James Beard Semi-Finalist Misti Norris of Small Brewpub Follows Her Own Path To Acclaim.
Talk to just about any chef, restaurateur or foodie in the city long enough and one common name is sure to pop up: Misti Norris. So it’s no surprise that the Small Brewpub chef would be subject to a slew of accolades.
But her recent James Beard Award semifinalist nomination for rising star of the year confirms something that Dallasites are well aware of: This woman is a force to be reckoned with in the kitchen.
Although “The Oscars of Food” have been well-acquainted with the culinary talent produced out of the Dallas region since its inception in the early '90s — back when Stephan Pyles was voted best chef in southwest category for the now defunct Routh Street Cafe — Norris, nominated in this year's Rising Star of the Year category, is somewhat of an anomaly in the history of the city's nominees.
Even among her fellow local semifinalists — Matt McCallister (FT33), Teiichi Sakurai (Tei-An), David Uygur (Lucia) and Omar Flores (Casa Rubia), who earned nods in the Best Chef: Southwest category, and the Four Seasons Resort & Club Dallas at Las Colinas, which got a nomination for Outstanding Wine Program — she stands out. As a culinary school dropout and science-loving female butcher, she is a prime example of the ways in which the industry is changing. And, with stints at some of the top dining establishments in Dallas, she’s living proof that a good chef isn’t made in a classroom, but forged in the heat of kitchen.
Cliches aside, we figured it was high time we caught up with the 29-year-old Dallas queen of DIY cooking to discuss her reaction to her nomination, to gain some insight into her creative process and to find out which other Dallas chefs inspire her.
Isn't this your first executive chef position? How does it feel to be nominated for the James Beard Award for that?
Yes, this is my first chef position. It's actually really unbelievable, honestly. I'm pretty shocked myself. I think this is something a lot of people in the industry try to aim for. Honestly, this is probably one of the only things that I ever kind of wanted to even just be mentioned in. It's a huge honor.
Was it anything that you were expecting?
Not at all! I was completely shocked.
What was your reaction aside from shock when you heard the news? What were you doing when you found out?
I was actually at my house, and I didn't have my phone on. I was getting ready to come down to work, and I turned my phone on and had all these messages. I didn't know what was going on. When I finally read them, I was like “Holy crap!” I was happy, but at the same time I was so in shock, that I kind of sat there for probably a good five minutes just processing. Not doubting, but kind of like, “Seriously?” I had to process if this was actually happening. Did I read correctly? I live above the restaurant, so I walked downstairs and stood outside for like 10 minutes. I didn’t know what to do. I didn't want to eat. Of course I wanted to work, but at the same time, I couldn't do anything. I was just kind of numb.
Who was the first person you told when you finally gathered that it actually was happening to you?
I didn't really have to tell anyone! I got a ton of phone calls. I messaged my mom and dad together. My dad immediately called me, and he was super excited for me. My mom, I didn’t hear back from her until late in the evening. They were both really happy, but my mom had to do a little bit more research. My dad’s a little more “in the know” with the food world. My mom was like “What is that?”
Completely different reactions, but it kind of seems like a good balance. It's like one person to make you feel good about your accomplishments, and another person to kind of keep you grounded and remind that not everyone exactly knows what the award is.
Exactly. Which, you know, I don't expect everyone to know what it is. Honestly, I don't even bring it up. It's mostly other people that bring it up. It's very surreal.
Compared to nominees that you’ve seen in your category, what do you think has set you apart as a chef?
That's really hard. Everyone who is nominated in every one of the categories are people I look up to; that's what was so shocking to me. Especially in Dallas right now. I'm in a totally different category. I was telling the guys that I'm at the kids table. I'm not quite there, but it's really humbling. These are the people I idolize on this list, and it goes back to kind of asking: Seriously? Why am I even on this list right now?
But at the same time, since you've started working at Small Brewpub, it seems like every chef in town mentions your name. You're on everyone's tongue as the person to watch out for.
I don't really know how to explain it. I think everyday, we kind of go with it. It's me and two other people in this. We're really farm-focused and seasonal; [we’re always] thinking of how can we make this better. How can we give as much respect to what we're buying and to the people that are growing it? Then we were playing around with different fermentations, and different breads. It's become kind of the culture in the kitchen. I don't think we’ve ever reached for what's next — that's not necessarily our priority. Our priority is learning as much as we can and putting out the best products that we can with our knowledge, and to keep that going. We're not aiming to be celebrities, we're not aiming to be household names. We're just aiming to do to the best we can everyday.
Would you say that's ultimately the message that you're trying to convey with each meal that you cook? That you just want to showcase the ingredients in the best way possible?
Absolutely. I try to give everyone in my kitchen as much creative freedom as possible, within my bounds. I try to teach as much as I can. I love teaching. Myself, I will do anything to gain more knowledge. I'm constantly reading, researching, studying and trying things.
It's interesting that you mention that you do a lot to try to learn about different aspects of the industry, because a lot of media attention has been placed on the fact that you haven't had any formal training. Do you feel like your informal education has helped or hindered you in any way?
Oh yeah, absolutely! I think I've always had an internal drive to just learn as much as I can. Even as a younger person, it was really hard for me to do standard, formal stuff. I've always been more on the artsy side, more hands-on. I need to see something, I need to go somewhere, especially when it has to do with farms and stuff like that. I want to go see the animals; I want to harvest them. For me personally, I don't believe that culinary school is a waste of time. I just think that it's perceived that much better by certain people. I think other people need to actually learn the way that they learn best, in whatever way that is.
Culinary school doesn't always translate to people that do have different learning styles.
Right. I mean, it's like people who go to an arts magnet. There's a reason a lot of them end up gaining so much more knowledge, and it's because that's their learning style. My brother is a Harvard graduate, and he's extremely book smart. He can sit in a classroom for hours at a time. I can't. I have a really hard time sitting down. I have a hard time focusing. I need to be doing something, and that's the way I learn best.
Would you say you’ve always been the “artistic type” that way?
I've never been the type to be able to sit still for more than 10 minutes at a time. I have a hard time watching movies because I can't sit still. But that's just kind of how I've always been. It's not just food. I have a really deep love for science, quantum chemistry and all of these different things that I take upon myself to try to learn as much as I can about. Somehow, it all goes full circle. It's like people who know multiple languages — they view things differently, because you get an understanding of where the root of all that came from. I feel like if you have more knowledge about the world around you, all of these smaller things that don't necessarily make a huge difference directly in front of your face, then you realize that it's all connected. I think it makes you look at food a little bit differently.
Do you feel like your love of science translates into your cooking style?
So I'm not formerly trained — as in culinary school — but I worked for a lot of chefs that were certified master chefs and executive chefs. I was fortunate enough to learn very traditional cooking [skills] as a young cook.
You basically had the best informal training anyone could’ve had.
Dude, yeah! I'm so fortunate. I was able to learn the roots of cooking, and what it should be. As I grew as a cook, I constantly just tried to learn as much as I can. My love of science keeps me curious, especially trying to do things as natural as possible.
Is there any particular skill set you think might have been easier for you to learn in culinary school?
I really don't think so. I did drop out of culinary school; I went one semester, but I'd already been cooking in restaurants. I'm very fortunate to have worked for chefs because culinary school, from what I gathered, they start from the very bottom. You have your emulsions, your hollandaise, all that stuff. I was already learning that from other people, [so] it was kind of repetitive for me.
Are there any chefs in the city that you’ve been keeping an eye out for or that inspire you?
I'm sure you hear this a lot, but essentially everything that David Uygur [of Lucia] does. I've always seen him as an inspiration. I was able to hangout with him the summer before FT33 opened. He taught me [a lot, such as] certain cuts of the pig, and I even got to do a couple of private dinners with him. Every time I've ever cooked with or spoken with him, he's like an encyclopedia of knowledge. It's insane to me. If he ever gives me any kind of critique, he is definitely the one that I will take the hardest. I think Cody Sharp is doing some really cool stuff at the moment. Every since I met him, I've always kind of been like, “What's he going to do? It's going to be great.” But at the same time, I feel like it's kind of hard because he and I are kind of in the same place. One more is Angela Hernandez. I love what she’s doing. The few times that we have been able to talk and hang out… I love talking to her about food. Her knowledge is outrageous. She's definitely someone that I can't wait to see what she does in the future.
What is the last thing you ate that inspired you?
Is it lame to say something that one of my guys made? One of my younger cooks, Robbie, spent some time in the kitchen and did this bread with a kimchi starter that we made. It was one of those things where I ate it, then after service made everyone else eat it. It was so good. I tasted all of these developing flavors — the bread, and then you get this buttery and a sour, then you get the spices that were in the kimchi — and it made me start thinking. It made my brain work a little bit more.
Is it something that you feature on the menu or just something made in R&D?
We do different kind of pickled starters, and pickle breads for the actual pickle board. This was one of those that we tried.
What are some things you plan on doing with the menu in the near future?
I want to start milling all of our own grains. I don't want to buy bleached flour, I don't want white flour. We're going to stop using yeast; we only use yeast in one of our breads, and we use about three or four different breads sometimes. I want to mill all of our own grains, and I want to eliminate any use of yeast. I want to naturally ferment. This is probably going to be within a couple of months — no more buying flour, and naturally start all of breads.
What made you decide to make that change?
It's actually been something that we've all kind of talked about for a while. Aaron [Garcia, Small Brewpub's head brewer] has the mill for, obviously, the beer grains. But it's not as fine as I need, so we've been working on possibly building our own grain mill, or looking into buying one. I've done a lot of reading on how other people do it — where they don't have luxuries and have like an old stone mill — and just how much better [it is]. Not only that, but it's healthier for you, and you’re not buying flour that has no nutrients anymore.
Over time, the cost effectiveness of it will start to show too, I imagine. It's one less cost that you're sending out of house.
That really goes along with what we try really hard to do. It kind of goes along with the do-it-yourself attitude that everyone who works here has.