Editor's Note: As Austin continues to grow and thrive as a culinary epicenter, we’ve seen certain big-name chefs achieve demigod celebrity status. But in kitchens, bars and restaurants across the city, there is so much more talent that often goes unrecognized. Next in Line is a column celebrating the back-of-the-house heroes who might just be the next household name.
Name: Nox Ybarra
Kitchen: Salty Sow
Position: Executive Chef
Hometown: San Antonio, Texas
CultureMap: When did you first start cooking?
NY: That is something I did at a very young age. My mother and father both worked two jobs when I was younger, so it was me and my little sister, who is two years younger. I was cooking a lot as a kid — 8 years old when I started.
Fideo was my first dish. A lot of Latin [flavors inspired] my cooking when I first started. I always had a passion for it. It was always just real fun, exciting. I work 60 hours a week, and it doesn’t really feel like work to me half the time because it’s what I live to do. I guess it’s always something I’ve had in me.
"It’s pretty fortuitous to be able to be here and to lead the way and, at the same time, still have Yoda up there, you know, schooling me." — Nox Ybarra on Chef Harold Marmulstein
CM: What was your first cooking job?
NY: Does McDonald’s count? That was kinda my first gig.
I started off cooking —well, not really cooking — when I was about 18. My first kitchen job was a scratch kitchen called Sea Island. I started off washing dishes there, then worked up to the fryer, worked the grill. I worked there for about three years, and then my roommate at the time was in between classes and didn’t know what to take. I told him about culinary school, and then I pretty much got my education through him! He wasn’t really into it, but I was all about it. I was reading the books, and I was making his projects.
CM: What are some other places you've cooked?
NY: I had a list of places I was going to apply, and at the top of my list was Boudro’s on the River Walk (in San Antonio). I almost didn’t even go. I was with my cousin, and we were walking by, and I said, “That’s where I really want to work.” He said, “Go apply!” and I said, “Nah, nah … I don’t have experience to work there.” He said, “You never know!” And I got hired on the spot!
I was super, super excited. I worked there for four years, and then I went to go work with Mark Bliss at Silo. I worked at both [locations in San Antonio], and I got really, really good there. There was a period where I was working two jobs, and that’s how I met Harold [Marmulstein] from The Roaring Fork. I worked there for about six to eight months — not very long — but right away, we hit it off, we clicked. He left, and then I left … but for three years, we kept in touch.
CM: How did you end up at Salty Sow?
NY: When [Harold] signed a deal with [Salty Sow], he called me up. It was the right thing to do, it was the next step [for me]. I love Silo still, and I still keep in touch with all the guys there. But I knew this was my next challenge, to come here and work with food I hadn’t really worked with in the past, and also to be alongside Harold and pick his brain. That was the main reason I came.
It proved to be a good move, because he’s still challenging me. We’ve got a great relationship. It’s pretty fortuitous to be able to be here and to lead the way and, at the same time, still have Yoda up there, you know, schooling me. Yoda being Harold. He’s the one, man!
CM: What are your favorite and least favorite things about working in a kitchen?
NY: My favorite thing about cooking in the kitchen, I guess, is that it just feels natural. It doesn’t feel like work. So that’s the fun part. But, at the same time, that can also be kinda like my least favorite because it just takes up so much time, you know? Sometimes I wish I had more time for myself. It puts a little cramp on my style. (Laughs) But, at the same time, I love it. Being a chef, being a true chef, you can’t get away from working a lot.
CM: What’s your favorite music to listen to in the kitchen?
NY: I listen to music all the time. I have very eclectic taste. I listen to almost everything; it depends on my mood. If it’s a Friday night and I have a lot of stuff going, I’ll put on some Rage Against the Machine, something to get me really amped up. If it’s earlier in the day and I’m doing something kind of monotonous, like cleaning 30 pounds of fish or something, I’ll do something slower. But whatever. I like hip-hop, I like rock.
CM: What do you like to do when you’re not in the kitchen?
NY: I like to watch TV, I like to relax. I love to work out. To me, that’s a lifestyle, especially when I’m tasting and eating everything. You know, I gotta stay in shape! (Laughs) I make sure I get my cardio, and I have a punching bag and I work out.
I love sports. [During] football season, I’m watching my Cowboys. On Mondays, I’m watching Monday Night RAW. That’s one thing I haven’t let go of since I was a kid. That’s entertainment — it’s like my little soap opera.
CM: Favorite dish on the menu at Salty Sow?
NY: My favorite dish here is probably the blackened redfish. We make our own blackening seasoning, and it’s tender, made for that plancha. We do it with quinoa lentils and smoked tomato and a chipotle lemon beurre blanc. Everything together is just unbelievable. It’s a great dish.
CM: Favorite food to eat when not working?
NY: I love sushi, and that’s something I don’t really prepare too much. If I go out [to eat] somewhere, it’ll be for something I don’t really do too much, like sushi. But what I have to eat at least once a month, what I crave, is a really, really, really good steak. Like a Porterhouse or a prime strip. That’s heaven for me, but I gotta cook it myself!
I pride myself in being a very well-rounded chef. There’s nothing that I won’t do: sauté, dessert, everything. But if there’s one thing that really helped me make a name for myself in the culinary industry, it’s that I’m an awesome grill cook. That's what I do, man.