The aroma of fresh herbs and meats cooking on the stove was inescapable Wednesday afternoon thanks to the employees of Dai Due butcher shop using the shared kitchen space of Spirited Food Co. Wednesday is hog day, and they had 272 pounds of meat to make into breakfast sausages, salted pork and smothered pork chops in spring onion gravy for the farmer’s market on Saturday.
Dai Due owner Jesse Griffiths was easy to spot as the lone man among his all-female coworkers, sporting a frizzy, copper-colored beard and colorful tattoos that are partially covered by his shirt sleeves.
The tattoos depict some of his favorite things to eat — a redbreast sunfish and blackberries.
“And they’re both native to Texas,” Griffiths added, turning his bicep slightly to give a better show of the ink. “You can find these things locally.”
Local is a keyword in Dai Due’s mission. The name comes from an Italian adage, “Dai due regni di natura, piglia il cibo con misura,” or “From the two kingdoms of nature, choose food with care.” The butcher shop is Griffith’s way of serving Austin residents meat prepared with traditional methods.
“We only use what’s locally made, and we also try to go back to the traditions of the people who have settled here, like the Cajuns, Mexicans, Germans and Southeast Asians,” Griffiths said. “Each wave of immigrants contributed to our food culture and made a profound influence in how we view food.”
Not only did these immigrants contribute to the medley that makes up American cuisine, but they also used their resources efficiently, he said. In comparison, Americans tend to waste by not using all parts of the animal.
Purchasing locally grown and raised food means Dai Due can only pursue what’s in season in Texas. The menu for the farmer’s market changes each week depending on this. A particular sausage in the winter won’t be the same sausage in the summer because the seasoning will be different, Griffiths said. Some Cajun and Mexican influences can be seen in this week’s menu, which includes wild boar chorizo and egg tortas, crawfish boudin balls and game hens with spring herb butter.
A small sign hanging in Griffith’s office reads, “A messy kitchen is a happy kitchen.” That particular afternoon, the tables pushed together were covered with blocks of cheddar, trays of spring onion stalks and their chopped bulbs, jugs of maple syrup, coffee mugs, chicken thighs and lard. On the stove, pots of whole rabbits, bison tongue and ham hocks sat simmering.
Griffiths sliced the spring onions with an gentle yet swift precision, his dexterous hands comfortable and experienced with a knife. It’s a reflection of the accumulated years he’s spent in the food industry.
It’s been five years since Griffiths started Dai Due as a roving dinner club, but his experience in the food industry goes back to his high school years in Denton as a busboy employed by two to three restaurants at a time. He didn’t come from a strong cooking culture at home, though, growing up on fried chicken, frozen pot pies and fish sticks.
After moving to Austin in 1998 when he was 23, he dabbled as a baker and a line cook and used the money he saved to travel to Italy, France and Spain where he worked as a farmer and hotel chef.
“The way food is traditionally handled in Europe is very different from here,” he said. “They try to get the best product while doing the least to it, versus here where we try to make the cheapest product by doing the most to it.”
During this period in his mid-twenties, his restlessness drove him to travel back and forth between the two continents, and it was in Venice that he had the life-altering meal that would change his philosophy on cooking. While working at the luxurious Boscolo Hotel Dei Dogi one January, he observed a chef cooking fish caught from the lagoon with arugula and radicchio, two leafy vegetables commonly used in Italian cuisine.
“When I saw it, I thought there was nothing to it, and it was ridiculous he was serving it at a fancy place,” Griffiths said with an air of bemusement. “There was just a bit of lemon and some olive oil because Italians cook everything in olive oil. Then, as I was eating it, I realized that was real cooking right there, so beautiful in its simplicity.”
Griffiths brought that minimalism back to Austin when he opened Dai Due. Like the chefs in Venice who rode gondolas to the fish market and used whatever was grown in their city, Griffiths also wanted to feed people in a way that was intimate to the natural source — using fish caught in the Gulf of Mexico, citrus from the Rio Grande Valley, vegetables grown in Travis County and wine produced in the Hill Country.
The full-time staff at Dai Due is a close-knit, four-person crew. They bantered with fondness toward each other while songs by The Strokes played from speakers, courtesy of one of the employees, Morgan Angelone. With her short brown hair pulled back under a headband, Angelone somewhat resembles Rosie the Riveter — except this Rosie could skin a wild boar.
Angelone helps teach classes offered by Dai Due that promote sustainability. A few weeks ago, Dai Due gave a hog workshop at Madrono Ranch in Medina, about two and a half hours away from Austin, where she and Griffiths educated people on how to hunt, cut and cook wild boar.
The biggest challenge in gathering food directly from the source is that Dai Due lies at the mercy of uncontrollable variables, such as farmers forgetting orders or poor weather affecting crops, Griffiths said. Despite the occasional frustration of things not going as planned, it’s something he’s learning to accept.
Griffiths hopes to expand Dai Due in the future to have its own physical butcher shop, more educational classes and possibly the opportunity to cook for a homegrown celebrity.
“I want to cook for Willie Nelson,” he said firmly. “And I sure hope Willie Nelson reads The Daily Texan.”
WHAT: Dai Due Butcher Shop
WHERE: Farmer’s Market at Republic Square Park, 4th and Guadalupe Streets
WHEN: Saturdays, 9 a.m. - 1 p.m.