recipes. Pay attention to fat and meat ratios. Learn how to get a good textured product that you’re happy with. Once that’s done, you can do whatever seasonings you want to it.

Zagat: Where did this whole Meaty Monday Madness come from? Do you still do that? 

ZN: I haven’t had time to do that in a long time, since we opened here. Back in the day, when I was at Mulberry, I only had one day off a week. And I’d just bought myself a new barbecue pit for my birthday. I threw myself a birthday party and had a whole bunch of people over. So I decided to do it once a month. I would get cases of meat donated or purchase meat, and a bunch of chefs would come by and pick up portions of it and do their own preparation. For the veal one, we had 17 preparations of veal, mostly braised, and nobody remembered to do sides. There was ne’er a vegetable or salad in sight. The month after that we did seafood. And everyone was so scared from the last time that there were 50 sides and not a whole lot of seafood.

I liked being able to get together with my friends and have them cook out of their normal environment. A lot of them are kind of unfortunately limited to what the restaurant wants them to do. They have to stay within a certain zone. But there were definitely a lot of things done at Meaty Monday that ended up on people’s menus. It was a reason to play and get out and have fun, to do something that you don’t have to be judged for. And then two weeks later it’s on the menu somewhere.

Zagat: How has the community of chefs and restaurateurs in Austin changed since then, if at all? 

ZN: Back then most of us were sous chefs and lead lines, whereas a lot of us now are getting the types of positions where we don’t get time off, so it gets harder to do stuff like that. Definitely close-knit, but you almost have to go into somebody else’s restaurant to see them.

Zagat: Do you end up going out to eat a fair amount, because of that? 

ZN: On my one day off, I usually go out. I don’t have any food at the house. Just because I get home at one o’clock in the morning, and I don’t want to cook. Plus I have a hard time cooking for 2 people. I can cook 2 gallons of rice, but a cup of rice? I’m going to burn it or it’s going to be completely soggy.

We go to places like Uchi, Parkside, Musashino, Lenoir, Ramen Tatsu-Ya, Spin Modern Thai. Spin is a little on the cusp of my spicy threshold, but I’ll go for 8 glasses of water and 1 meal.

Zagat: What else do you do on your day off? 

ZN: Laundry. Clean the fish tank, clean the house [laughs]. As far as vacations? We’re going to visit Ben McBride [formerly of Uchi] in Istanbul next month. He’s cooking right on the edge of the Thames in an old palace that’s been converted into a hotel. We’re going to stay in a nice little HomeAway down the street and eat at the palace.

Zagat: Going back to Swift’s, how does the creative process work between you and Mat? For example, how did Pop Rocks get on the menu? 

ZN: Pop Rocks was all his idea. Getting them to not turn into bubble gum before they hit the plate? That was my idea. Mat’s got a lot of great ideas, and they work well for one or two plates. But he likes having me here to focus in and streamline everything so we can do 40 or 50 plates in a night. We bounce it back and forth, lob it across the net a few times, and after six or seven ideas, we come back and actually have a good menu item.

We have six hamburgers that we’re about to try later today, all unusual: a caprese burger, a foie burger, a ham burger with pineapple. I want to do a stuffed burger, because I’ve never done one before. Your Mom’s does an awesome burger. We’re trying to do a special for Monday nights where we’ll have 2 types of burgers on the menu in limited amounts, and they’ll all be off the wall and over the top.

Zagat: Are there certain ingredients that you have a hard time finding here in Austin? 

ZN: I’d like to find some nice farms that could give us standard items, so we can rely on local farms a lot more. We get a lot of stuff from John Lash and source a lot of stuff direct. But those are more specialty items. The microgreens and squashes and pickles that come through. I want to find somebody that grows nothing but carrots. That would be awesome. Other than the beautiful purple crazy ones that we get. Those are great for beautiful garnishes for dishes. But something to make stock with. Johnson’s Backyard Garden is getting close to that volume, and they have great product as well.

Zagat: How have people reacted to Swift’s? You have some wacky stuff on the menu. 

ZN: A lot of people tell me they sit and read our menu with Google out. That’s fine, because with a lot of these menu items, I do too. Working with Jean Georges, I started getting into Asian, but there’s still a lot of cool stuff to learn about. A lot of people get it. I have a friend who lives in Dallas who isn’t so much of a foodie, and he said it best. He said that everything on the menu is nothing that he would think about making himself, but it’s gotten to the point after two or three dishes that he trusts us.


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