This Chef Limits His Ingredients—With Amazing Results

Austin’s Jesse Griffiths goes for months without lemons and onions when they're not in season. It's all part of his vision to create a regional, sustainable cuisine.

Critics greeted Austin’s Dai Due with wild acclaim because it does something new, and it does it deliciously: The majority of ingredients used in the restaurant are grown in Texas. We’re not just talking local kale and farm eggs. For months on end, chef Jesse Griffiths and his team cook without onions, because Texas has yet to yield onions that will keep all year. Ditto for lemons—when they’re not in season, he finds other sources of acidity. Something on his display counter that looks like a classic French pain au chocolat most certainly isn’t: Since chocolate doesn’t grow in Texas, the pastry is filled with mesquite beans. The restaurant doesn’t own a can opener. But this chef, known for foraging in odd places, doesn’t sacrifice flavor: Bon Appétit named it a “Best New Restaurant” last year.

In 2014 he and his wife, Tamara Mayfield, opened Dai Due, two words from an Italian proverb: From the two kingdoms of nature, choose food with care. Its roots reach back to 2006, when Griffiths and Mayfield sold breakfast and meats he butchered and cured himself at the farmers market downtown. Soon they started hosting supper club meals at urban farms. His dedication to sourcing sparked a movement to connect farmers and ranchers directly with Austin restaurateurs, laying the local groundwork for other farm-to-table restaurants that would follow. Now Dai Due is connecting its customers directly to food sources: it offers classes on hunting, fishing, and even whole-hog butchery—participants make sausage right on the spot. In 2012 Griffiths published Afield, a lyrical guide to cooking wild game and fish, which was nominated for a James Beard award.

How did you come to your philosophy of sustainable food?

Visiting other countries. In southwest France, they’ve got this beautiful cuisine, totally based in what they have there. Same in Morocco or Vietnam. I was working at a restaurant where we just served whatever we wanted, and I wondered why we didn’t appreciate that ethos. Why we couldn’t just see what our ingredients were and then try to, backwards, come up with a food culture here. Texas is German and Mexican and Vietnamese already. We could use techniques and ideas from all those cultures and apply them to our local ingredients.

Simply put, I’m trying to make good food using only our local resources. We’ve got a lot of different people living here, and that’s been the best thing that ever happened to us—culinarily and culturally.

You were doing local food before local food was cool.

That’s not quite true. It’s probably the oldest idea known to man. Throughout the country, there was kind of a resurgence.

Sourcing locally—is that a viable model?

It’s a work in progress. It’s not without its flaws, like distribution and law of volume on return. Why are we driving around 40 pounds of produce when we could be driving around 40 tons? We need to hit critical mass as far as efficiencies. In the end, I feel that the local food systems are going to be the most sustainable. But there’s only one way to find out.

People commonly associate a vegetarian diet with sustainable living, but this is Texas.

It depends on where you are. Ask the Comanches—we’re sitting at the heart of Comancheria. They ate hardly any vegetables, hardly any fish, hardly any birds. They were just meat eaters.

Meat can absolutely be integrated into a sustainable model. By no means am I saying that the current model of meat production in the world is sustainable. It’s abysmal. It’s a crime. But we feel that animal husbandry is just part of our culture; it’s the cornerstone of our local food system.

Our oldest cultural food—the iconic food—is barbecue. It would sustain people through their workdays. Now it’s a treat, or it should be, and it’s evolved, but it’s a good example of how meat factors into our culture because it’s what’s here: wood and animals.

If I was in Vermont, Northern California, or Florida, it would be different. There would be more dairy in one place, tons of vegetables in the other, and more seafood in the other.

There’s another sustainable angle, and that’s food waste. How do you approach it?

I cut all the ends off these pineapple guavas earlier to make a chutney, and I dropped the ends in vinegar to make a flavored vinegar. We respect food too much to waste anything. Our menu right now has chicken hearts, chicken skin, chicken feet, chicken wings, and chicken livers. I like to go all-in.

What’s special about Austin as a setting for what you do?

Austin is conscientious and educated about things like this. And Austin has heritage, a distinct advantage of being in an agricultural, ranching state. A mistake in appealing to people to eat food that is more trustworthy is to take the new angle instead of the old angle. This is the way our families—our grandparents, our great-grandparents—ate, the way that they stewarded the land. This is why we serve burgers and hot dogs and chicken-fried things. And okra. And biscuits and gravy and enchiladas.

We actually live in a really amazing growing region. It's hard [to cultivate]. But if you look at the world, how many places are like the Ligurian Coast in Italy, or Northern California, where it’s just paradise? This is Texas. It's a little rougher. I always use the Native American metaphor: The indigenous tribes in Napa were gatherers who just went around and picked avocados. Here we had the Comanche, who would open up a vein on their horse and drink their blood to stay alive for a couple more days.

You now teach hunting. What's the role of hunting in our modern food culture?

It’s like going to the farmers market. It’s just a way of getting food. I am not going to say it’s not a hell of a lot of fun too, because it is. Hunting is an excellent way to remember where food comes from, and it’s another source: You can have a garden, you have the store, you can have the forest. It’s all tied in.

We have, in Austin, kind of disassociated from hunting. Gun culture took hunting culture away from where it needed to be, which is food culture.

Is there one ingredient that doesn’t grow in Texas, but you really wish it did?

Pineapples. That said, I’ve got a pineapple growing in my yard. I cut the top off of one and I planted it, but I don’t think it’s going to make a pineapple.

How challenging is it to cook with virtually only local ingredients?

You have a limited palette to choose from, and it’s so much easier. It makes you cook more simply.

What’s with the feral hog on the menu?

They’re invasive. They’re incredibly destructive. Their population is booming. They require no input. That’s the biggest part: We don’t have to house them, feed them, give them medicine. We don’t have to do anything for these mean-spirited little delicious animals that are just out there tearing up our water supply, eating baby deer, and digging up crops. That’s not just a win-win. That’s like a win-win-win-win.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Follow Austin-based author Beth Goulart Monson on Twitter.

This article is part of our Urban Expeditions series, an initiative made possible by a grant from United Technologies to the National Geographic Society.

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