By Robin Chotzinoff
Photography by Marc Brown
About 27 years ago, Zack Northcutt was photographed near Bryan, Texas, holding a 50-pound rack of sausage on his five-year-old shoulders. “It was the best chef picture ever taken,” he says. It was certainly prophetic. Back then, Northcutt had no idea he’d end up in culinary school, but he was already showing signs of a deeply carnivorous soul.
“He always liked being around meat,” says his mother, Sharon Hankins. A single mom who worked as an international flight attendant, she raised her son to appreciate adventurous travel and the eating that goes with it.
“I hauled him all over,” she remembers. “With his little backpack, walking down the Jetway, he was always ready to go.”
Northcutt’s childhood role models—mostly male, at first—devoted themselves to broadening his palate. His uncle in California wined and dined him; relatives in East Texas kept him by their sides when they barbequed and made sausage. But he didn’t come face to face with his destiny until he’d spent a few years studying fine art in college. Hankins, who’d recently finished her own college degree in archaeology, invited him on a dig in Belize—she’d even gotten him a job drawing artifacts. Instead of hanging out with the serious academics, though, he became entranced by the camp chef’s routine—not just the cooking and menu planning, but the trips to local markets.
“Less than two months after we got back from Belize,” Hankins recalls, “Zack was in culinary school and he never looked back. All my male friends liked to cook with him when he was a kid, and now they’re flipped out that he cooks killer food and has a restaurant.”
In fact, Northcutt and business partner Michael Polombo will soon have two downtown Austin restaurants—Mulberry, the neighborhood food-and-wine bar they opened two years ago, and the larger Haddington’s, set to open in December—envisioned as a rustic American tavern with British influences.
That means a wide-ranging menu, from lunch to late night, and Northcutt’s been working on the inaugural dishes—particularly the lighter ones. “Sometimes you have to back off from all the meat,” he says. “I don’t want to have to put a defibrillator in the hall.” On the other hand, maybe he does. “Yeah,” he says with a laugh, “with a sign saying in case of a good meal, break glass.”
In other words, meat is still whispering in Northcutt’s ear—even when he’s working with vegetables (Mulberry’s menu once featured “fresh-killed salads” from the restaurant’s kitchen window planters). And then there’s Mulberry’s decor—a symphony of pig figurines. Not to mention the legendary tattoo that takes up most of Northcutt’s right calf: a crucified pig between the words “PRAISE THE LARD.”
“At Haddington’s, we’ll do a hot dog, 50 percent pork, 50 percent foie gras,” he says, a little dreamily. “We’ll have lamb pies and chicken-fried tripe. I’m hoping to work with Loncito [from Loncito’s Lamb] and the Richardsons [from Richardson Farms] on getting whole animals we can actually break down in the kitchen. Depending on what we have in that day, you might get foreshank for two . . . or 10 people sharing a whole animal . . . or a dry-aged rib eye—we’ll definitely do that.”
In some ways, Northcutt is striking back at foodies who can’t, or won’t, face the fact that all those legs and breasts and briskets they eat originated as live critters. “No one wants to look at their meat anymore,” he says.
No one? Not exactly. Northcutt, his circle of friends and his chef buddies constitute one giant exception to the rule. For the past two years, they’ve flocked to his monthly Meaty Monday Madness parties, which began modestly.
“I don’t usually cook at home,” he says, “but I decided to have some people over for regular barbecued chicken and pork ribs, because I hadn’t had barbecue in so long.” Many were fellow chefs, the kind of obsessed artistes who spend even their nights off cooking. The parties quickly turned into giant potlucks, all centered around Northcutt’s over-the-top meaty themes. Heads and Tails, for instance, featured pork heads, oxtails and halibut cheeks, among others. Any Baby Can...Be Delicious showcased juvenile goats and chicken stuffed with veal, foie gras and corn bread.
For the Celebration of Pig and Bourbon, held in August, Northcutt poached a young pig for two days before roasting it on his backyard grill. By the time guests began to arrive, a faint wind was blowing succulent, pig-scented smoke down Northcutt’s suburban street. Within an hour, about 50 meatophiles had crowded into his house, some of them high-profile chefs from such restaurants as Uchi, Perla’s, Cuatro’s and Izzoz Tacos. Huge, foil-covered restaurant pans packed the tiny kitchen.
A rumor of pork-infused bourbon began circulating as Lara Nixon of Tipsy Tech filled the booze void—unpacking an elegant bartending kit and mixing up sangria made with sauvignon blanc, pinot rosé, white vermouth and exotic fruity tidbits. “It’s not your mom’s sangria,” she says, “unless your mom lives in France. Sangria may be synonymous for what you do with crappy wine, but it shouldn’t be.”
A woman in a vintage 1970s hostess gown tossed a salad expertly, with her hands. Someone who’d done time in a commercial kitchen sliced a watermelon into perfectly uniform chunks. Hankins arrived with a seven-layer dip redolent of basil, and everyone began picking at a bowl of potato salad that had nothing in common with the sweet and gluey church-picnic stuff.
Clearly, Northcutt isn’t territorial in his kitchen. “Not at all,” he says. “It’s messy and crazy. I get to sit back and watch my friends cook.” In fact, he didn’t. The pig on the grill needed attention—its skin was crispy and deep brown, almost ready to serve.
Lively, food-centric conversation went on all over the house and yard.
“Hey, I was wondering, what do you do with a dry, overcooked rabbit?”
“Braise it! And don’t forget the butter.”
“Anyone know what to do with a dry-smoked salmon?”
“Pork-infused bourbon? Hard to describe the mouthfeel.”
“It’s artichokes with basil butter—the old Basque style, you know?”
A few sangrias later, Northcutt carried the pig into his house and whacked it into chunks. Even in this crowd, it was an awe-inspiring sight. For a moment—maybe a split second—there was silence in the kitchen. Then the feasting began.