From the archives: Getting to know Dai Due’s Jesse Griffiths

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Jesse Griffiths prepares a dish for one of his Dai Due supper clubs. 2008 photo by Cliff Cheney for the Austin American-Statesman.

In today’s Austin360, restaurant critic Matthew Odam offers heaping praise for Dai Due, the Manor Road restaurant from Jesse Griffiths and Tamara Mayfield, who planted the seed for this eatery many years ago with a supper club that morphed into a popular booth at area farmers’ markets.

A 9.5 out of 10 review is a pretty great excuse to dig up the first profile we wrote about Griffiths nearly six years ago, when the supper club and his commitment to local sourcing of ingredients were still something of a novelty. (Some might argue that they still are.)

This story originally ran under the headline “Community Table” on Dec. 10, 2008:

Jesse Griffiths prepares a dish for one of his Dai Due supper clubs. 2008 photo by Cliff Cheney for the Austin American-Statesman.

Jesse Griffiths prepares a dish for one of his Dai Due supper clubs. 2008 photo by Cliff Cheney for the Austin American-Statesman.

For chef Jesse Griffiths, shopping at Boggy Creek Farm is like walking into a house of worship.

He spends several hundred dollars a week on produce at the East Austin farm for his Dai Due supper club dinners, but it’s the ritual of buying vegetables from the people who grow them and mingling with others who share his passion for local food that draws him back twice a week.

“It’s my church, the place you go to every week and see everyone, ” he says as he peruses the baskets of vegetables to buy what he needs for an upcoming dinner. The supper club started two years ago as a way for Griffiths to serve entirely local meals to groups of food lovers.

Dai Due (pronounced die do-ay), which comes from an Italian proverb that says “From the two kingdoms of nature, choose food with care, ” has grown to several large dinners a month with up to 50 guests.

As Griffiths lingered at the Boggy Creek farm stand last Wednesday, it quickly became a who’s who of the Austin restaurant scene. Chefs from the top restaurants around town stopped to chat with each other as they gathered produce for their menus. Griffiths said he has seen the local food movement go from a novel curiosity to a mainstream obsession.

“Two years ago, it was so different, ” he says. More people are buying now, so farmers are diversifying and expanding their produce, which has made his goal of using only food from Texas easier.

But unlike many of his chef friends, Griffiths isn’t wedded to a menu or a restaurant space or even a cuisine. His supper clubs take place in fields, backyards and everyday dining rooms, and the food ranges from seafood to entire pigs. He serves what he wants, and the menus change based on what’s available from local farmers.

It’s unlikely you’ll find an animal or plant from land or sea that Griffiths won’t serve. His fish purveyor, a friend named PJ, brings back from the Gulf such things as vermillion snapper, jack and stingrays. He often processes animals himself.

What he won’t touch is food grown with chemicals or meat processed in factories. “I feel real strongly about where food comes from, especially meat, ” he says. “I got tired of touching feed-lot beef. I didn’t want to be a part of that, even if I’m just opening the package.”

He won’t serve anything that’s not local, which by his definition is within the state. He makes at least half a dozen trips to the local farmers’ markets and farm stands every week. On Saturdays, he’ll drive to Greenling Organic Delivery in South Austin for apples or citrus. When he runs out of stone-ground grits, he’ll go to the Waco supplier to buy more. He buys cheese from a special market. He does have to make a few trips a week to Whole Foods for items such as mustard, molasses, salt and dry spices, the things Pa from “Little House on the Prairie” would have to pick up at the mercantile, he says. “Michael Landon is my muse, ” says Griffiths, 33, who resembles a tall, redheaded Paul Giamatti.

Because he depends on what’s available locally, he doesn’t always have exactly what he wants or needs, but he makes do. “I had to cook without onions for seven months once, ” he says. Instead, he made vinegars to make up for the acidity lost without onions. When they finally came back into season, onions took a starring role on the plate rather than something sautéed away under other flavors.

At Boggy Creek last week, Griffiths was a little disappointed that there weren’t any potatoes, which means he’ll have to do without until May.

Kim Alexander of Alexander Family Farms, a local source for chickens, taught him about having faith in the land. He once told Griffiths, “God will provide for you no matter where you are, ” Griffiths recalls. Then Alexander quoted the Rolling Stones. “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you just might find you get what you need.”

Supper clubs traditionally have been private dinners held in private houses once every month or so, but the popularity of supper clubs open to the public has grown in recent years. Hosteria Verde, for example, is another local supper club open to the public in Austin. So technically, Griffiths is a caterer, but the social spirit of supper clubs is what he wanted to re-create.

As a teenager in Denton, Griffiths worked as a busboy and server before realizing there wasn’t much of a long-term future in the front-of-the-house jobs. He wanted to do something more long-lasting, so when he was 20, he started paying more attention in the kitchen and to cookbooks. He moved to Austin in 1999 and in 2000, he went to a two-week cooking school outside Venice and then spent a week in Venice in a cooking internship. Those three weeks could have been three years, he says now. “That’s when I first saw real food, ” he says. “Local food is a given there.”

He cooked at several of Austin’s top restaurants, including Jean-Luc’s Bistro, Zoot and Vespaio, before starting Dai Due two years ago.

“(Eating local) is a novel, hip thing, but if you think about it, it’s been going on since the dawn of time.” He quickly became fascinated with food cultures, including Cajun, slave and German, in Central Texas. “It’s important to reflect those traditions, ” he says, and experimentation is the best teacher. He finds inspiration in old cookbooks and from fellow chefs whose lessons on blood sausage and sanguette, a cake made from blood, might seem outdated to some, but to Griffiths are as viable and intriguing as they were centuries ago.

“The best food in the world comes from poor people, ” he says, because they learned to use every part of the animal. He shares this nose-to-tail knowledge with people who take Dai Due classes, such as one last month during which they processed an entire pig to serve at one of the supper club dinners.

During the two-day class, students did everything from make sausage to head cheese. “There’s more to a pig than tenderloin, ” he says.

Teaching isn’t something this chef imagined he’d get into, but he’s grown to love the monthly classes filled with curious students wanting a more intimate relationship with their food.

Dai Due suppers are hours-long affairs, food revelry at its best, during which strangers become friends in a family-style feast. It’s an uncommon sight in fast-food America: Long tables set with mix-and-match plates, silverware and cups, which come from second-hand stores. Guests sit side-by-side, passing heaping plates of glistening meat and sharing bottles of wine they brought from home.

A trio of musicians meanders through a laid-back set. Griffiths‘ wife, Tamara Mayfield, and two servers bring course after course of food as good as any you’d find at the finest restaurants in town. Slow-roasted pork shoulder with roasted apples and red wine braised pork belly. Homemade boudin and cracklin cornbread. Supper days are long for Griffiths, usually about 20 hours, much of which is spent preparing everything from the lard he renders to homemade vinegar, sauerkraut and chutneys. He also cooks during the dinners, munching on pieces of sausage along the way.

Rich and rustic, Dai Due dinners are a quintessential example of slow food: a combination of regional, traditional and seasonal foods served close to the source. Dinner is always served family style.

“I love serving a whole grilled red snapper. All I’ve done is gutted it, ” he says. “There’s no better way to get to know a stranger than to have to figure it out.”

Back at his commercial kitchen, Griffiths cuts fat slices of green tomatoes to pickle in a homemade concoction for an upcoming benefit dinner. He also was going to pickle apples, which he hadn’t done before but knew would go well with his charcuterie plate of pork sausage and pâté, his specialities. (Some of his meats, including the charcuterie plate, will be served at the new upscale Hotel Saint Cecilia in South Austin.)

In addition to teaching classes and hosting the dinners, he caters parties and weddings and offers custom classes, but there is a clear caveat. “If we can’t get it (locally), we don’t use it, ” he says. No exceptions. “They say, ‘This is my wedding, ‘” he says. “And I say, “Well, this is how it is.’ My promise is to find something else to serve.” He says he hasn’t heard a single complaint.

Griffiths knows the price of the dinners, which is usually $75 a person, makes it a special occasion dinner for most, but he’d like to start hosting not-so-grand affairs at a lower price. “I’d love to do a $25 dinner, but I don’t have a venue. If I can find a way to do a cheaper dinner, I’ll do it.”

Next month, he’ll teach a poultry workshop, which unlike the hog class, will include learning how to quickly and compassionately kill the chicken. He’ll soon start teaching less extreme classes at Whole Foods downtown. But it’s classes on the farm, in the garden and by the stream that interest him most.

One day, he and Mayfield hope to build a restaurant into a farm, not only so they can raise animals and fruits and vegetables themselves, but also so they can show people how their food goes from field to plate. He says, “I want people to experience food.”

 


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