Kevin Ouzts has been connected to the Atlanta food scene for most of his life. Ouzts mans his Kirkwood charcuterie shop, The Spotted Trotter, with his wife, Megan, and a team of well-trained meat connoisseurs, and they will soon be opening a Krog Street Market outpost along with their restaurant, The Cockentrice. Ouzts fell under the charcuterie spell by watching chef Ryan Smith at Restaurant Eugene. After a stint in California working with Taylor Boetticher at the Fatted Calf Charcuterie, Ouzts decided to begin his restaurateur career in reverse, by opening a charcuterie-focused retail store before a sit-down restaurant. Here, dissect the details on the man behind the meat.
Why did you open a retail location prior to opening a traditional restaurant?
The primary reason was finances; we landed right in the 2008 downturn. I was out in California and the whole premise and idea was to come back and open a restaurant, but there was very little lending. We were in an economic horror zone with regards to borrowing money. The farmers market movement had just started, so we came back at a very serendipitous time in this business. We knew if we tried to open a restaurant then, there might not have been as much cash in the pockets of diners coming out to eat at restaurants. More people were going to the farmers market and celebrating food in their homes. It was a good time for retail. When we finally got the loan in 2009, we were the first business in the city of Atlanta in five years to get a start-up loan.
What about meat inspires you and made you want to focus on charcuterie?
I just have to think about the food renaissance this country's been in. The focus has been on celebrating local farms, but that succinctly meant produce. There's been a lot of celebration of the seasonality of food, but the one thing that was left off the whole diagram was where livestock and meat came into that. People go out to dinner, and I'd say 75 percent of what's being sold on the menu is protein. There's still a lot more work required to celebrate what needs to be done to get the meat here. The romantic side of what's on the table is not being met on the processing side. There's something to be done about bringing education to that part.
What are you doing to heighten the awareness behind the processes of meat production?
There's not a whole lot of folks doing anything yet. That's the scary part. I just wrote a rant the other day on Facebook about how people are celebrating what you see on the plate, but when you go and look at the backside of it, in the next five years, it's not going to be there. The meat that's being put on the pedestal for consumers is not being put on a pedestal for the processing parts. If we're not celebrating and giving and providing and showcasing the extraordinary things it takes to not just grow the animal but move it through the chain of being slaughtered and being succinctly and precisely butchered, it won't be sustainable. In the Midwest, they have processing plants the size of this parking lot that have one butcher or one processing person making one cut all day long. In the Southeast, Northeast, and out in California, the processing is where there's a huge loss. If we don't finish the circle, it's going to be very hard for the meat to get to the tables.
Do you see a movement in that direction?
Yes. I hope that there's more of it. For instance, in the city of Atlanta, there's three or four processors in all of these rural areas where their grandfather taught them how to be a butcher. They're without the skill set, sanitary conditions and cleanliness that really needs to be put on the pedestal. We look at these steaks and say, "Oh! They look so great and so pretty on the plate." But what's happening back there? If you took some time to go see what's happening back there, then you'd see there's a huge missing link here that we need to focus more on.
You or I could go buy a great piece of property in the outskirts of Atlanta up by Athens or south Georgia and go ahead and get some hogs or some beef and start raising those animals, but once we've reach that level to take it to the next step, that second step is crucial. It's the unromantic side, the dirty side, the dark side that nobody really wants to focus on.
Can you describe how you got started in the food industry?
My entire life has been a roller coaster in food. My mom owned a restaurant in Atlanta for 15 years and I was just always around it. In the back of my mind, as I was going to high school and college, I knew it was something comfortable that I could always lean on. It was very easy for me to say this is something I could do, but it never really grabbed onto me until I met my wife and she said I needed to take a second look at this. When I was working, it was something I always felt was second nature.
When I worked at Restaurant Eugene with a number of great chefs, specifically Ryan Smith made a good impact on me. When I went to work in California, it rang true to me that this is how I could have a niche in the marketplace. I had the opportunity to work with Taylor Boetticher at the Fatted Calf and I asked him how he got started. It just so happened that it was identical to what was happening in Atlanta then. I remember just picking up the phone and calling my wife and saying, "Oh my gosh. This is something we could do." We bought a stuffer and a grinder and got started. It was that moment in California that I realized the chef part of it would have to take a backseat for the time being until we could get started. It was always the plan to open a restaurant, but we knew it would take a bit more identity and understanding about what we wanted to do.
What's your favorite animal to cook?
What you learn when you open a shop is that there's certain periods of time when you'll do more roasting, braising or making stews and things like that. In the summertime, you talk about the grilling of meats, the fire cookery. I'd say we'd have to break it out into seasonality. There are times when I do a lot of braising of cheeks and oxtails and those pieces have wonderful qualities. In the summertime, there's a lot of fun things that can be done on pork and a piece of lamb. Lamb and pork are the funnest things for me in the summertime. I enjoy, as far as cuts, the midsection and the parts of the animal on a piece of pork that require more tenderness to cook without the opportunity to mess them up. You have to really have fun with it and try and test a lot of things. We sell a lot of cuts on the pork, and in the wintertime I like to cook a lot of the long, slow-roasted braising style meats.
Are there some pairings you like to use or have a tendency towards when cooking with meat?
Sorghum syrup without a doubt. We're growing a lot of unique peppers here in the Southeast. A lot of heirloom varieties of chili peppers. In the fruit category, peaches come big into mind. Mayhaw berry is grown off the coastal marshlands of the Southeast. There's a presence in our community in which these things are only grown. It's good for us to try and showcase those things. For us, in the spice and herb category, there's a way in which we can celebrate those more by having farmers grow these peppers and bring them in and make our own chili powder. Those will carry for decades. There's different varieties of honey that are grown only in the state of Georgia, so we try and celebrate those as well.
How would you describe the experience of whole animal cooking?
Cooking the whole animal has to happen in every season. More so, it challenges us and the chefs and the staff to understand how to best cook those pieces. If I'm a butcher, and I'm sitting on just a huge surplus of ham, I have to figure out how I am going to get this to my customer and make sure they have a wonderful experience with it. Nose-to-tail cooking should and can happen any time of the year. One of the developments on the menu that we hope to bring about is to put the word pork on the menu and you don't come in and get to pick, we pick for you. We show you and provide you a way that I could cook a pork shank and you're going to put it in your mouth and and your eyes are going to light up and say, "Oh my gosh. That's a pork shank." What is a trotter? How can we put that on your palette so that you walk into any restaurant and ask if they have trotters. We try to think about a way to really examine and study and invent the process, so if we want to save several pork livers or oxtails, we figure out how to get it to the masses so they walk away with a great experience.
—Eater Atlanta contributor Jamie Lee