From the beginning of Luck Reunion’s story, Ben has been our culinary mastermind curating incredible dinners with local chefs and hand selecting each food vendor that makes up the Food Corral during our flagship event in March each year. This time, we’re highlighting Ben’s bread and butter: Salt and Time Butcher Shop and Salumeria located 7th St. in East Austin. Salt and Time offers fresh, locally sourced meats as well as other local products to take home from the butcher shop alongside a full menu of carefully perfected sandwiches, boards, antipasti, and entrees for lunch and dinner. We caught up with Ben to talk about the origin of Salt and Time and what goes into one of the best locally sourced butcher shops in the country.
Ben: In 2010 we started doing farmer’s markets. I’d be lying if I said I clearly remember what made dive in and start doing this but definitely the experience of getting to do farmer’s markets in Austin made me really both love what I was doing and also recognize that I wanted to do it inside. The hot summers are not the friendliest environment for the people that are working the farmer’s market or the products we were making and selling. That experience of getting to know our customers and what they wanted let me know that there was something there that people were excited about but also that we needed to do it in an environment that was a little more welcoming and comfortable.
Ben: It definitely started more as the latter. We started with the focus of making sausage and patés and salami and selling them at the market. From there the idea of doing a full retail butcher shop with fresh meat was a no-brainer. It was a combination of meeting Bryan, my business partner and our master butcher, through some mutual acquaintances. He was super experienced in that side of the business, not so much the charcuterie side butmore the retail butcher shop side. Talking with him about our mutual goals and how they worked together lead us to really focusing on our goal. I believe we’ve largely succeeded in that; having one of the best butcher shops that focuses on whole animals and local sourcing...one of the best in the country. From there really the restaurant emerged, both as a creative outlet and a necessary outlet for product. We recognized the demand for certain products was going to be higher in the butcher shop, we really needed a way to utilize the other products well. A lot of it comes from the creative desire to come up with fun stuff that maybe is a little different every time and isn’t so suited for a retail store. You know you come in and buy it and take it home; I think people want that to be as similar as possible every time they do it. If they want something different they’ll buy a different product. But in the restaurant setting there’s a little more fluidity on the creative side and that definitely is what drew us in that direction.
Ben: We have a little bit of both I’d say. We definitely have a few things that never change: our burger and a couple sandwiches on the lunch menu that focus on our house made meats. Beyond that the menu changes as frequently as daily depending on the item. We change the vegetable dishes...there’s six to eight of them and one or two will change every month based on availability changes from what is growing and what’s in season. Our goal is that no more than one or two changes in a month and they stagger out but sometimes, especially in Texas, it’s not uncommon when the season changes for literally everything that you’ve been using to go out all at once. And all the sudden it’s a whole new crop of things that are coming in. So sometimes we have to change more. Then on our dinner menu we have several items that change every day. That’s our steak cuts that we feature based on what’s looking best in the butcher shop. That could be some classic cuts like ribeyes or tenderloins but also some lesser known cuts that we think are really exceptional that we want to showcase. Those will change every single day. Then we also have some items on the menu we like to call “Odd Bits” which are small plates that utilize Offal or organ meat or really lesser known parts of the animal like cheek etc. We do small plates that are six bucks so they’re low risk to give them a try. We think they can be really fantastic and flavorful and those also change as often as daily. One item will usually last for two or three days and we have two or three on the menu so they’re just constantly rotating.
Ben: Really butcher shop and restaurant; it affects us almost completely with the exception of potatoes which we bring in because we do have french fries on our menu year round. I’d say 95% if not 100% of the fresh product - the fruits, vegetables, and meats - that we carry are based on the ranchers and farmers that we work with directly. We have a network here in central texas of famers we either buy from directly or through a couple of aggregator/distributors who work almost exclusively with local farms. It’s not at all uncommon for us to have to not have something that people might expect us to have available. The downside if you want to call it that, of working with small farms is that they don’t have a warehouse full of this stuff so when they run out, we’re out until they pick more or harvest an animal and such. We definitely deal with scarcity in a way that I restaurants who buy from big commodity suppliers never think about.
Ben: Absolutely, it demands it. But also inspires it at the same time. I can think of some recent examples...stuff came in and we were like “Whoa we weren’t expecting this”. Blueberries in general are in season right now and that window in Texas might be 3-6 weeks. So we’ve been buying as many as we can and pickling some and making jam as well as using them fresh and selling them fresh in the market. It was very much like, “Berries are here. Let’s figure out what we can do with them so we can have them a little bit longer than they’re in season. How can we preserve them? Let’s be creative.” Fruit especially is like that in Texas because a season is really really slim. Like right now we have an abundance: we have blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, peaches...but in six weeks we might only have melon. We try to preserve as much as we can when its coming so we have local fruit on the menu as close to year round as possible.
Ben: I think Austin is a really supportive city. I used to say town but I think it’s about time we start calling ourselves a city. [laughs] Whether it be trying to find an ingredient and I know I’ve seen it on menus in places that I know are using local farms; asking the chefs there where they found it or if they can connect me to the farmer. I think that is pretty universal throughout town. And I definitely think there is a kindred spirit nature between the art and music community in Austin and the food community. We identify with each other. A lot of the realities of what both those things are is that a lot of people do both. A lot of people make art and play music out of passion and then they work in the culinary industry out of necessity, but also a lot of people do both out of passion. We have several employees that are very talented musicians but that’s something they do more as a release and they’re actually pretty passionate about cooking. I think we see that a lot. I’m always surprised, it sometimes takes me a few conversations or a few times that the customer comes in to put the dots together that so many of our customers are musicians or artists I really admire. That’s always really fun like, “oh! I’ve been talking to you across the bar for six months I didn’t realize you were in that band or you did that work.” I love that about Austin. There’s not a lot of huge celebrity and pretense but lots of people are doing really great, awesome stuff and there’s a lot of mutual admiration for it.
Oh yeah. [laughs] There’s layers to this. My father was an artist. He did portraits out of cut mirror. Willie was always his favorite subject matter. The texture of his face from age and the hair and the beard really played well into the medium. And obviously being such an Austin institution and icon, people loved him so he was always able to make and sell those. One of his dreams was to meet Willie and have him sign one of his pieces. Unfortunately he passed away before he ever had that chance. He passed away right before the very first iteration of Luck that I participated in and we did a little silent auction of some of his work to benefit the SIMS Foundation as they were one of the beneficiaries. I was holding out hope that I’d get a chance to get Willie to sign one of them and I always was trying to figure out when we’d have a chance to do it but during the actual Reunion it is so busy, no one has time for that kind of stuff. It never happened and I said, “You know, if it’s meant to be it’ll happen”. But I always had a silver sharpie - that’s what my dad always signed his work with because he painted the background matte black - in my glove box and I’d always bring one of the pieces out to Luck just in case the chance was ever there. It never lined up quite right and then maybe two or three months after the Reunion that year I got a text from Annie (Nelson) saying that she was coming in for dinner with some friends. She didn’t tell me Willie was coming [laughs]. I was offsite at a craft beer festival where we were serving food but it was close by so I wanted to make sure I got back to see her and thank her for coming in and everything. So I rushed back and I came in the back door and there was this buzz in the kitchen. I was like, “What’s going on?” and they told me, “Willie’s here”. So I was super excited and surprised and of course came out and said hi to everybody. It was really great to have the crew here. I took the portrait of Willie down off the wall and ran out to my truck to get the silver sharpie and Willie was gracious enough to sign it and to take a picture with me and the portrait so I could send to my grandma and my aunts and uncles so they could all see it. They were all big fans of my dad’s work and supported him...It was really special. It was funny, I’ve never heard our dining room quieter. I kind of broke the seal. You know usually, not that we get a ton of famous people here but, we try to leave them alone and not draw attention. But it wasn’t like that, I’d already broken the seal so when they got up to leave everyone gave them a standing ovation. A lot of handshakes and smiles. After he left it was just electric in here. They came in early and I think that was probably the busiest five o’clock hour we had that whole month. I don’t know if word got out that he was here or if the energy in the neighborhood was such that everyone was like, “Hey, let’s go to Salt and Time,” but either way the whole place was packed.
Ben: We make basically all of our own charcuterie so it’s gonna be a selection of those things. We make a classic Parisian style ham with a little bit of a nod to texas, it’s glazed with a little bit of mezcal and slightly smoked and I absolutely love that. I think it’s one of the best things we make. I really love our summer sausage. It’s not fancy but it’s just perfectly executed. That has pickled jalapeños and cheddar cheese in it which is very much a call back to me of childhood nostalgia of things that we love. A hard salami of some sort, a sopressata or a fennel. Red wine and fennel salami is probably my favorite of that style. Something definitely spreadable so either a chicken liver mousse or a paté.