The Very Big Thing Misti Norris Just Did
Lock your eyes tight shut, if you will, only for a moment, and dare to dream—dream of that brighter tomorrow, of a day when you finally blossom into your authentic self, where you ditch the thing that everyone else is doing, learn to stop worrying, live your passions, and all that other social media-fueled, self-improvement hocus-pocus. What do you see? Do you end up with a new job, a new career? Have you moved to a new city, a new country, perhaps even to a private island, somewhere there’s always sunshine, even in the middle of a winter that just won’t end?
If you are Misti Norris, the 32-year-old chef/owner of Petra & The Beast, the most exciting restaurant to open in Dallas for some time, all of that dreaming, scheming, visualizing, and setting of powerful intentions ends up bringing you to a shuttered gas station on North Haskell Street, in a little pocket of East Dallas that appears to be on almost nobody else's radar. You get into the little kitchen at the back of the building, and you start breaking down heritage hogs—big, beautiful things, some of them taller than you. You start fermenting things in jars, you start tying bundles of local herbs together from the ceiling to dry, you put up a little counter, and a chalkboard to write down the day’s menu, a menu filled with unusual animal parts, and charred things, and foraged things, and beautiful charcuterie and pasta that you have made yourself, and you open the doors and you hope that people will come, and that they will like your food.
There are so many things that are exciting about Petra & The Beast, not only a new Dallas restaurant, but also one of the more exciting recent openings anywhere in the country, one that just so happens to be on an unlovely block in a nothing-special part of a city not particularly known for its risky cooking. Of course, Dallas has changed, like so many other American cities; there is more depth and breadth to the local restaurant situation than ever, but still, with Petra & The Beast, Norris is pushing it, and she is not only pushing it a tiny bit, at least by Dallas standards. There is no sign out front, for starters; the old gas station, dating back to the 1930s, with a giant old pecan tree on the vacant lot out back, is painted, top to bottom, in deep aubergine. Parking on the scuffed up lot is every man for himself. Petra & The Beast is, let us say, a relentlessly casual affair.
You walk inside, across industrial-grade tile floors, past pig skulls decorated with dried cherry blossoms, like little ofrendas, and the various dead reeds and rushes, and those herbs hanging from the ceiling, containers of bleached-white tail bone on the sort of hutch your grandmother might have liked for her dining room, a few decades ago, alongside jars upon jars upon jars — mussel shells, a sunflower soda, pickled mushrooms, wild grape vinegar, chilies fermenting in grey salt, in a giant urn.
And then, there at the counter—no table service here, not except during the Saturday night tasting dinner—is the menu, filled with the sort of things that most people do not look for in your typical Dallas restaurant. Chicken hearts, pig tails, things with pork tongue ragu, and head cheese porridge, and blood pudding, and it is all the tiniest bit overwhelming, in the very best way, at least it was to me, staring at a menu filled with things that I had not encountered in nearly twenty years of professional eating.
There was already so much that I liked, before I sat down there, all alone in the dining room on a dark and cold and damp afternoon, late last fall, starting with the way Petra & The Beast felt nothing like any other Dallas restaurant I had ever tried. Then I began eating, beginning with thick slabs of rabbit terrine, creamy and comforting, served with a sunshine-bringing smear of smoke-infused tangerine jam, searing hot yellow mustard, stalks of bright green broccoli, fermented, the whole arrangement littered with tiny kernels of popped sorghum. Sometimes, food is just that good. Sometimes, you just know. This wasn’t just another slab of wood with some charcuterie on top—this here, this was a moment. I felt that too-rare, wonderful feeling that you get when you know that you have stumbled upon something good.
Right at the time of my initial visit, a then-obscure Petra & The Beast had received, out of nowhere, its first big national notice, landing on Esquire’s Best New Restaurants list. In the weeks since, the work that Norris is doing has received a ton of attention, particularly in Texas, and this past week, the James Beard Foundation released its annual list of nominees, and there, as I had very much hoped it would be, was Petra & The Beast, Best New Restaurant, and it is a safe bet that the accolades are far from over, and nobody is more surprised than Misti Norris. All of this is happening simply because she knew her life needed to change, all this is happening merely because she set out to be happy.
Happiness, or let us instead talk about contentment, its more stable, less weather-prone emotional cousin, does not necessarily look the same to everyone, and to Norris, who had already been cooking for more than half of her young life, what that meant, after years of working for other people, was being left alone to do her own damn thing. To forage, to butcher, to pursue her burning passion for sustainability both in her own life and career, but also in her cooking. All she needed was enough people to like her food, so that she could pay her bills. Anything else beyond that, she hadn’t given that much thought.
In the beginning, boudin balls
Norris has lived in Texas for most of her life, born into a Cajun family. Her love of food, and of cooking, can be traced way back into her childhood, and the very first time she tried boudin balls.
“Being Cajun, everything revolved around food," Norris recalls. "Any excuse to have a party, that was my upbringing. I was eight years old, the first time my maw maw made boudin balls, rolling them out and then frying them. That moment, it sparked something in me. I took a bite, and I remember thinking, I have been wasting my life, these first eight years.”
Norris lived with her father at the time, and he worked, often leaving her and her brother at home alone. She would go through the cabinet, and she would start cooking, often terrible food, she remembers, but the specifics weren’t important. She was chasing something—something as good as that moment she felt, the first time she tried breaded, deep-fried boudin.
“I didn’t realize you could actually have a career cooking, I never knew that—I didn’t even know that was a thing, until I turned eighteen. I thought I’d be a cosmologist, I was into physics, and star theories, and all that.”
She took her first kitchen job at the age of fifteen, in a retirement home. It remains, she says, the coolest job she ever had.
“I would go hang out with the residents and play bridge and drink gin, it was amazing. They’d tell me these stories. The food was terrible, but that’s what they wanted. Cottage cheese and peaches, and a glass of buttermilk for their biscuits — as long as they were happy.”
Eventually, she ended up in culinary school, only to drop out during the second semester. School, she says, just wasn’t for her. She’d never been good at being a student, and even though this was something she now really wanted to learn, she just didn’t have the time—she was too busy cooking for a living.
“I was already working at the time, I had literally five jobs, one where I didn’t get out until four o’ clock in the morning, I was a private chef at one point—it just became so much, and I started thinking, I really don’t want to owe all that money back.” Norris threw herself into her work, and hoped it would all lead to something bigger and better.
“I made a conscious decision that I was going to work my ass off, that I was going to do something, that’s all I knew. I was lucky to work for some really great chefs who took me under their wing and taught me a lot, and gave me just enough freedom to keep me excited. I got screamed at and got stuff thrown at me—that was just the way it was. But I had done competitive gymnastics for nine years, I remember my coach just yelling at me, and I’m crying, because I won’t do a layout, and then I finally did it and I landed on my feet and I was like, oh that wasn’t so bad. I feel like that prepared me for my time in the kitchen.”
The moment where it all began happening for Norris, was the time where she found herself working at a boundary-pushing brewpub, located directly next door to the infamous Texas Theatre, there in Dallas, at a time when that particular strip remained something of an out-of-the-way destination. Norris had never run a restaurant before, and neither had a lot of people involved in the project, but she began taking these risks, moving her cooking in the direction she was beginning to feel she’d like it to go, and both she and the brewpub began receiving a great deal of attention for their efforts. Still, Dallas didn't appear to be ready.
“Just because we got all those accolades didn’t mean we were busy. People would read an article about chicken feet, and think, okay, that’s all they’re doing there. We were like, no, we have pasta, too!”
By then, Norris had been working on the Dallas scene for nearly a decade, and once she could see the writing on the wall, vis-à-vis her relationship with that particular restaurant, she knew she needed to get out, she needed a break, to clear her head, and to figure out what the hell she was going to do with the rest of her career, which was only just getting started.
So, in 2016, Norris left Dallas, and went to New York, where she ended up working with her friend Richard Kuo, the opening chef at the now-shuttered Pearl & Ash. She spent another six months traveling, trying to figure things out. Before leaving Dallas, she'd founded an LLC, calling it Petra & The Beast—Petra as in petrichor, the heady scent of rain falling on dry ground, beast as in the animals she had come to greatly enjoy breaking down, piece by piece. Norris began doing pop-ups, she started doing little foraging trips, pulling fiddlehead ferns, and mushrooms. Somebody messaged her on social media, asking her if she might be interested in subleasing a space in East Dallas, which was something she did not think she was ready for. She was, after all, happy being other people’s guest chef, she was content to just pop up, here and there, every now and then. But this was too good an offer, and besides, she knew that eventually she was going to want her own place. What better time than the present?
Suddenly, she was faced with two choices. One, she could scout around for investors; Norris by this time was visible enough, around Dallas—raising a bit of capital wasn’t out of the realm of possibility. Then there was the other option. She could put, as she says, "her entire life" up as collateral. She could do the damn thing herself.
Going it alone
With $10,000 saved from a particularly well-paying gig, and another loan for $10,000, Petra & The Beast was officially a restaurant. A restaurant with no tables. A restaurant with no tables, and two very talented people cooking in the back—Norris, alongside friend and sous chef Tony Ibarra. The two have been working together for a better part of a decade, they met on the line at Nana, a then-groundbreaking, modern Spanish-inspired restaurant at a local hotel. (The restaurant has since pivoted to steak.)
Tables or no, Norris insists she couldn’t have been happier. She didn’t give much thought to whether or not people would be turned off by such a rustic operation—it was hers, and nobody else’s. She’d start where she could, and aim at the sky, using local product in a sustainable fashion, and taking care of herself, and not reaching beyond where she felt she could. For her, happiness meant the freedom to do what she liked, and to pursue her burning passion for fermenting things, for nose-to-tail butchery, not a scrap wasted, and dammit, she was doing it.
“For the first four months, it was such a bare space,” Norris says, of Petra. “We said, let’s do this, let’s see how the neighborhood responds, before we sign a long-term lease. Tony and I are lucky to have a lot of knowledge on how to do a lot with a little—in our last kitchen, the stove didn’t work.”
Being fearless, or something close to it, had to have been a big help. Norris is, by her own confession, in what she calls “a constant state of anxiety,” but she is also one of those people who does not appear to be all that fussed by its presence in her life. This is, after all, someone who is allergic to shellfish, but will happily throw down with a plate of shrimp. “I’m Cajun,” she notes, matter-of-factly. “If I didn’t eat shellfish, they’d kick me out.” She stockpiles EpiPens, and she just gets on with her life. “Now that they sell the generic ones, they’re much cheaper,” she notes.
“I love failing, to be honest," Norris admits. "It’s a crash course, you can’t deny or justify when things go wrong, you just have to say, that sucked, that didn’t work, let’s do it different next time, that’s totally fine. I actually enjoy it. Something may fail at the moment, but it’s not necessarily a failure.”
For the love of offal
In the beginning—still slightly less than a year ago, mind you—the food was somewhat different than it is now. Norris was doing gumbo, a lot of stew, really, she was doing comfort foods that she liked, all with that relentlessly farm-centric philosophy. People liked the place just fine, the response was good, but over time, Norris began to feel as if something was missing. At the start, she had been experimenting with some of the more unique offal dishes that would eventually feature so prominently on her menu, but she wasn’t quite sure if she could afford to be so in people’s face about it. She’d seen people walk in, look at the menu, with its pig parts, chicken hearts, and veal tongues, mutter something along the lines of are you kidding, and walk straight out.
“Offal is one of my true passions, the idea of full utilization, which includes selling kidneys and hearts, but of course you have to figure out—how do we create something so undeniably good, that you don’t even think about what you’re eating. I started to doubt myself, and I started backing away from all that, I thought maybe it was too much for people.”
This wasn't, after all, just Norris working in someone else’s kitchen, collecting a paycheck. This time, the bank was just a missed payment or two away from owning her rapidly-aging Mazda 3, and she had tough decisions to make. Did she need better marketing, better packaging, more recognition? If the meantime, if gumbo was the thing that paid the bills, paid her employees, then hell—bring on the gumbo. Then, one day, she was talking about all of this to a friend of hers, a chef working in another city, when it hit her over the head. The solution, she realized, was not to change who she was, and what she was doing, in order to make more money. She had to win people over to her cooking. She had to gain people’s trust.
“Suddenly, it was like, wait, what I am I doing? I took this risk, and if I’m not going to go full force, what’s the point, why am I doing this? I said screw it, now we have to just make things that are so good, that you cannot deny them. I sat down with Tony, we went over things, we asked, how can we make things better, more approachable.”
The dream, realized
Walk into Petra & The Beast today, and you’ll typically find those chicken hearts and pig tails prominently featured on the menu, in some form or fashion; most recently, Norris was smoking the hearts, and serving them with a delicate parmesan mousse, and a broccoli conserva. The hearts are now one of the most popular items on the menu—Norris has pressed a local poultry farm into service, guaranteeing an endless supply. She talks about the guy that comes in regularly, who walks around the dining room asking people if they have ordered the chicken hearts, encouraging them to do so immediately, if they have not.
Of course, there is plenty else to eat, if offal is not your thing; pickier eaters will find more than a few places of refuge on Petra’s menu—homey egg noodles, served with mushroom three ways (smoked, caked, and in a broth) and topped with a soft egg are straight up comfortable; a charcuterie board brims with technically marvelous versions of things you will have seen before, from silken chicken liver mousse to thick hunks of rustic country pate. At $32, the board is one of the more expensive propositions that you will find, here in this restaurant that is set up like a fast-casual in search of a branding team. It is also the best charcuterie board in Dallas, and possibly beyond. (Ruggedly handsome breads from local baker Brock Middleton, served with koji-cultured butter, are the perfect accompaniment.)
Not that Petra, or the food, is for everyone, and if you ask Norris, this does not bother her in the slightest; the main thing is that enough people out there like her cooking, in order to keep the lights on. She’s used to not being for everyone—for goodness’ sake, her own mother, who remained convinced until relatively recently that her daughter didn’t know how to cook, wasn’t so sure about the food, the first time she walked into her daughter’s restaurant, which is why she brought KFC, chicken pot pies, to be specific. You know, just in case things didn’t work out.
"My mother up until very recently wanted me to go somewhere more secure, to go to a hotel, somewhere that would give me insurance, why aren’t you married," Norris laughs. Their generation has been built on working for different companies, making sure the family is taken care of. She didn’t understand, why would you be broke all the time, why would you not sleep, why would you always be working? I still think she wishes I’d done something else."
Sustainability, both on and off the menu
Her mother is starting to come around, if slowly. It helps that everybody is talking about the work that her daughter is doing, but it also helps that Norris is not only surviving, but also thriving, while in the middle of one of the most challenging moments of her life. Ask Norris how she copes—besides the day to day of the restaurant, there are the menus for those ambitious Saturday night tasting dinners to worry about, and she’ll admit freely she goes to therapy regularly. She’ll also tell you, that running your own restaurant, being the owner, and having the buck stop with you, can have a sobering effect, it can help keep you from making bad choices, something chefs working for someone else might not have to consider quite so seriously.
“I have to keep it together, because I have no other choice," Norris says. "Your business can’t survive if you’re going crazy all the time—being a chef, it’s such an old school existence; now, a lot of people are going out on their own, and taking a step toward trying to lead a normal life. We’re sobering up, and we’re just doing it. We don’t have a choice—we are our own jobs.”
In the restaurant, she works to foster an environment of safety, of encouragement.
“I tell my people—it’s okay for things not to be right, all the time, it’s okay that this dish didn’t work out, or that we’re not selling it, it’s fine, it’s okay, we’re still here, we’re good, we all still have work. I get upset, deep down I want everything to be perfect, but I realize, that’s not real, it’s not going to happen.”
Still, Norris has plans to at least come close. Petra & The Beast will, she hopes, not be the only thing she ever does, but she’d like it to be around for a very long time—to grow with the neighborhood, and to become a real part of the neighborhood, which is just starting to pick up again. She loves it here, there's space, there's nobody next door bothering her. She loves collecting pecans from the giant tree next door, on the vacant lot, owned by the nearby hospital. There is room on the property for raised beds, and she’s got some local farmers coming in to help, she has a graffiti artist coming in to do some mythical creature street art, she wants to plant jasmine around the whole building, so it smells like bubble gum when you get out of your car.
One step at a time, she says. Sensibly, sustainably. She’s already done the big thing, that’s what really matters, she’s struck out on her own, she’s tried something different, and it worked. Now, she’s getting all this attention from faraway places, and even Norris has no idea where it might all lead, and she’s not all that bothered about it, either, because she didn’t start this to get famous, or make a ton of money, she says—she did it because, more than anything else, she wanted to do her own thing. As long as she can pay her employees and her rent, she says, she’s happy.
“I don’t owe anybody anything,” she says. “And that’s such a huge relief.”