In 2009, Austin, TX's John Bates made an unusual and potentially ill-advised decision: he left his executive chef post at a popular Italian restaurant to open a sandwich shop in a strip mall. Along with his partner Brandon Martinez, Bates debuted Noble Sandwich Co. in 2010. Turns out Bates made the right choice: The shop now draws such crowds that a second location is under construction. Noble’s points of pride are simple: scratch cooking, using the whole animal and sourcing locally. Here, Bates talks about Noble’s menu philosophy, the beauty in showing diners the unconventional and offers tips on how to ask the right questions of your butcher.
You come from a high-end chef background, but elected to start a suburban sandwich shop. Tell us your reasons for doing that.
We wanted to be accessible to a larger audience. We both spent years cooking in high-end restaurants, and that excludes most people. The idea was a return to an authentic, earthy, basic style of food. We wanted to showcase our skills, too. We thought we could do a great sandwich shop, charcuterie, and deli — it’s a great vehicle, yet still affordable and accessible.
You have a nose-to-tail philosophy — did that come about for food cost reasons or philosophical ones?
A little of both. We started up the restaurant completely the wrong way. It was fairly under-capitalized. We appreciate economy. That carries over to our cooking. We look for off-cuts and nose-to-tail things that we can transform. Because they’re cuts not in high demand, we can do creative, interesting things at an accessible price. It's also the mindset that you utilize everything! Not just expensive things, but the whole product. We try to highlight every cut as an individual item.
As a restaurant owner, how do you sell unconventional cuts to casual diners? What is the biggest surprise hit on your menu today?
The real way is to create a relationship. They have to trust you on the basics first. People stop in and see that they really like the food. Once they appreciate you, they return and look for new options. Far more often then not, when diners try something new they love it and spread the word. The biggest surprise hit was our seared beef tongue. It was based on a South Texas childhood dish that Brandon and I love. We wanted to just do a classic lengua, but present it in a modern way. That's been a real surprise — it transitioned from a special to a main plate and it’s now our signature item.
Another one people love: take veal sweetbreads, soak them in milk, then bread and fry them like oysters. We essentially make a po'boy with sweetbreads. We add arugula, slaw and a little heat. That’s an unconventional sandwich.
Are there lesser-known cuts of meat you’d suggest for home cooking?
Find a butcher you trust that gets good product, then simply ask them for something out of the ordinary! For home cooks, I’d recommend oxtail. It’s inexpensive and a great braising item similar to pot roast or short ribs — it’s the poor man's short rib. Oxtail is flavorful, lots of gelatin comes naturally from the bones and works with polenta, pastas and stews. Aside from that, just allow the butcher to guide you. Ask him what he eats. What he would pick for himself? That’s really where the gems are hidden. That’s what you want.
How do you source meat that you're proud to serve, and what should the consumer be looking out for?
Ask lots of questions and make sure that your butchers and grocers answer them thoughtfully. If you feel they’re blowing smoke, avoid that shop. You should look for all-natural products without hormones or antibiotics. You can buy free-range if it’s within your budget. If you have a local farmers’ market, get to know your local ranchers and farmers. Those guys know the inside scoop! They’ll give you solid advice.
You have worked to perfect a menu of meaty sandwiches. How do you keep a sandwich balanced?
Keep things simple. Brandon and I take an “Italian-centric” view on building sandwiches. The great guideline of Italian cooking is to keep it simple and use the right ingredients. Don’t pile on. Multiple garnishes and crazy sauces don’t work. That’s not how a chef approaches food. Pick simple combinations. For the home cook, I’d recommend you pick two things that work well for your palate and then let them shine together. Don’t overload a bunch of extra lettuce, tomato and onion — that adds size, but doesn't really contribute to the dish.
Are there simple secrets to making proteins taste better?
It all comes down to taking your time. We’re all busy, but slow down! Let the natural chemical reaction happen when you grind meat, or when you slowly caramelize meat before braising it. Turn your heat down, and let your meat slowly caramelize and brown. That develops flavor depth on braised items. If you’re doing lower-fat proteins, brine or season them a couple of days in advance — that’s a trick we often use. We’ll take a big roast and season it five days prior to cooking. That allows the salt and spice to penetrate so you've got flavor all the way through.
Any thoughts on how restaurants should deal responsibly with food waste?
All restaurants create waste. but minimizing that by using biodegradables and composting is big. It’s a disservice to cook too much for a service or portion too heavily. That leads to waste. We make a sandwich that’s not huge, but it’s satisfying. Why make it too big? Why prep so much food that you throw it away? Portioning, composting and recycling all help keep the balance right.
You are opening a second location soon, which will incorporate a breakfast service. How does meat play into that?
There will be braised oxtail, potato and leek waffles. We’re also going to revisit grits. Often they’re not treated with respect. Either they’re not seasoned or they’re not considered important. It’s terrible. So we’ll be do bowls of grits with smoked ham hocks. I can see doing biscuits with smoked brisket or pork belly. There are all kinds of cool plates we’ll be coming up with.
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