“I watched him at the grill. I learned his methods. I primarily paid attention to the things he didn’t do. And I got to understand how he did things and why things matter.”
Nolo Rodriguez is sitting at Hollywood’s Musso & Frank Grill, ready to eat something he’s enjoyed hundreds of times over three decades. As always, he’s situated by the restaurant’s mesquite grill, thrilled that the legendary grill master (known as “The Meat Whisperer”) is about to make him something that only a few other people have ever tried.
That’s one of the perks of having Indolfo Rodriguez, who’s been working the grill at Hollywood’s oldest restaurant for 33 years, as your father.
Nolo, who runs popular Smorgasburg L.A. vendor Black Sugar Rib Company, is a meat master in his own right. When I ask him how his dad has influenced his career, he says he needs to take me to Musso & Frank for a burger. That’s the best way to understand.
The off-menu burger, technically a patty melt because Musso & Frank doesn’t have hamburger buns, is just part of a feast that has you wondering how anyone could still be alive after eating like this over and over again. First we get bread that’s been toasted on the grill, cover it in butter and dip it in jus. Then the steak fries and onion rings arrive. Even before the patty melt comes, Nolo tells me that I need to take some cheesecake home.
The patty melt itself is gorgeous and simple: buttered bread, juicy meat and no cheese, pickles, onions or condiments. I start to understand.
“Every time I have this burger, it’s the same flavor profile,” Nolo says. “The reason that I want you to try this burger is that it’s very simple. That’s what I love about it. It’s so extremely consistent over 30-plus-years in its simplicity.”
Nolo keeps things simple at Black Sugar, as well.
“Everybody nowadays is trying to be trendy; I want to be relatable,” he says. “With Black Sugar, pretty much everything I do is five ingredients, except for the barbecue sauce.”
Often, all he needs is salt, freshly cracked pepper, granulated garlic, paprika and his secret Black Sugar ingredient. Nolo credits his dad for helping him understand the importance of simplicity.
“My dad’s a man of not many words, so I learned to communicate with him without trying to talk that much,” Nolo says. “I watched him at the grill. I learned his methods. I primarily paid attention to the things he didn’t do. And I got to understand how he did things and why things matter.”
During our meal, Nolo keeps repeating that his father doesn’t say much, so I try to see for myself. Here are some questions I ask Indolfo over the course of an hour.
Me: “Why does your son like this burger so much?”
Indolfo: “I don’t know; he loves it.”
Me: “Is there any secret to what you’re doing?”
Indolfo: “No, sir.”
Me: “The mesquite is important?”
Indolfo: “Oh yeah. The flavor of the mesquite is very unique.”
Me: “What do you think about your son’s barbecue?”
Indolfo: “It’s very good.”
Me: “What do you like about it?”
Indolfo: “The taste of the food, the flavor.”
As I ask the questions, Indolfo smiles while he cooks. He’s not being difficult with his short answers. This is just how he is when he’s working.
But then he starts to loosen up a bit. He makes himself a patty melt, using a smaller patty and an end piece of bread.
“He won’t even give himself a fresh slice of bread,” Nolo says, marveling at his father’s refusal to waste food.
Indolfo tells me he doesn’t eat patty melts often, but he saw us enjoying ours and decided he wanted one. He crushes his patty melt in a few minutes and goes back to grilling.
I ask Indolfo if he’s proud of his son’s success at Smorgasburg and big catering gigs.
“Oh yeah, because he does a very good job,” Indolfo says. “He’s found his own way. I’ve tried to help him with everything I can.”
Indolfo tells me how much Nolo liked to eat as a kid. Nolo would fake being sick so his dad would take him to the hospital. Once they got there, Nolo would say he was hungry and ask to eat at the burrito spot down the street. This happened multiple times. Indolfo kept going back to the hospital and the Mexican restaurant because he enjoyed the time with his son.
For over twenty years, Indolfo worked two simultaneous full-time jobs. He would spend days at a non-cooking gig in a different hospital and work evenings at Musso & Frank. I ask if Indolfo had to work so much because he was always buying food for Nolo.
The Meat Whisperer laughs.
“He also wanted Air Jordans,” Indolfo says. “He didn’t want anything cheap.
Before Musso & Frank, Indolfo cooked at Schwab’s Pharmacy, a diner frequented by Hollywood’s elite. This is where he learned how to become a restaurant cook.
“I learned watching the other cooks,” he says. “I was a dishwasher for six months and then a busboy and then a cook.”
The way Indolfo and Nolo see it, cooking is all about feel. It’s about adjusting to the circumstances. This means knowing exactly when to shovel more mesquite into the grill to keep the fire alive. It means tweaking the barbecue-making process when seasons change, and humidity becomes a factor. It means learning from experience to touch the bottom of a steak instead of the top when you’re checking if it’s medium-rare.
It’s not surprising, then, that Indolfo didn’t get into specifics when he encouraged his son to start his own barbecue business a few years ago.
“He was extremely supportive, which was probably better than any technique or recipe he could share,” Nolo says.
Indolfo gave his son a little cash and told him that he didn’t want to be paid back. He also gave his son a handwritten note saying that he was proud of him and would be there for anything he needed.
Nolo has that 2-inch-by-2-inch piece of paper in a drawer with his wallet and keys. He looks at it every single day.
Nolo gets sad when he thinks about how little time he has left to spend with his father at Musso & Frank. Indolfo is 64. He recently went from five days a week on the grill to three and then to two. He’ll retire from the restaurant next year.
But Indolfo will still cook.
“He makes carne asada at home,” Nolo says. “He has this shitty little grill, and it’s like the best meat you’ll ever have. I want to buy him a $2,000 or $3,000 grill, but he wouldn’t have as much fun as he does with the $40 crap red-and-white grill. They last like three or four years, and he goes back to Home Depot and buys another one. It’s rinky-dink, and I love it, but sometimes the son in me wants to be like, ‘Let me show you how much I love you.’”
But then he remembers that his dad doesn’t want an elaborate grill at home. He just wants to make simple food for his family.
“I realize all I got to do is give him a hug and tell him I love him, and that means the world to him,” Nolo says.
It’s funny; Indolfo doesn’t say much, but he’s a sentimental man. When his family is all together, he’s prone to telling everyone—out of nowhere—that this is the happiest moment of his life. And then he gets quiet again.
The man proves that you don’t need many words to make an impact. Spend just five minutes at Musso & Frank and you’ll hear customers talk about how he always makes people feel special, how there’s nobody who cooks like him.
One night, there was a smart-ass at the counter who asked Indolfo if he could cook a steak well-done on the inside and rare on the outside.
Indolfo’s reply: “Will you eat that?”
The customer said yes.
So Indolfo butterflied a steak, charred the inside, put the steak back together and cooked the outside rare. The customer ate the steak.
Nolo is fortified by stories like this. They make him work harder because he knows that being the son of The Meat Whisperer means something. Nolo arrives at Smorgasburg three hours before it opens every Sunday, barbecuing Black Sugar’s meat on-site.
He also has a full-time job time at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. He inherited his hustle, of course, from his Mexican immigrant father who “set the standards high.” Indolfo, who was two when his father died, worked at a liquor store in Mexico when he was just a child.
Nolo has two sons of his own. They’re 10 and 7. When people ask them what they think of their dad’s barbecue, they always say, “It’s the best.” He doesn’t know if his sons will work in the food industry, but he knows he’ll support whatever they do. After all, when Nolo was six, he was already cooking at home, standing on a chair to reach the stove as he scrambled eggs. His mother worried that Nolo might burn the house down, but Indolfo was cool with his son in the kitchen. The boy wanted to cook, so why not let him cook?
And besides, Indolfo isn’t exactly worried that someone will supplant him as the best cook in his family.
“C’mon, dude, people call him The Meat Whisperer,” Nolo says. “I want to get that title. Really, that’s a cool title. Hopefully, I can get to his status—what I mean by that is the level of respect earned. That’s what matters.”
During our meal, the customer next to me at Musso & Frank’s counter figures out that Nolo is Indolfo’s son.
“You were eight when I met your dad,” the customer tells Nolo.
Indolfo’s at the grill, smiling as he puts garlic into a filet mignon for a custom order. He’s not saying anything, but he’s conveying everything.