The chef is winning accolades for her unique cooking style
Interview/Photography: Danny Fulgencio – Editing: Kim Pierce
Misti Norris is one of America’s hottest chefs.
Among many accolades, Norris’ quirky Petra and the Beast made Esquire’s 20 Best New Restaurants in America, 2018. Then last year, Food & Wine named her one of the 10 Best New Chefs in America, and wrote a fawning story titled, “The Very Big Thing Misti Norris Just Did.” To wit: “She’s struck out on her own, she’s tried something different, and it worked,” wrote David Landsel.
Daring to dream way outside the box, Norris created an edgy but uber-casual restaurant on a shoestring that emphasizes these four f’s: farm, forage, ferment and fire. She skates the rim (and wins over skeptics) with offal, unusual animal cuts and offbeat ingredients not commonly seen on American menus. (“Oh, what are pig tails?” “And we’re like, ‘Uh, it’s pig tails.’ ”) And she did it in our city, in a ramshackle part of East Dallas, in a repurposed 1930s gas station.
“The first time my maw-maw made boudin balls … it sparked something in me.”
FOUNDATIONS AND BEGINNINGS
Misti Norris grew up in Houston, in what she calls a “Cajun home,” and had her food epiphany at age 8. She told F&W, “The first time my maw-maw made boudin balls … it sparked something in me.” But it was something else that provided her ability to succeed in the kitchen.
Norris: I was a competitive gymnast for 10 years. The end of kindergarten is when I started, and it taught me how to deal with pressure. … My body can take quite a bit, and I feel like I do not wear out as quick as maybe other people who didn’t have that upbringing. I am pretty used to getting yelled at, pretty used to taking a lot of criticism. … Then, after I got out of gymnastics, I did competitive cheer-leading, so it never really stopped.
One of her first cooking gigs was at a Dallas retirement community at age 15.
Norris: One of my greatest memories is being able to talk to the residents, and then I would go hang out in their rooms. … It was very much like they were inviting you into their house, and we would play bridge and drink gin. [She laughs.] They kind of became your family if you worked there.
After dropping out of culinary school in Dallas—she was already cooking professionally—Norris worked her way through several premier Dallas kitchens, among them FT33, Bijoux and Nana. She ran her first kitchen at the acclaimed Small Brewpub in Oak Cliff in 2014, but left in late 2016, taking some time to figure out what came next.
Norris: When I left [Small Brewpub], it was very emotional for me… . I had this idea for Petra and the Beast. I didn’t know what it was going to be, but I knew I wanted to start my own business. … So I immediately got an attorney and formed an LLC for Petra and the Beast. [Then] I had to get out of Dallas, so I went to New York and consulted for another restaurant there. I didn’t know if I was going to open a restaurant. I didn’t know if I was going to do pop-ups. I just had no idea. But I knew I couldn’t work for anybody else again.
She almost opened Petra and the Beast on the East Coast.
Norris: Petra was very, very close to being opened in downtown Portland, Maine. And then, at the last minute … I decided not to. … I ended up coming back home because, overall, it just made more sense. I had the community support here. I had already started establishing who I am and what I am about. And that goes back to Small Brew.
“I really don’t eat very much meat … but I do love butchery. That’s more an act, I think.”
A DIFFERENT DRUMMER
One of the hallmarks of Petra’s menu is the way it incorporates unusual animal parts and ingredients: chicken feet, trotters, beef tongue. This is especially impressive given that Norris was once a vegetarian, with a distinct distaste for most legumes.
Norris: I was a vegetarian for five years, as a teenager going into college. … I was a vegetarian mostly because of texture, and what really did it for me—which I find funny—is scrambled eggs. [They] just grossed me out so bad. … Peas, I think, are disgusting. … Popcorn—I can’t do it. But I love grits. … But once I got to culinary school, it was like, ‘I can’t not eat meat. That’s ridiculous.’ I am never going to be the most that I can be in this industry if I’m not fully immersed in all of it. … I really don’t eat very much meat … but I do love butchery. That’s more an act, I think.
Norris’ quirkiness extends to her taste in pets.
Norris: I’ve had Mosh Pit for 12 years. … He is a jungle python. He is five and a half feet [long]. He is my baby.
CREATING THE BEST WITH THE BEST
Norris takes care to source locally, both by foraging and by working with small, sustainable growers.
Norris: I will say the majority of our pigs come from Chubby Dog Farm [in Grapeland], and they are amazing. They have a couple of different varieties. They do Red Wattles mixed with Mangalitsas.
They do Herefords. … They know that I am going to cure these, so I would prefer to have a Hereford, or, if I’m going to do something else, I will get a Mangalitsa mix because it has more fat content. It’s really nice that we’ve built these kinds of relationships with them.
Sun E Farms is actually down in Rosser. He [Tim Kerkman] grows some of the best produce I’ve had. … We just start with the best product we can and not mess with it too much. at’s where the fermentation comes in, with building different layers of what that is and pushing it to be more. … He has interesting stuff, too. We get Candle Fire Okra from them and Chinese long beans and the most beautiful turnips.
Demases Farm [in Boyd] is another one. They are so passionate about what they do. … Their agronomy knowledge and the biology of their soil—they actually have clay soil, so their greens will ferment a lot better than someone else’s because of the way they grow them.
So those are probably my three favorites that I’ve been working with for a long time.
Although working with the best ingredients is key, a lot of Norris’ acclaim comes from the fact that she’s slowly, amazingly, won over customers to her way of preparing food—with an able assist from sous chef Jessica Alonzo—unorthodox though it may be.
Norris: It took us gaining a good reputation. Because yes, we do use offal and some more uncommon things. … We had to allow people to trust us … that we are not going to put it on the menu if we don’t think it’s good.
A bartender and commercial fisherman in former lives, DANNY FULGENCIO is now a Texas-based freelance photojournalist. He regularly contributes to the Dallas Observer, Edible Dallas & Fort Worth and Advocate Magazine. Among others, his photography has been published on the Web and in print for the Fort Worth Weekly, Houston Press, Texas Observer, New Individualist, Lens and International Herald Tribune. He lives in Dallas with his wife, new son, two cats and the sweetest dog to ever grace the Earth. dannyfulgencio.com