By Robin Chotzinoff
Photography by Marc Brown
Business has been good, and she’s been plenty busy in the kitchen. But right now, her kids are underfoot, her husband—Fabulous Thunderbirds guitarist Johnny Moeller—is home between tours and today’s meal is meant for family. The small house fills with the smell of pork belly, grits and slow-simmered collard greens. Lunch will be served when it’s good and ready, because that’s the kind of food this is.
“Everyone loves soul food,” Shontae says. “It may not be known for its fine-dining qualities, but it can be taken very seriously.”
Shontae didn’t understand this right away, even though her first cooking instructor was her grandmother Lucille, a venerable soul-food practitioner from Pampa, Texas, whose table was always packed to capacity. “She ran a kind of a hostel for musicians, and she’d let me help,” Shontae remembers. “She’d send me out to the yard to grab a chicken and break its neck and get it ready to eat. Those were happy times, cooking and eating with my grandmother.”
Coming back from Lucille’s was like passing through a time warp. One minute Shontae was feeding itinerant black musicians in not-very-desegregated Pampa, and the next she was back in Round Rock, going to work with her mother at a sophisticated cosmetics counter—and meeting actual French people! From France! Where food is king!
Compared to these disparate stomping grounds, high school was dull, and Shontae had little interest in attending. Besides, she’d managed to get hired at the Lone Star Cafe, and she didn’t want to miss work. “I was only fourteen,” she remembers, “but I did everything: hostessing, waiting tables, even some cooking shifts. It was hard. I liked it.”
Her parents did not, but Shontae pacified them by enrolling in a high-school work program that freed up her schedule enough to allow for jobs at a host of Austin restaurants that eventually included Mezzaluna, Jean-Pierre’s Upstairs, Chez Zee, Siena Ristorante, Fabi + Rosi and many others.
And then there was the unofficial job at Antone’s, which mostly involved hanging out, getting to see her favorite bands and joining Clifford Antone for breakfasts at Katz’s Deli. The best part was meeting an older man—18-year-old musician Johnny Moeller, who was already sitting in with his idols onstage at Antone’s.
The Moellers have now been together 15 years. He’s still playing music, and she’s still cooking, often for musicians—most recently at a Haiti earthquake relief dinner at Antone’s. A two-time culinary-school dropout, she found she’d spent too much time cooking for a living to justify formal classes in techniques she’d known for years. The education she wanted was less about fine French cuisine and more about the soul of food.
“Like a lot of African American chefs, I was on a quest to figure out my signature as a chef,” she says. “It took me a long time to recognize the cultural significance of food.”
The food she serves her supper club guests may be both cultural and significant, but it’s also down-home—if home is somewhere between Africa, the Caribbean, New Orleans and the American South. Even in her own house, where the guests eat for free, those flavors hum in the background, and there’s always a little extra in the pot.
“Bring the guys home for lunch,” Shontae tells Johnny as he heads out the door to KUT for a live taping. “I’ll have food.”
LUCILLE'S COLLARD GREENS
Adapted by Shontae Moeller
Bacon fat or coconut oil
5 cloves garlic, chopped
4 bunches collards, cleaned, stemmed and torn (Shontae likes the collards from Green Gate Farms.)
Salt and white pepper to taste
Pat of butter (or 2 or 3)
Louisiana Hot Sauce
Heat the bacon fat in a sauté pan on medium heat. Add the garlic and cook until golden, but not burnt. Add the collards and a few tablespoons of water to help cook them down, and add salt and white pepper to taste. Cover the sauté pan and steam until tender. Serve with butter and Louisiana Hot Sauce, like my grandmamma, or go local with Dai Due’s Serrano Hot Sauce.
SHONTAE MOELLER'S JERKED PORK BELLY
1 pork belly from Richardson Farms
For the rub:
2 T. coconut oil
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 jalapeños, seeds and ribs
removed, finely chopped
1 T. allspice
1 T. cinnamon
1 T. cayenne pepper
2 T. brown sugar
1 tsp. white pepper
1 tsp. dried thyme
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. ground ginger
4 scallions, trimmed and chopped
¹/³ c. fresh lime juice
½ c. red wine vinegar
Heat the oil in a sauté pan over medium heat. Add the garlic and jalapeños and sauté until the garlic just starts to color—about 1½ minutes. Add the allspice, cinnamon, cayenne and brown sugar and cook, stirring constantly, until the sugar melts and the mixture starts to clump. Remove from the heat. Transfer the mixture to a blender. Add the white pepper, thyme, salt, ginger, scallions, lime juice and vinegar, and blend until smooth.
Coat the pork belly with jerk mixture, place in a covered pan and cook in a preheated oven at 450° for about 45 minutes. Allow the pork belly to cool, then cut into portions and panfry until crispy on both sides. Serve with collards and enjoy.