John Bates has earned his Austin swagger. Before launching The Noble Pig—the charcuterie, bread, and heavenly sandwich shop on the far edges of North Austin—the chef spent formative years in some major city kitchens, including sous cheffing at Wink and executive cheffing at Asti for two and a half years (not to mention a decade-plus working his way up the industry). Influential though these were, it was Bates’ early training—at Del Mar College—that would prove a decisive influence in his future success.
A Corpus Christi native, Bates attended culinary school at Del Mar, and that’s where he met friend, fellow chef, and future business partner Brandon Martinez. The Fates didn’t join the two immediately; Martinez briefly abandoned his Texan home to round out his Del Mar training at the New England Culinary Institute, where he graduated in 2002. And before coming back to the Lone Star State, Martinez fleshed out his resume behind the line at the Inn at the Anasazi in Santa Fe, and Aquarello, a distinguished Italian restaurant in San Francisco.
But once home, Martinez teamed up with former classmate Bates to open a restaurant built on scratch-cooking and a simple philosophy: “make it, and make it better than the guy down the street.” With more than enough experience in the standards and practices of contemporary upscale dining between them, the duo created something that had the guts—but none of the daintiness—of modern, sophisticated cuisine. The Noble Pig, now open for almost one and a half years, solidifies Bates’s and Martinez’s shared passion for applying the highest standards to the most straightforward, delicious food.
Interview with Rising Star Chefs John Bates and Brandon Martinez of The Noble Pig – Austin, TX
Caroline Hatchett: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
John Bates: I’ve always been interested in cooking and always cooked with my dad. I chose it because it’s the only thing I’ve done with myself in life. My first job was washing dishes in a steakhouse at 16. From day one, I was hooked.
Brandon Martinez: I’ve always been in the industry. My grandmother had a catering business, and seeing her doing her thing inspired me to pursue culinary arts. I always helped her cut rolls and cook. I thought it was fun. p>
CH: What advice would you give to young chefs just getting started?
JB: Work hard, keep your head down, and cook and eat as much as possible. It’s all about being willing to put in hours and learn your craft, even on down time. You have think about expanding your palate.
BM: Work hard, pay attention, and try to learn as much as you can on the job. It’s an all-consuming industry. You have to pay dues and roll with the punches.
CH: Do you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks? Do you hire chefs with or without a culinary background?
JB: I did go to a community college culinary school, but it’s a tough call. I recommend it if you have someone who’s wiling to help you out financially. I was able to get a Pell grant for it, because it was a state school. I don’t recommend it for cooks who will be held down by the burden. Without it, I don't think you’re limited by job choice or what chef you choose to work for. That has a more long-term effect. You can get out of culinary school and end up in a bad restaurant and continue with bad habits. Or you can end up in a great restaurant.
BM: I would recommend culinary school. Some of my best friends I met in culinary school. The chef community is such a small world. You make good connections for the future.
CH: What ingredient do you feel is under appreciated?
JB: Rutabaga. I love it. It’s my favorite vegetable in the world. I think humble root vegetables can be made into amazing things.
BM: Organ meats, in general. I grew up with South Texas and Mexican food, eating sweetbreads, lengua, and menuda.
CH: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
JB: I’m really big into scratch cooking. I appreciate people who take time to learn craft. I’m not a huge locavore, but for me it’s so much more about learning cooking and technique and having skills. Take the next step and crafting food. For me, I respect people who have that kind of attention to detail. I seek out honest, real cooking. That’s what I get excited about.
BM: Make it good; make it simple. Use great quality ingredients. Do the best stuff you can. Short cuts don’t get you where you need to be. It’s about patience. Dining is an experience, and you have to take it all in.
CH: What goes into creating a dish?
JB: Typically, Brandon and I will get exited about seasonality and when things come through from local farmers. I really want to cook an ingredient because I’m exited about it. The guests choose at that point whether an item stays on the menu. When we took seared beef tongue off, guests came in and asked for it.
CH: What’s the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
BM: The seating. We’re growing at such a fast pace. We’re trying to expand without the quality of food suffering.
CH: What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your job?
JB: Being in a management position, cutting ties with people when it doesn’t work out. It’s the non-chef-related stuff. Also, maintaining books and keeping all that side organized. That’s such a new experience. I had that kind of training running other kitchens, but the details, bills, and paperwork are a lot of work. We did so much on our own because we’re a small start-up. The kitchen is the easy part. The whole office sideman I have to put my head down. When you start small, you don’t have funds to hire these people. But you hope you’ll get big enough to hire them. We didn’t have start-up capital. But you have to push growth as hard as you can. It never stops.
BM: Opening The Noble Pig. It’s one of those thingsit took everything we had to make it happen. A lot of time and family help went in. It’s the hardest and most gratifying thing I’ve done. If I had known how hard it was, I may have reconsidered. I put in money; John did as well. And our families helped as well. When we opened doors, it was in the red. We had no help from banks.
CH: What’s your proudest accomplishment in your career to date?
JB: Opening The Noble Pig. It was so hard to do it. It takes so much time and money. I invested so much time into my career. Started as a dishwasher, worked as cook, and chose chefs to show me the road where I wanted to go. It takes a solid 10 to 15 years to get where you want to go. It’s not an easy job. You work intense hours. There’s lots of pressure. But the most gratifying part of my career is that it all paid off. Then you realize it gets even harder.
BM: Opening of The Noble Pig. It’s been a lot of hard work. It’s taken a long time to get where we areas far as my career and me being a chef. Opening The Noble Pig is the greatest thing ever. (OK, my wife is pointing to my baby, who’s two months old.) I work for 12 to 14 hours, hang with my kid, and squeeze in sleep.
CH: Where do you see yourself in five years?
JB: Owning other restaurants. I would like to turn back to my roots and do a more progressive, sit-down style restaurant. That or buy an Italian speed boat.
BM: I see myself hopefully growing the business so it’s comfortable. It depends on where the restaurant takes us. I see us opening more restaurants and a more fine-dining spot.