Blood & Ink: A Butcher’s Story
Matt Palmerlee is tapping his slip-resistant shoe to the beat of Spoon’s “The Way We Get By” playing over the kitchen’s sound system, while scrolling away on his charging iPad and simultaneously making ball-point adjustments to the Branded Butcher’s paper dinner menu. “Runner please! … Runner! Runner to the bar,” he calls as his brown eyes glance over the dozen raw oysters on the half-shell sitting atop rock salt in their stainless steel tray. “Where ya goin’, motherfucka’?” he shouts with a raised but unruffled voice at his sous-chef, Trey Rayburn, as he runs downstairs to the walk-in cooler. That’s about as loud as Matt Palmerlee’s voice gets.
At first glance, 34-year old vegan-turned-charcuterie-champion Palmerlee looks like more of a dishwasher than one of the finest chefs in the small but gastronomically refined town of Athens, Ga. He’s casually sporting his gray-washed Levi’s, a heather Brooklyn Kitchen tee and unshaven but rosy cheeks. The tattoos that cover his arms include a scene from the 1986 film, and one of his favorites, Big Trouble in Little China (“I kind of like some really terrible movies,” he admits). It was cut short after the tattoo artist was sentenced to 15 to 20 years for “doing some kind of crazy shit.” Another is in its early stages of a pig on his inner right arm. Both legs are mostly inked, as well as some rib pieces “that I don’t suggest to anyone ever.” He loves oysters, Dijon mustard just because it’s good, hates coconut, and has a strong disliking for eggplant (except Japanese eggplant) and talking about himself. Though he’s often soft-spoken, he knows how to run a kitchen, and the truth of the matter is that dishwashing is what got him into this industry in the first place.
Palmerlee was born in the 6-square mile Kansas town of El Dorado to a nurse and an industrial construction worker. “We moved wherever jobs were,” Palmerlee said. So the Palmerlee’s took the road from El Dorado and eventually relocated to the Peach State by way of White Oak, Texas, and Ripley, N.Y.
Palmerlee moved to Athens from Peachtree City in 1998 with his post-punk rock band, Hunter Gatherer. “I had never worked in a kitchen, but got a job as a dishwasher to pay bills and just moved up from there. I started prepping, then moved to the line and basically did that between going on tours,” he recalls. Palmerlee’s first job was at Burnstone Brewhouse (now Copper Creek) before he left for Transmetropolitan just after its opening in 2001. “I would come back from tour and always have my job. I just made myself valuable there,” he says, rubbing his scruffy cheeks.
After Hunter Gatherer’s glory days had come to an end, Palmerlee and his drum set took to a band that spent less time on the road. The break from touring gave him the opportunity to explore his interests in food, which really didn’t start evolving until after he started spending long hours in the kitchen.
Having never been formally trained, Matt Palmerlee knows a helluva lot in the culinary realm. “I just read a lot,” he says with a nonchalant shrug, which is evident from the piles of books in the kitchen, including Cooking with Coolio: The Ghetto Gourmet, Odd Bits: How to Cook the Rest of the Animal and The Flavor Bible.
That’s not to say, however, that he doesn’t have an impressive background. After five years at Transmetropolitan, Palmerlee became head chef at Farm 255. At the time, it was the only farm-to-table restaurant in Athens and where Palmerlee began to develop his passion for charcuterie. “The owners really wanted to start getting into house-made sausages, and it was something I was really interested in anyway, so after sausages I just started getting more and more interested in different aspects of it.”
Palmerlee is a big proponent for sustainability and relishes the art of using as much of the animal as possible, a method he carried to the Branded Butcher from Farm 255. In fact, Palmerlee admits his favorite Branded Butcher dish involves removing the entire pig’s face from the skull in one piece, coating the inside with an amalgam of herbs and spices, from thyme to lemon zest, rolling it up, poaching it, slicing it, and serving it ornately garnished under the alluring name of Porchetta di Testa, which literally means “little pig’s face.”
After a few months at Farm 255, Palmerlee and some of his other chef friends, Randy Dudley, Patrick Stubbers, Eddie Russell, Damien Schaefer and Nancy Lind (now Palmer), joined forces and began their own supper club, dubbed The Four Coursemen. “We were cooking every Saturday, sometimes for 10 people, sometimes for 30,” Palmerlee says. It was a great way to get friends together and cook at Damien’s home. Another good friend, Lee Smith, offered them an old shotgun house on Pulaski Street as a place for them to continue their dinners, which they gladly accepted. With growing crowds, they made the decision to begin charging guests and make RSVPs first-come, first-serve through their website.
Within a few months dinners were selling out in five or six seconds. “We got hate e-mails from people like, ‘This is bullshit. I’ve tried over and over again to get into your dinners. Take me off your mailing list,’” Matt recalls. “We didn’t ever mean for it to be exclusive, but we could only fit a certain number of people.”
As the underground supper club blossomed, the Four Coursemen had been written up in both Garden & Gun and Southern Living and was debating its next step. After seeing one of these articles, a production company contacted the group and scored them a gig of a one-hour TV special on the Cooking Channel, which was eventually nominated for a James Beard Award but was never picked up as a series. “At that point, some of us kind of had a falling out. Me, Nancy and Eddie are no longer doing it, but I’m still friends with all those guys,” Palmerlee says. After the split, the group took on the new title Shotgun Dinners and is still based in Athens. “It started with all of us being friends and wanting to cook and teach ourselves about food,” he said. “I definitely learned a lot from those guys. I think we all kind of learned from each other. I don’t know, it just got too big.”
With the closing chapter of the Four Coursemen, came the culmination of Palmerlee’s role at Farm 255. Palmerlee was going on his sixth year as chef there and had been devoting a large portion of his time to traveling and doing dinners with the Coursemen. For a couple of months, Palmerlee was gone almost every other week. “I’d come back and be like, I don’t even work here.” He felt he was losing his ability to improve and excel. “I was just kind of burnt out of walking in the same door over and over again, and I felt bad coming in every day and not giving 100%.” It wasn’t really a falling-out; Palmerlee and the owners certainly had their workplace conflicts but typically got along well. “I didn’t really know what I was going to do.”
But good fortune was certainly on his side. In December of 2011, as Palmerlee’s time at Farm 255 was ending, Pauley’s kitchen manager Jason Ellis approached Palmerlee about catering the Pauley’s Christmas party, to which he readily agreed. Along with Ellis, Corey Ripley, Paul DeGeorge, and John Brantley, the masterminds behind Pauley’s, The Loft and Magnolia’s, were looking to invest in fine dining. The entrepreneurs thought Palmerlee would be the perfect fit to take over the premier location of the sinking tapas bar, Flight, next to the Georgia Theatre on Lumpkin Street. Three informal meetings and some menu brainstorming later, Palmerlee had landed the job as head chef. Though he’s not an owner, he says he’s treated like one, always sitting in on their weekly meetings with a highly valued opinion. “Me and John Brantley are here pretty much every day. We kind of run the place,” Palmerlee says. “They’re really great guys to work for, and they take care of their employees really well.”
Palmerlee’s coworkers would say he’s a great guy to work with, too, as most of his kitchen staff followed him to the Branded Butcher from Farm 255. “Matt’s so shy it’s hilarious,” a less-reserved Trey Rayburn laughs as he opens the Beverage Air cooler holding ingredient-packed Cambro bins and a lone PBR can, “but I love working for him. He’s so fuckin’ talented, and he knows it … but he doesn’t. He’s so humble.” General Manager John Brantley describes Palmerlee without hesitation as talented, quiet and hard working. “I don’t like him very much,” Brantley laughs jokingly.
Every afternoon the staff sits down for “family meal,” where they discuss the evening’s menu. Meanwhile, line cook Matt Savage, who’s spent an off-and-on two and a half years with Palmerlee, continues deboning chickens in the kitchen, reflecting on his colleague as both thoughtful and collected, which is apparent in the entire kitchen’s casual but systematic M.O.
Palmerlee doesn’t take his success for granted. “I’m not really qualified to do anything else,” he laughs, gesturing to his tattoos. But he loves this industry. “It’s stressful, and it’s long days. In this town the pay is not that great, but I’m not starving,” he says. “I’ve been in Athens so long, I can’t imagine going anywhere else.”