A few bricks. A little mortar. That should never stand between a chef and his audience.
Kevin Ouzts (”Oots”) finds himself at just that point in life when a chef starts thinking about having his own place. The 35-year-old Atlanta native has a flawless local resume. For starters, he grew up in a food-obsessed family. His mother staged elaborate dinner parties where she served French food from the canon of Julia Child. His father presided over a huge pit smoker in the back yard and taught young Kevin his first recipe: barbecue sauce.
Ouzts graduated from the University of Georgia, tried his hand at an advertising career and decided it wasn’t for him. He needed to cook. So, staying local, he attended Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Tucker. He got a job at Restaurant Eugene, rose to the level of sous chef and helped opened that restaurant’s wildly successful little brother, Holeman & Finch Public House.
He got to that point every chef gets to when he had to leave home to see how food is handled, prepared and presented in a locale famous for its gastronomy. Lucky break, he was invited to participate in an unpaid apprenticeship at the famed French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., in the heart of the Napa Valley.
There was good and bad with this move.
The good: He got to see that “people think about food in a completely different way” in Northern California. Seasonality and freshness of ingredients inform the cooking there like nowhere else in the country.
The bad: After a month at the French Laundry he was still bagging cookies for the guests to take home with them, but not actually cooking much.
So Ouzts hooked up with Taylor Boetticher, the itinerant butcher of Napa Valley. Boetticher had earned a serious name for himself (and garnered all kinds of national press) for the grand array of sausages, cured meats and assorted charcuterie he sold at the Napa Valley Farmers Market under the label Fatted Calf. The fact that Boetticher didn’t have a bricks-and-mortar shop only added to the mystique. If you wanted to try his rabbit pate, liverwurst, chorizo or salami, you had to shop at the market. If there were specifics you wanted, it was best to place an order.
Ouzts realized this arrangement was just a matter of necessity for a chef with little money.
“It was a business model, ” he said. “The idea is working yourself slowly into the city to get a better understanding of it. By going to the farmers market, you’re there talking to people and finding out what they really want.”
So when Ouzts returned to Atlanta, he took the business model and ran. In June he opened The Spotted Trotter as the city’s first mobile purveyor of charcuterie. He sells his goods at the Peachtree Road Farmers Market on Saturdays. This tall, bearded redhead chef has become a fixture at the market, and attracts a perpetual line for the meaty treats he hands out. He also currently has one retail location at Sawicki’s Meat Seafood & More in Decatur.
Like his mentor at the Fatted Calf, Ouzts makes an astonishing array of different kinds of sausage and cured meats.
He makes a petit sec meat stick (kind of like a French Slim Jim) flavored with red wine, herbs and oregano, as well as a spicy, smoky chorizo. These are both cured sausages.
His fresh sausages are just as interesting. His coarse rabbit boudin entices you with a sweet booziness but holds your attention with its back flavor of Basque espelette pepper. The sausage he calls “Swot” unites the chile-and-fennel-seed best of sweet Italian and hot Italian sausages. An Asian-spiced lamb crepinette bundles juicy lamb sausage in a lacy cloak of caul fat.
I suspect that people will start talking mostly about two expressly Southern products. He uses grass-fed White Oak Pastures beef from South Georgia to make very interesting jerky sweetened with sorghum and Kentucky corn-mash bourbon. Because it is less salty than most beef jerky, it has a much more nuanced flavor. His pork belly, cured in sorghum and cut thick, is sure to start showing up on menus around town. It is spectacular.
As Ouzts tells it, he has seen this project as “a diving board” into the Atlanta restaurant scene. Next up: an actual bricks-and-mortar shop for The Spotted Trotter. He is close to signing on a freestanding building in East Atlanta Village, where he hopes to set up his meat processing and also sell retail. After that, he may open a restaurant.
As he has found by talking to customers at the farmers market, Atlantans have a great interest in the kinds of food he wants to make.