Author and general rabble-rouser Josh Ozersky is never at a loss for words. While his primary online gig is the "Eat Like A Man" blog at Esquire, Ozersky has also authored books including 2009's The Hamburger: A History and 2012's
Colonel Sanders and the American Dream.
When he's not writing about meat, Ozersky spends his leisure time throwing meat-eating festivals. His notorious Meatopia festival expanded this year to make both UK and Texas debuts after many years in New York. In advance of Meatopia's first run at San Antonio's Pearl Brewery, Eater spoke with Ozersky about why Texas is the "ultimate meat state," his pro-food-porn stance, and sourcing "the best meat in the country."
How did Meatopia come to fruition in San Antonio? And why is it on the same weekend as Texas Monthly BBQ Festival? Was it simple venue logistics?
That date was just right for Pearl. It was important for us to get visitors from Austin, but we don't expect to get the whole beef eating population of the city. The event is primarily for San Antonio. There's always something going on in these markets. There was also the thought that since Texas Monthly BBQ is so established, it would sell out quickly and there would be hungry Austinites looking for a Plan B. I consider Meatopia to be the equal of any meat event anywhere in the world. We've never done it before in Texas, and a lot of people know me down there, and they've heard about the event and might want to give it a shot. It's always fun to go on a day trip to San Antonio.
And the Pearl is a great venue. It's a beautiful place for people who've never been.
That's the thing. If I was gonna do Meatopia in Texas, my first thought was to do it in Austin. We looked at sites like Fiesta Gardens but they weren't working out. I went to San Antonio knowing little about it. For me, it was just the "Alamo" city. I went to Pearl for a tamale event and it just blew me away. The restaurants were great, it was a beautiful campus, and the lady who is in charge of the creative side of Pearl seemed like my long lost sister. She had so much imagination and intelligence and they were willing to get behind it. I just realized that they were someone that I wanted to work with. Also, in Austin, there are so many events! ACL, South by Southwest, Texas Monthly BBQ. I felt that San Antonio deserved a world class event and I wanted to be the one to give it to them.
You are very, very busy as a writer - what makes you want to do events? Assuming that doing festivals is not a huge source of income for you, why do you spend time and energy on creating events?
Honestly, if you do something like Meatopia, you see the interest in it, and how much people and chefs get into it. It generates a momentum of its own, and since a good part of my writing is about being into and understanding more about meat, it became very important to me. I did an event last year that got hit by a tornado in New York. And no one left! People sat there with garbage bags over their heads and waited for the tornado to pass. Then they went right back to eating.
I remember seeing the pictures on Twitter.
The other thing too is, as a writer, I've been to so many food events. There's the celebrity chefs standing around, and all these guys sitting behind steam trays, and this disco music playing. I really felt that I wanted to do something pure. All live fires, no propane allowed, all real chefs, no "celebrity" chefs. And when there were famous chefs, they wouldn't be going around glad-handing everybody. They'd be standing there cooking! So it's April Bloomfield handing you a pork sandwich or Aaron Franklin handing you brisket. It's really exciting to me because, as a writer, you're always in the position of writing about something somebody else does. The idea of being able to create something cool feels great. It's a completely different way of engaging.
I feel like Meatopia could carve out a special place for itself. I wanted to do it in Texas, because Meatopia is the ultimate meat festival and Texas is the ultimate meat state. It's thrilling to me to be able to bring together so many great Texas chefs cooking great Texas meat. When you're a writer, you're never really calling the shots. You get assignments and there are editors, so this is something that I have almost total creative control over. You are coming up with ideas for how to cook and what to cook and creating the menu. To be able to do that in a place like Texas that has such an intense meat culture, that's just a giant turn on for me.
Tell us about the kickoff event you're doing called The Beefsteak? Given the Tammany Hall origins, we're picturing great steak in an old pub like McSorley's. How does this event work?
The original beefsteaks were described immortally by Joe Mitchell and his essay "All You Can Hold for Five Bucks." They were Dionysian and orgiastic affairs, where there was no silverware, women weren't allowed, and were nothing but men drinking beer and eating steak. The whole menu was just steak? People have tried to do this in New York and I felt that they didn't quite nail it. It was too much like a restaurant experience. I wanted it to be upscale, nice, and high end, but I wanted it to have an intense all beef experience which makes perfect sense in Texas.
The meat sponsor for this is a place called Flannery Beef, who have the best meat in the country. I was turned on to them by David Kinch. One of the meats that they handle is a 100% Wagyu from a Wyoming ranch. It's essentially Kobe beef but better, because in Japan, they don't have any land so they keep the cows in a pen. These animals walk around and eat different kinds of grasses. So it's not just strip steaks. The traditional beef steak used short loins and just cut them up as strip steaks. Meatopia is about turning people on to different parts of the animal that they're not used to eating. It's not just like steak, steak, spareribs, spareribs, pulled pork, pulled pork - there's no redundancy. We're doing cuts people never eat. The reason people never eat them is that in the traditional beef animal, like an Angus or any of the British breeds, they'd be inferior to rib steaks and strip steaks. But this Wagyu animal is so insane that even things like flap meat and terrace major cross cut sirloin are amazingly rich at a level far beyond prime. In a beefsteak, traditionally, there was some random cook in the back room shoving steaks into a broiler. But I have three of the best meat chefs in the whole country all on steak duty cooking on live fire with different flavor profiles. Tim Rattray from The Granary is going to do a low temp smoke and finish the steak over hot wood. Mike Toscano from New York is doing an amazing spicy flavor profile with all the zing. Tim Byres is coming down from Dallas and he's doing steak with his famous coffee rub. So -incredible steak, incredible chefs, all wood fired, and meat that nobody has had.
And then the attendees will all come back the next day and do it again at the main event.
No, not really! The Beefsteak is only for like three hundred people. And it's almost sold out, so we'll try to make it bigger next year. But Meatopia proper is going to be The Beef Steak times ten. I have Brian Flannery's meat with Tim Byres. He's going to build a special fire pit. He takes all these cinder blocks, tiles, and cast iron and builds this fire fortress. At Meatopia, you buy the ticket, and then you never open your wallet again. You can eat of all these different foods that blow your mind. It's happening from a million different directions. We have incredible lamb. Chris Shepherd from Underbelly is going to cook a giant boar on a stick. We have beautiful Thai-style baby back ribs, and all this refined stuff. Andrew Weissman is making this incredible stuffed veal breast that's been braised and prepared with an old school French sauce. Jesse Griffiths is doing a brace of doves. And the Salt and Time guys are coming. The caliber of their salumi is as good as anyone in the country. It's a huge honor to have them.
You are pairing meat with beers at the event. Are you also doing a bourbon or some kind of dark spirit pairing?
Yes! Our beer sponsor is Shiner Bock. There's going to be a huge Shiner activation, and then our primary spirit sponsor is George Dickel Whiskey. When you're looking for sponsorship, it's often about who can bring the most to the table. In this case, it's especially cool for me because Dickel is a really amazing spirit, but nobody ever talks about them. I have the George Dickel Single Barrel now in my kitchen. It was really cool because, Meatopia is about trying stuff you don't see every day, so its really cool for me to have a great whiskey sponsor that's also something that people aren't used to seeing at a million events.
You did a great New York Observer piece a while back about today's 24-hour food news cycle. Do you have advice for maturing restaurants on how to stay alive in a short attention span climate? And do you have favorite websites where you're reading about food currently?
After the buzz or novelty of a restaurant dies down, the thing that brings people back and keeps them interested is the caliber of the food on the regular menu. Not some crazy "Fried Chicken Night" or anything. It's the regular food that they serve on a nightly basis. I always encourage restaurants like that to "porn up" the food. There's a bunch of people that go into restaurants and take really beautiful food pictures. I'm really not a huge social media guy. But the dishes that don't have a novel name, like a steak or a pasta - you have to show a picture that gives people a hard on, and then they'll come in. A restaurant can't live on when it's trendy and foodies wait in line for it. A restaurant lives on people coming on Wednesday night two years later. And the thing that makes them come in is are the pictures. I recommend that restaurants not just allow pictures, but encourage them, and even bring people in to take them.
As for the second question, I'm really not a fan of food writing per se, but I like writers who talk about food. So you have good people like Francis Lam or even a critic like Pete Wells. Tom Junod in Esquire is one of my favorite writers, and when he writes about food I think it's about the best there is. Those are the people that I read for literary purposes. For finding out about restaurants and learning about what's going on, my number one source by far is Eater. Eater National and Eater in all the cities that I don't live in are the biggest indispensable resource for me as a food writer on a national beat.
It is quite comprehensive.
How do you find out what's going on in Washington? Or Miami? Eater is just the best at that. There's already somebody on the ground that knows just what's going on and there's the Eater 38 that's absolutely indispensable. I'm not as interested in the heat map because those are not as often my type of restaurants. Once I learn the name of the restaurant, then I start reading about the chef's past history and go in and look at the pictures and the menu. In my opinion, if you look at the menu of a restaurant that's like 70% of it. The pictures are indispensable, but the biggest thing is the menu. If I look at a menu, I often know right away if I'm interested in going or not.
When you are in San Antonio for the week of Meatopia, do you have a hit list of places you've not been yet that you want to try, or favorite places you'll try and return to?
You know, I'd really be interested in eating with a couple of our chefs that have restaurants in the San Antonio hotels, like Jordan Mackey of Las Ramblas and Jeff Foresman at Zocca. Both of those guys are doing really interesting food, and I really want to make sure I get there. There are only two or three chefs at Meatopia whose restaurants I haven't yet been to. I'm really committed to being part of the San Antonio food community, and I want to adopt San Antonio almost as a second home in terms of being part of the chef community there.
- Tom Thornton
Meatopia takes place on November 2-3 at the Pearl Brewery in San Antonio. Tickets are available here, priced from $75-$125.
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