The Southern flavors in Ozark Mountain Biscuit Co.’s buttery biscuits go back generations – all the way to chef-owner Bryan Maness’ great-grandmother and her hearty pies.
“My grandma tells this story,” Maness says. “Her mom would make pies every Sunday, fresh fruit pies with apples or blackberries, whatever was in season. She would bake them, and her crust had so much lard in it that they would fry up really solid, so when she got done baking them, she would knock them all out of their baking tins. Then she would stack them up five-high to cut them into slices five at a time, and they would maintain their form and structure. I’ve never made pie crust like that, but my grandmother is an honest woman, so I know it’s true!”
Back in his great-grandmother’s day, fresh and local ingredients were a necessity, Maness says. And his goal with Columbia's popular Ozark Mountain Biscuit Co. is to bring this tradition back by using completely locally sourced ingredients in the food truck's dishes. Well, that, and trying to figure out how to bake pies sturdy enough to stack.
We checked in with Maness to learn more about his love of local products and hear about Ozark’s booming business.
Do you have a secret ingredient or technique you use while cooking? I do, and it’s a weird thing – I don’t do this at Ozark Mountain Biscuit Co., but I enjoy cooking soups a lot, and my secret ingredient I love to use, in no matter what soup I make, is oregano. I put it in no matter what. I find it works with every flavor combination, no matter what style soup you’re making. That’s kind of my thing, for some reason. I always go for it.
What inspires your cooking? The inspiration for our menu comes from my family’s roots. My family is from northern Arkansas, the Ozark bioregion. I grew up down there, and then we moved to southern Missouri when I was still young. The food Ozark Mountain Biscuit Co. makes is based on the stuff my grandmother would bring to the table at family gatherings. She made collard greens, cornbread that was fried in a cast-iron skillet, slow roasted pork, fried green tomatoes and iced tea. Those flavors inspire what I’m doing now with this menu; it’s kind of an homage to the simple home cooking that came out of that region.
What’s your favorite ingredient to use? My favorite ingredients to cook with are definitely those that have been locally raised, whether that be farm-fresh vegetables or small, farm-grown meat products. The quality is just exponentially higher. You can really tell the difference with massed-produced vegetables that are shipped from a long way away, or meats where the animals have not led a great life while they’re being raised. You really see that when you deal with a lot of those products.
What dishes are you experimenting with right now? We’ve been playing around with a few specials at Ozark Mountain Biscuit Co. We have a fried chicken biscuit that we’re really proud of – we make it fresh to order, and it’s super crispy and tender. We marinate it in buttermilk and egg wash. We also started doing a Nashville hot chicken sandwich, going off our Southern theme. It has some of our housemade zucchini pickles, and we dip the chicken into hot pepper oil and serve it on a biscuit. It’s a nice presentation and flavor combination. We’re also working on a locally raised pork-tenderloin sandwich on a biscuit. We’ll use Patchwork Farms’ tenderloin, so it’s going to be done with really quality ingredients. We’re doing that this spring.
How do you approach research and development at Ozark Mountain Biscuit Co.? Mostly, I engage with the community. We have a fantastic community of chefs and food entrepreneurs in the Midwest, in Missouri specifically. I love going to eat out at places around Columbia and thinking about the flavors that are in the dishes. Reading books on what other chefs are doing, trying new vegetables I find at the farmers' market, or trying something I’ve never seen before helps spark inspiration.
What do you cook on your days off? I go to the store multiple times a week and buy small amounts of food and try to cook it. I don’t go and pack the fridge full of things – my fridge looks almost empty with a few staples in there. I fill it with vegetables and proteins I’m going to eat this week, or in the next couple of days, and then I go to the store again. It’s kind of the opposite of how I grew up; we used to stock the fridge every week or every two weeks and pack it full of all this stuff. What I try to do now is go and only shop on the outsides of the supermarket: get fresh vegetables, get fresh protein, get some dairy. And I have an idea before I go, so I can say this is what I’m buying to make this dish. I think that’s a healthy and sustainable way to shop; you’re not wasteful, and it also brings a little bit of excitement into cooking at home.
Do you ever grow food of your own? Yes, I have a vegetable garden in my front yard. It’s a pretty good size, about 20-by-30 feet. I’ve been gardening for years. I grow tomatoes, collard greens and beautiful flowers. We rotate the crops every year, but I always grow tomatoes because Missouri tomatoes in the summer – for the record – are better than any tomatoes anywhere in the world. And I’ll stand behind that.
Gardening really puts you in connection with how much work it takes to grow food, and it’s important for people to realize what goes into making the food we eat. It’s a good thing to do to reconnect yourself with where food comes from. It’s so much fun, and the food is so delicious. I think I will garden my entire life, no matter what, until I can’t anymore.
What’s a food memory that stands out to you? I remember as a child I never enjoyed eating meat, like steaks or grilled meat. I didn’t know why, I just thought it was chewy and horrible. I was a vegetarian for 10 years of my life, but then I started working at Broadway Brewery with Walker Claridge, he’s a farmer, and we would smoke our own bacon. [One day] I was curing it and smoking it, and he pulled it out of the smoker and said, “Hey, try this.” So I tried it, and it was so delicious. When I was a child, I thought I didn’t like meat. But what I realized is, how you cook it is really, really important. I didn’t like meat that wasn’t cooked properly.
What’s your favorite comfort food? It’s kind of a joke around Ozark Mountain Biscuit Co., but my brother wrote a jingle that goes, “What’s your favorite food? Picture it on a biscuit, that’s what we do!” My brother would sing that to me, and I would say, “What’s your favorite food? Spaghetti biscuit!” I don’t know where that came from – I don’t think I’d put spaghetti on a biscuit, but that was something in the back of my mind when I thought of something that’s really comforting – a plate of plain marinara spaghetti with some toasted butter bread. That’s something that goes back to my childhood that my mother would make. I can tell you, I don’t know the last time I’ve eaten that. It’s probably been, I don’t know, a decade. But I think that’s still my comfort food.
What would be your perfect day of eating in Columbia? I usually like to do breakfast at home with something simple, like some fruit, and then I don’t really eat until the midday. I’d go to Sycamore for lunch because they’ve got one of the best lunch menus in town. Everything is fresh; everything is affordable, and the environment there is really nice for lunch. After that, I’d go Booches for happy hour and get one burger. Just one. And then I’d hang out there for a little while, maybe have a couple frosty beers. After that...it’s so hard to pick a place to go for dinner. I’d probably go to The Wine Cellar & Bistro for dinner. Thursdays they get fresh oysters on the half shell. They only get them once a week, and when they’re sold out, they’re sold out. The chef there, Craig Cyr, is phenomenal. He’s really smart, and he’s been an inspiration to me since I became a chef in Columbia. I think his menu from appetizer, to salad, to entree, to dessert is one of the strongest menus in Columbia.
Who are some chefs you admire in Columbia? One is a close friend of mine who I’ve worked with for a number of years, Michelle [Shelly] La Fata. She does pop ups, and also her pasta company, Pasta La Fata. Her stuff is really hot right now; a lot of things are going on, and people are really enjoying her Italian pasta dishes. The lasagna and raviolis she’s making are great. Also Lindsey Spratt, who just opened Boss Taco. I’m really excited to see what comes out of there. She’s very talented. She’s actually the one who inspired me to open a food truck when we worked together at Broadway Brewery.
How have you seen the food scene in Columbia change over the past year? It’s hard to say. I think I’m realizing the changing of the guards is happening, watching new folks come in and start changing things and inspiring the people who are around to try new endeavors. I know that’s probably always happened, but I wasn’t always aware of it. Now I’m seeing how people come in with new ideas and how that enhances the entire food scene in Columbia. And I think that’s a testament to the culinary and service industry in town – people all take inspiration from each other and grow the scene.
If you could give home cooks a piece of advice, what would it be? Have confidence in your taste. Believe in what you’re tasting and what you’re seeing, and don’t worry about what is right or what is wrong. You can reference cookbooks and the Internet, but after you’ve done that, put that stuff away and use what you read and what you learned to try to create your dish. Don’t be intimidated by failure.
What are your future plans in the restaurant industry? I’m definitely looking to expand what I’m doing. I’m really excited – what I love most is moving forward and building and growing things. I’d like to open a brick-and-mortar with Ozark Mountain Biscuit Co. That’s on the front burner right now. We’ll keep doing mobile operations, but we really want to have a place where people can come and sit down and enjoy the food with us, not always taking it away. I hope to see that happen in 2019 or 2020.
Ozark Mountain Biscuit Co., ozarkmountainbiscuits.com