By Joel Meares | The Daily Telegraph
BOSTON’S first Aussie pie shop, KO Catering And Pies, comes with a set of instructions, a card that says how to eat an Australian meat pie correctly.
Start by squirting a dollop of “ketchup” on to the flaky pastry top. Next, slip the pie out of its foil shell. And then, well, Bob’s your uncle.
That squirt-lift-bite manoeuvre is as natural to most Australians as the seaside slip-slop-slap, but in the far northeast of the US, where pies are strictly dessert fare – think sweet pumpkin, key lime, and chocolate cream fillings — the how-to manual was a necessity.
It was for 25-year-old George Schlessinger, who works a short walk from KO in industrial south Boston at Rue La La, a sample sale website.
When KO opened in late October last year, the office began buzzing about the new lunchtime venue, and he had to give it a try. “I ate my first one with a fork,” says Schlessinger, who opted for a classic beef for his first-ever meat pie.
Now he and the office men eat at KO up to four times a week, and Schlessinger calls himself a “cult fan”, though he’s graduated to other menu items like the chicken schnitzel burger, or schnitty. His work mates embraced the sweet-chilli smothered burger too.
“Now, when we want to go to KO, we say, ‘Hey guys, you wanna get Schnitfaced?’,” Schlessinger says.
KO is the vision of Wollongong-born expat Samuel Jackson, who rewarded Schlessinger for his custom with a packet of Aussie Tim Tams for Christmas.
The 32-year-old led a typically picaresque chef’s life before launching the cafe-style pie shop. He cooked at Bar Luca and Catalina in Sydney and “struck gold” after moving to England and landing a job heading kitchens on superyachts in the Caribbean, Mediterranean, and the New England area
of the US, where he fell for Boston – famed for its universities and chowder. After four years working there in catering, he saw “a niche for the Australian meat pie”.
“The recession was an opportunity,” he says, as people were looking for good food at low prices.
“And there’s nothing more casual but really good than Australian cafe culture.”
The shop itself was something of a happy accident. Jackson’s original plan was to launch a food truck that would spread Aussie cheer through Boston and nearby Cambridge, home of Harvard University, and to prepare his pies in a small commissary as required by the city’s health code.
He gathered four investors, including his best mate – an Aussie expat living in Moscow – and approached the former owners of the KO space on South Boston’s A Street with an offer to rent part of their kitchen. They countered: take the whole shop.
With 14 square metres of shop space to fill, he decided to put in a long timber communal table and open a cafe. The result is a comfy nook warm with the smell of browning pastry, where you can buy lamingtons, Anzac cookies, calamari, Tim Tams, Milo and, of course, pies.
The best, he says, is Irish Beef Stew. There are clocks showing the time in Sydney, Cape Town, and “Pie Time” (the local time in Boston). Hard-working Jackson is a permanent fixture as well, always quick with a gregarious “g’day”.
From day one, his staff of five, including two Aussies, has been working hard to keep up with demand that outstripped Jackson’s expectations.
“We have had to expand the freezer capacity four-fold,” he says.
He will launch the truck in February, when it will become the first Aussie food truck in the country. For now, “within two months the store has become the mothership,” and he has to tend to it. On paper, Boston does not appear the ideal place to plug in your pie warmer. It’s cold eight months of the year, there’s no cricket, and Americans always seem
a little shocked to find meat where their blueberries usually go. But in “Southie”, as KO’s surrounding area is known, the huge population of multi-generational Irish families are familiar with savoury pies, and the gentrifying neighbourhood draws educated foodies from the professional classes looking to taste new ideas.
“I want to show people that Australian food isn’t all that different from American food,” says Jackson, who spends much of his time fielding interesting questions from those curious first-timers.
“I’ve been asked if we only accept Australian money, and nobody gets what chicken salt is even when I explain it. They ask: ‘It doesn’t come from a chicken?’ ” Nate Moore, 25, who cooks pies at KO but had never eaten one before working there, admits that like most Americans, he knew little about Australia beyond Steve Irwin and Crocodile Dundee before starting, and knew nothing of Aussie food. Now he eats a pie a day and takes them home to his friends.
And then, of course, there are the expats, students, professors, Macquarie bankers, and the big blokes from local AFL team the Boston Demons, who arrive keen for a taste of home. The Boston media has embraced Jackson and KO, which stands for “Ken Oath”, something else he has trouble explaining to newcomers.
The city’s major newspaper, The Boston Globe, has written about KO twice, including a piece by expat columnist Yvonne Abraham who wrote, “One bite, and I was home”, and in January, news magazine TV show Chronicle spent two days filming at the shop. The food blogs have gone wild too. Food-lover and web developer Jascha Reed, 31, read about KO on one such blog and said his first beef pie was “love at first bite”.
“When I first read Aussie pies were coming to Boston I didn’t know what they were or whether anyone would want to eat one,” says Reed. “But from what I’ve seen, it’s been a smashing success.”
Jackson now has a new vision: a half dozen KO pie shops across New England. “We’ve already isolated some spots, including Providence, Rhode Island, and Portland, Maine,” he says.
“Next stop would be to open a pub or bistro so we could sell the Australian beer and wine people really want.”