Ben Runkle and Natalie Davis

by Abby Carney • Photography by Kate LeSueur

As Natalie Davis kneads out the bottom layer of lamb for a baked kibbeh, her husband Ben jokes, “Yes, a true butcher wants to make a dish that’s meat stuffed with more meat. But it’s actually a very delicate dish. One of the coolest things about it is that you almost make a pastry or crust out of the meat, and you make a batter with the bulgur.”

Kibbeh, a traditional dish served at nearly every Lebanese celebration, is typically made two ways: baked and raw. The baked version, made from a minced leg of lamb, involves two layers: sautéed lamb and onion atop lamb and bulgur. Everyone has their own style and special way of baking it—some like it very crispy while others like it a bit thicker. Much attention is given to the top layer, which can be designed simply or with great flair, using the most rudimentary of design tools: a simple butter knife. Raw kibbeh, on the other hand, is a seasoned lamb tartare made with the same ingredients as the baked version. The couple is making both versions today.

With all of this beautiful, fresh meat being used, and especially in light of the couple’s line of work as owners of the popular butcher shop and salumeria Salt & Time, it’s hard to believe that there was a time when they actually eschewed meat. As people who give much thought and attention to every detail of their lives, they’d cut meat out of their diets as a way to eat intentionally. But as Ben boils it down, “I’m too much of a skeptic to stick with anything that long.” And after closing the long-distance stretch of their relationship and moving in together in Oakland, they joined a meat CSA program. It was the end of their vegan/vegetarianism, and the beginning of a journey into butchery and cooking meat. “We were getting massive amounts of meat and trying to figure out what the hell to do with all of it,” he says. “We made some pretty ridiculous meals and lots of sausage.”

runkledavis2Natalie continues to work the kibbeh while sharing stories of her family’s cooking traditions. Since her mother is from Lebanon and her family emigrated to the U.S. in the ’60s, Natalie says she’s cut from a cloth of “boisterous and opinionated, but ultimately very caring” Lebanese cooks. “I come from a family of project managers,” she jokes.

Ben remembers being impressed early on with her family’s commitment to quality in their cooking, as well as their ability to hold their scotch. “Natalie’s mother and her aunt have gotten me incredibly drunk making grape leaves with them on multiple occasions,” he says with a laugh. “Grape leaves, or dolmas, are another classic dish in her family, and her aunt has a grapevine in her backyard in Queens. We would go out and pick them when they got nice and tender, and boil them in a pressure cooker—going through all those steps instead of using the canned leaves. That’s something that even in the best restaurants is hard to do, and it definitely inspired how we do things at Salt and Time.”

Natalie designs intricate patterns into the top layer of lamb after Ben has prepped all of the meats. She’s true to form as a designer, which she attributes to her late grandfather. “I can hear him yelling at me,” she says, “like, ‘It’s too thick over here! Really thin it out!’ He was always very particular about how things should be done. He’s the one who taught me to shine my shoes, and taught me how to decorate our Easter cookies.”

Ben and Natalie volley back and forth with a natural rhythm as they cook and prepare together—Ben dicing cucumbers for the accompanying cucumber sauce and checking in to be sure he’s achieved the right thickness; Natalie approving and, like any great project manager, consulting with her team, as well. She asks Ben what he thinks of the kibbeh’s thickness. It’s just right, he says. “Thanks, Boo,” she responds.

After putting the dish in the oven, Natalie gets to work on the raw kibbeh—a dish, she says, that goes quickly at parties and has even had children fighting over it. Ben suggests adding in spices and tasting as you go, and notes that this is a good dish for overcoming “the ick factor” of raw meat. “And if the meat is prepped right,” he adds, “you don’t have to be expert at cutting it.”

With both dishes finished, the pair confesses that this was their first time making kibbeh together. They’re happy it was documented because Natalie jokes that her family won’t believe it otherwise. Now, eating from a shared victory plate, the couple’s focus shifts to other important milestones, such as renovations on their South Austin home and the dog they might adopt.