by Les McGehee • Photography by Whitney Arostegui
On a smooth rock, 50 feet long, stands Josh Jones, casting a line into a deep Pedernales pool. The early evening June breeze smells and feels more green-May than brown-July, and the nearby falls drop the temperature even further. The cicadas, frogs and moving water create a pleasing wall of sound that would make Phil Spector jealous. Jones slowly reels, casts, reels…walks a little over here, over there.
For countless days and nights that seem to trail end-to-end, Jones wails away at his passion: creating farm-to-table deliciousness on the Eastside at Salt & Time. Yet, like any other pro, he knows the value of a recharging respite once in a blue moon. And though Jones hasn’t caught a thing yet, he couldn’t be happier. If this 29-year-old sustainability sensei (and ex-vegetarian) were at work instead, no doubt he would have already produced any number of inspired dishes like those keeping the cognoscenti all a-titter. But right now, it’s refreshing to be at the mercy of the unpredictable dark blue water and a simple lure.
When asked what inspires his work, Jones pauses to look across the water. “I create a lot of recipes just because they’re exciting—and to have fun. Or sometimes,” he continues, “it’s to use a rarely-used part of the animal in some creative way.” Asked if the hustle of present-day Austin ever gets tedious, Jones replies that he often works 70 hours, or more, in a week. “Yet, I’m so lucky as a chef. I still get to work on the line sometimes. It’s kind of like…the only way I can dance.”
Jones shifts his attention to the opposite bank—his face showing signs that he’s considering a new casting angle to a part of the pool where a lunker has been playfully showing a side above the water in between avoiding the lure. “I used to fish in Colorado a lot. Mainly trout,” he says. “I got really good at knowing the streams at different altitudes and times of the year.”
Likewise, Jones has become locally famous for knowing his new discipline. In addition to the commitment to using all parts of an animal, he pioneers daily specials that spotlight these under-utilized bits. Many customers come in excited just to see what each daily special holds—whimsical offerings like the McDonald’s-inspired happy hour menu where Jones recreates some of the famous fast-food chain’s signature items using, instead, seasonal, high-quality meats and products. “I even perfected a McRib!” he says with pride. “At another happy hour, we made an incredible rib-eye cheesesteak, Tejano style, with queso.” And with all of the attention Salt & Time has been getting, it appears the newest challenge to contend with is success. “The restaurant has grown to become about half of our business,” he says. “And the butcher is getting another whole cow per month.”
No such abundance or success from the water today, though. As the sun gets lower and lower, Jones eventually turns his back to the pool, flashes a gentle grin and says, “I brought beer—and a little picnic.” And just like that, the fishing trip has completed its evolution from hoping not to catch too many, to hoping to get one bite, to just putting down the pole altogether. A large checkered cloth is stretched out over the smooth rock and tops are pulled from the various containers cradling house-made Salt & Time specialties and local bounty. Jones seamlessly transforms from humble fishing guy to proud culinary tour guide.
“This is N’Duja Tejano,” he says, pointing to a spicy salami spread. Then he moves to the next containers. “Soppressata, coppa, some aged beef jerky, pork rillettes, some blueberry serrano jam I made this afternoon, fennel-stalk mostarda—I’ve been experimenting with this recipe. Ewephoria cheese, some peaches…because they’re so good right now.” All of a sudden, this fishing-trip-roughing-it is working out great as the words “little picnic” reveal themselves to be highly inadequate in describing the glorious spread.
“I know we’re doing big things, yet I also really like being the small guy,” Jones says, as hands reach across the blanket into containers. “We’re doing this because we truly care about good meat and good food. You know, we were a construction crew before, and we still focus on how much we care—a small crew working our butts off and showing up every day. We’re not focused on being new and cool, we’re doing these things with our hands—doing everything we can to make it possible for everyone to eat good stuff at a reasonable price and know what they’re eating.”
With the attention now back on the picnic, each bite is better than the last, and the universe is now this food. And if the fish were listening to Jones’ food descriptions, they’d surely be getting hungry. They’d probably bite now, but who cares?
Find Josh Jones at Salt & Time Butcher Shop & Salumeria, 1912 E. Seventh Street, or visit saltandtime.com