Have tongue, will travel: An interview with Noble Pig's John Bates
When John Bates and Brandon Martinez, the chef-owners behind the Noble Pig, opened up shop in September of 2010, they were just a quaint little sandwich joint in a strip mall on 620, 30 minutes from downtown Austin.
Pretty soon, news of their house-cured meats and artisanal charcuteries, fresh-baked breads, homemade pickles and condiments... well, spread. Almost two years later, their crew has grown from three to 11, and they are now serving upwards of 600 covers out of their 400 square-foot kitchen.
Recent spots on Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives and Man vs. Food have lines wrapping around the building, and as soon as permitting allows, they plan on knocking down walls to add 20 more seats to their current count of 26.
I sat down with Bates to discuss the restaurant’s growing success and Austin’s evolving tastebuds.
CultureMap: How did you and Brandon cross paths?
John Bates: Me and Brandon knew each other from culinary school in Corpus Christi. I met him in ’98. [This is] probably the third or fourth time we’ve worked together in the same restaurant. After we’d done our schooling, Brandon took off to Vermont to go through some more education at the New English Culinary Institute and then ended up in San Francisco cooking.
I stuck around south Texas for a while, then ended up in Portland, Oregon and I cooked out there for several years. I wanted to get closer to family, so I moved to Austin and Brandon ended up in Austin at the same time, just coincidentally.
I had been cooking at Wink for a while, I was a sous chef there, and then I took the chef position at Asti. Brandon was cutting meat and doing sausage production at Whole Foods at that point.
CM: How did you end up going into business together?
JB: I wanted at some point to venture out on my own. I had pursued a couple different opportunities and none of them really panned out, and then finally, I decided to go ahead and leave Asti and just dedicate myself full-time to opening up my own place. That’s kind of when I approached Brandon.
I wanted to partner up with somebody that I knew had a great work ethic, that could bring other things to the table and, you know, somebody I could get a long with really well. So we decided to pair up on this place and get it up off the ground.
CM: How did you choose 620 as your location?
JB: I live out here, but it was really more of an exercise of being frugal. Because, when you’re a chef, you meet all these people and they all tell you that they want to help you open up a restaurant. "Whenever you’re ready, give ‘em a call." And when you call 'em, nobody ever wants to do it. You know, it’s like the great, golden goose out there where people tell you they want to help out and so rarely do they ever want to — especially when you’ve never been the owner of a restaurant.
So, at the end of the day, when it really came down to it, all the people who told me they were willing to help me out all bailed. So I was like, "Okay, here’s my real budget, and I can’t afford to be in central Austin. . .So where am I going to open up my restaurant that I can afford that is not where everybody else is?"
So you start looking around and the funny thing about this area is that there’s a ton of people out here who all drive into central Austin to get food and go out to eat! This area is terribly underserved, and the cost of doing business out here is fantastic compared to central Austin. It fit all the things that I’d been told made sense of business and I could afford to do it.
CM: How do you think Austin’s food scene has changed in the past two years?
JB: Austin’s funny, it’s at an interesting point. It’s becoming a great food destination, and I think it’s finally catching up with bigger cities. You’re seeing people do great food at low-end places and middle of the road places and high-end places.
A mature, modern food city should have good food at all levels. It shouldn’t just be high-end food — there should be people making quality food from scratch at all price points. To me, that’s when you realize you’re in a great food city. You see that in Portland and Chicago and San Francisco and New York; I think that’s happening in Austin now, and I’m really stoked about it.
CM: What inspired Noble Pig?
JB: [The restaurant] reflects a lot about my time in Portland and great food places that weren’t expensive. The Portland dining public was getting really excited about little holes in the wall run by chefs who gave up the chef coats and the multi-course format and wanted to open up gutsy little bistros or little neighborhood restaurants, where it was bold food, but it wasn’t expensive or fancy. So that was what got me excited about doing this kind of price point.
And then, this is the kind of stuff I wanted to make for family meal in nicer restaurants. I always wanted to do duck pastrami sandwiches. And I always wanted to do, instead of doing classic BLT, a pork belly BLT.
A lot of it too is just the stuff me and Brandon want to eat, you know? These are the kind of sandwiches we would make ourselves, like if we were going to have friends over to the house. We grew up in south Texas, in Corpus Christi, so we’re very fond things like barbacoa and lengua and tripas. We try to find ways to incorporate them into our food, as well. And the fact that I’ve been able to sell beef tongue — and it’s one of my better sellers — is a testament to what’s going on out there.
CM: You just hosted a July dinner party paring each course with beer. Can you talk a little bit more about your monthly dinner parties?
JB: That dinner party is all about me expressing myself as a chef. They are right now, as they have been from day one, my pursuit of pleasure as a cook. And I’m fortunate that we can fill it up on a monthly basis with people that are here to essentially participate in the dinner party.
It’s a rare treat for a chef to be able to have 36 people in and not have anybody ask for special instructions. I write a menu, it is what it is, we serve it as it is, everybody gets their dinner at the same time, we all arrive at the same time. And it’s so much fun for me.
I’ve been in high end restaurants for a long time, that’s my background for the most part, so I want to stay connected with that as well. It’s not just about sandwiches for me, it’s about all kinds of cooking, so it’s a great opportunity for me to do things I’m excited about.
For menu and more information on Noble Pig and their monthly dinner parties, visit www.noblepigaustin.com