Bi-Rite Butcher and Charcutier Morgan Maki: The SFoodie Interview
Morgan Maki's duck liver pâté changes lives. The in-house butcher for Bi-Rite Market has what fans consider epic charcuterie skills, plus an understanding of animal anatomy he shares with students in lamb-butchery classes at 18 Reasons, the Bi-Rite spinoff Maki helped found.
Maki: Can't resist mackerel.
Maki was born in New Orleans in 1982. In Missouri, he landed work at a couple of reasonably fancy restaurants, washing dishes, moving up to prep. Maki says he learned to work hard, "cut the shit out of myself a couple of times," and came away with arms splotchy with burns from a deck oven. He says the kitchen was a place where he got yelled at a lot, but it also seared him with a sense of urgency and a fierce work ethic.
In Greensboro, North Carolina, he got a taste of fine dining at a place called Mark's on Westover. He says he "raised a bunch of hell, started to realize that being a cook wasn't just what I did to get paid." It was a realization that sent him to New England Culinary School in Burlington, Vermont, where, he says, he "got his shit together." He worked every shift possible, read everything he could about food, and was taken in by instructors he considers great. It was on to Boston, and work at a couple of restaurants that taught him the kind of serious technique and discipline required to excel in a big French brigade.
At the Rainbow Ranch Lodge in Big Sky, Montana, he learned the business of running a kitchen. He moved to San Francisco to manage Quince, where he opened the kitchen every morning, made stocks and sauces, and did butchery and charcuterie. He took the butcher's job at Bi-Rite about a year and a half ago, and later helped launch 18 Reasons. "I'm just trying to keep it real," he says.
SFoodie: Flavors, ingredients, or techniques you have an irrational attachment to?
Maki: Lately I have been into using the smoker for cooking mortadella and garnishing with toasted caraway seed. I like the smoky rye thing that happens, the two flavors seem to work well together -- I guess it is not a very irrational attachment. I do compulsively tie off everything I roast, always shave garlic with my knife at a 45-degree angle to my cutting board, and I have a bit of a problem with always ordering mackerel, deep-fried potatoes, and /or chicken liver anytime I see them on a menu.
Most overrated ingredient in S.F?
Food and ingredient trends move quite fast in this city. It seems like they never have time to become overrated before the next seasons offerings push them out of the way.
Most overrated food trend in S.F.?
Again I'm not the most trend-savvy person. How about gringos with food carts?
Biggest screw-up in the kitchen?
Not seasoning food.
Favorite off-night restaurant?
San Tung for the wings and pickled jellyfish.
Chef from another genre or cooking style who inspires you?
I think I've been most inspired by some authors who are not professional cooks or chefs. People like Mark Kurlansky and Harold McGee. The first time I picked up On Food and Cooking it changed my whole approach to my craft. Learning the history and culture behind what food is now, why we do the things we do. People didn't start making sausage because it tastes good, it was a portable staple protein with a decent shelf life. They taught me the importance of constantly investing time in learning how and why. It made me realize that I will always find stimulation and satisfaction in continuing my education.
Guiltiest food pleasure?
Alone time with ice cream.
Favorite music to cook by?
I've been doing some good work to Willie Colon and Clarence Williams lately.
Favorite food city?
New Orleans, although I may be biased because it is my home town.