As I approached the unassuming house in Northwest Hills, I nervously wondered if a secret knock would be required. Maybe a password? The word "fidelio" came rushing to mind (see: "Eyes Wide Shut").
I followed a six-pack-toting couple in through the unlocked front door and was relieved to see there were no Mardi Gras masks — nothing cloak-and-daggerish about this night. Just a bunch of friendly faces, mingling affably in the living room and kitchen, the intoxicating aromas of meat mingling with the palpable sense of anticipation.
I had heard stories of a furtive meeting of local chefs and cooks who gathered monthly to celebrate the joys of cooked meat. As it turns out, Meaty Monday Madness (the acronym MMM says it all) is more four-star potluck than dark culinary cabal. But this is no ordinary dinner party with a hodgepodge of purchased dishes and thrown-together salads.
After a massive birthday feast at which he loaded his newly purchased barbecue pit to capacity last spring, chef Zack Northcutt (co-owner and chef of the downtown wine bar Mulberry) decided to make the event a monthly happening. For the first MMM in April, he opened his house to several of his chef buddies and their collected friends. Word spread, and the event has expanded over the past eight months to an invitation-only gastronomic fête arguably unparalleled by anything in Austin outside of a charity dinner.
On the first Monday of every month, about 10 local culinary wizards descend on Northcutt's home, armed with dishes based on a theme of their host's choosing. The night I visited in October, the tongue-in-cheek theme was Any Baby Can (Be Delicious), indicative of the playful and macabre sense of humor shared by the chefs.
Northcutt says the improvised monthly menus allow the chefs — who come from places such as Perla's Seafood & Oyster Bar, Jeffrey's, Wink, Lamberts Downtown Barbecue and Izzos Tacos — to experiment with recipes and ingredients that might intimidate their regular customers.
This October night, the feast featured smoked and braised cabrito, stuffed poussin (young chickens) and, the most visually stunning, whole piglets cooked three ways (straw, brick and wood).
"The big bad wolf wins," Northcutt said with a grin.
After coming up with the night's motif, often based on a joke or a personal challenge (think whole goat stuffed with a duck), Northcutt distributes the protein to the chefs, who prepare their meals and deliver them to the small kitchen at Northcutt's house. Guests are encouraged to bring libations or a favorite side, but the stars of the night are always the animals.
It was here I tried the sublime creation of a poussin stuffed with ground veal, cornbread and foie gras. You probably won't find that re-created on any menu in town. Trust me when I say that is your loss. For "Game Night" in November, one chef raised the bar yet again with a pheasant stuffed with veal and white truffles.
The evenings take on a slight feel of a "Top Chef" episode. But unlike the TV show, there is no competition or judging. Which is not to say that chefs participating for the first time don't suffer from a slight bit of anxiety.
"I was kind of intimidated at first," said 21-year-old John Gross, who cooks at Parkside, about his foray into the Madness in October. "But it was fun, and I definitely learn from my mistakes. I'm going to request every single Monday off."
Gross is not alone in his appreciation for this monthly beacon of cooking and camaraderie among this group of chefs who have trained or worked together over the years in some of the city's best restaurants.
"Working in a kitchen is very similar to being in an army or on a team," Northcutt said at Mulberry recently. "It's a lot of intense pressure and pain in a short period of time, and a lot of really hard and intense work that builds strong bonds."
Those relationships, forged by the fires of grills around town, and the crew's love of food help explain why this group would choose to spend their precious free time cooking for one another.