From the Two Kingdoms of Nature, Choose Food with Care: An Interview with Dai Due's Jesse Griffiths

He might not see it this way, but to scores of devoted customers and loyal vendors, Jesse Griffiths is the moral compass of our local culinary scene. He founded his business on the simple principal that one could eat well--feast, even--on foods sourced solely from our own foodshed. This hardly seems groundbreaking now, but that's due in large part to Jesse's own tireless work educating and inspiring us with supper club dinners, cooking classes, guided hunting and fishing excursions, and expertly cut local, pastured meats and handmade pantry items from his Dai Due Butcher Shop line. Over the years, he has fed us well, but more than that, he has opened up a world of possibility for us, a world that has always been right there at our feet, waiting to be rediscovered.

Tell us a little about the journey that led you to Dai Due.

Basically, I was working in a restaurant and got tired of handling products that I didn't have faith in. We had just spent all of this time traveling and working on farms in Europe and seeing food systems that were based on local products, and, most importantly, local traditions. I was curious about seeing what could be done with just items I could get from around here. It was, and is, very challenging, but makes so much sense to me that I can't see ever doing it very differently.

Tell us about the products you make—what’s special about them?

We make everything from scratch and from very good ingredients. All of the fresh items are coming locally, or from the region. Any dry goods are organic. Beyond that, everybody that works for Dai Due is very dedicated to what we are doing, and I think that is the most important thing in preparing food. Everything changes every week, too, so there's a flexibility in what we make, with an inherent excitement about the new week that I really try to convey to the staff and the customers.

Why use local ingredients?

Nutrition, economics, being a good neighbor, tradition, freshness and culture.

How did your previous life experience or influences prepare you to make food for a living?

I have worked in restaurants since I was 16. I don't really know anything else, but meeting farmers and finally understanding the work that goes into good food really opened my eyes. Kim Alexander and Larry and Carol Ann Sayle were the first ones that showed me that you can make a successful business from making food the right way.

What does “sustainable” mean to you?

Most importantly it means that your business can pay their staff, keep the lights on and expand if necessary in order to get more ethically produced food in front of the people in your community. Financial sustainability is very important. If a great, ethical food business fails, it doesn't feed people anymore or buy product.

What does a “day in the life” look like at Dai Due?

I answer a lot of emails and spend a lot more time in front of a computer than I would ever like to admit. Thankfully, our staff is wonderful and executes the day to day very well. I spend a few hours in the kitchen after I drop Paloma off at school, in which I make salsas, direct traffic, place orders, write checks, cut animals, drink coffee and taste things. I go home, cook dinner, put the kid to bed and get on the computer until 11 or 12. Or, I'm out of town cooking or teaching.

What would we be surprised to learn is part of your “job description”?

Lifting, loading and unloading is the perpetual Dai Due activity, which is the life of a nomad, I guess. Coolers, crates, food, propane, jars, deer, plates, tents, ice and tables all have to be toted to the market, back to the kitchen, to private events, back home. It is endless.

What do you find most rewarding about making food?

It never, ever gets old. Every week means something new is in season, or something we have fermented or pickled or cured is ready. Nothing is ever the same, and people are always hungry. We also cook for a customer base that is passionate about food, so interacting with customers will quickly remind you why you do all of that heavy lifting.

What do you find most challenging?

Bad weather and the Kafka-inspired Travis County Health Department.

What do you feel is the biggest obstacle faced today by folks who want to create good food for a living?

We, as a group of concerned food-producing vendors or concerned food-consuming citizens, spend way too much time at City Council fighting for a lucid approach to our food system as far as our local government is concerned. Bureaucracy makes it disproportionately harder to serve quality food rather than just unloading the Sysco truck; this is a reflection of federal guidelines and stance. What we pay for products reflects the true cost of food, too, so margins are very slim.

Why should we shop at the farmers’ market?

To learn the first name of the person who worked in a field through that cold snap last weekend to bring us some fresh vegetables, and thank them with some money in return.

What is the best news in food you’ve heard recently?

I love that some people are experimenting with aquaponics. Even if it doesn't work, it's a case of smart people being innovative and trying new things to be more efficient and tighten up our food system to an even more local sphere. I think Central Texas is a model for other regions.

What inspires you?

Young farmers. They know they'll never make a ton of money, but they get to do what they love. Also, the sheer number of new farmers out there says the future of food is bright. Old farmers, too, because they're so tough.

What is one thing everyone can do (or a few simple things) to create a better, stronger food system?

Spend money in the right places. If you own or work at a small business, you yourself are relying on the fact that people are passing up your big-box corporate competition to keep your business afloat. If you enjoy living in a city because its very essence is small and independent, live by the golden rule and put your money back into your community as much as you possibly can.

What are some of your favorite market finds?

The first potatoes of the year, celery, Bat Creek apples, ginger scones, Mill-king, anything at Simmons Farm, Harvest Time eggplant.

What are you cooking this week?

Lots of green tomatoes, venison, and fermented things. Cooler weather allows us to make sauerkraut, kimchi and other fermented vegetables with more control, so we kind of go nuts in the fall and winter. Eggs of course. I love good eggs and am very picky about ours.

What’s your favorite dish using ingredients from the market?

One of the Dewberry roasting hens with whatever vegetables that are in season roasted underneath it.

What are some new products lined up for winter?

Miso, olives, country ham.

Quick Picks

Favorite breakfast: Chilaquiles and coffee.

Favorite comfort food: Anything involving mashed potatoes and gravy.

Favorite book about food: Auberge of the Flowering Hearth by Roy Andries de Groot

Favorite cookbook: River Cottage Meat Book by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

Favorite winter fruit/veggie: Cauliflower.

Favorite food indulgence: Queso.