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CHEF CRAFT: Cooking Nose to Tail


Cooking Nose to Tail
Old World Values Inspire a
New Generation of Chefs to Use
the Whole Animal

Nick’s on Broadway, Providence

Since opening Nick’s on Broadway in Providence’s West End nearly 10 years ago, Derek Wagner has become an advocate for local food sourcing, so it comes as no surprised he’s forged long-lasting relationships with area farmers.

“As I grew, my food matured and I was making as many direct connections with farmers as possible,” he explains. “Over the course of the last four years, we’ve gotten to the point where we’re really serving 90%–95% of whole animal proteins.”

For Wagner, that means it’s not uncommon for his kitchen to welcome a full side of beef, a whole lamb, two whole hogs and up to 60 whole chickens in the a single week. “All for this little 55-seat restaurant!” he laughs.

While breaking down each animal is a laborious process, he describes the product variety as “incredible,” and says buying whole and butchering in-house offers a considerable cost savings he can pass along to diners. A single hog, for example, at 200–300 pounds, can provide upwards of 70 dishes. “Once you feel a responsibility for taking something’s life, when you have to schedule an animal to die, you really have to think about what you’re doing,” he reflects. “I’m a carnivore’s carnivore, but it hits you sometimes. It makes you be responsible and not waste it, and you care for every little bit being processed and consumed.”

Al Forno, Providence

Growing up in his father’s butcher shop, breaking down an animal nose-to-tail was neither trendy nor exotic; for David Reynoso, it was quite simply a way of life.

“I used to help him, holding the lamb or the pig in place; the sheep or goat,” he says. Reynoso continues that family tradition at Al Forno, one of Rhode Island’s best-known restaurants, boasting an enviable 32-year history. Standard cuts from meat distributors, he insists, are ubiquitous; all the chefs have access to the same lot. By butchering in-house, Reynoso explains, he can tailor each cut to his choosing.

“Plus, you’re able to utilize everything in a better way,” he says. That includes preserving pork’s coveted fat back, which he uses to keep the meat moist and tender. The fat is also imperative when making his from-scratch sausage, used liberally on the restaurant’s menu.

“I can manage how much fat or spice I can put in,” he says.

“[Butchering] is something I always like to do.”

New Rivers, Providence

“We want to find the beauty and flavor in the not-so-used part of the animals,” explains New Rivers’ chef Beau Vestal. “As a chef, it’s fun and creative—you use your skills and your mind.” From half a pig or goat to rabbit, fish and other proteins, Vestal smokes, dries and cures notoriously less tender pieces like the trim or organs to make sausages, pâtés and unexpected dishes for the New Rivers menu, like beef heart pastrami. By getting, for example, half a hog, Vestal has access to parts like the precious fatback, which the chef cures with salt and spices to make seldom-seen lardo. “We cure them for three to four months and hang them for three months, shave it thin and put it on a piece of warm toast or a fritter.”

Vestal says it’s critical to have a well-informed front of house staff, as he does, who can educate diners who may be intimidated by an unfamiliar headcheese or wary of sampling braised rooster combs. Fortunately, apprehensive appetites are the minority at New Rivers, Vestal smiles. “We have guests who specifically choose to dine with us to pick and choose the strange bits that are exciting,” he says. “We want to use everything … not be wasteful and keep with that idea. The result is it gives people the chance to try new flavors, new tastes and new textures.”

Tallulah on Thames, Newport

Local, honest food has long been the objective of Jake Rojas’ Tallulah on Thames in Newport, since the bistro opened in 2010. As the owner, along with partner Kelly Ann Maurice, examining food costs is a constant, and it soon became clear that buying whole or half animals would, in theory, be economically prudent.

“I quickly realized, from a business standpoint and from a standpoint of 100% utilization of the animal, it was better,” he says. “I’m able to buy from conscientious sources and choose the cuts I use.”

Since introducing his Tallulah’s Tacos mobile cart last year, Rojas has two menus to consider; two separate and distinct opportunities to maximize beef, pork, fish and poultry orders and craft creative menus for each. The cart, which is quickly becoming a staple at farmers’ markets and events, presents an opportunity to use less-popular parts.

“Some of the other guys use them for charcuterie, but I use those as an outlet for my taco cart,” he says about the items he’ll also include on the restaurants á la carte menu. Rojas says Rhode Island’s tightknit chef community has been an extraordinary resource for learning new techniques. “We tend to consult each other,” he says. “It’s nice to have options of who to call and ask about their experience.”

Tini, Providence

Tini, as the name suggests, is a cozy eatery and cocktail bar with just 19 seats, but Darius Salko shares the same enthusiasm for nose-to-tail cooking as chefs helming restaurants quadruple its size. “We love, love, love to get pork from the source,” Salko enthuses. “Butchering lets us control the product from the start.” He calls it the “New Old World” approach, pointing toward countries like Italy that hone a centuriesold approach to butchery by using every inch.

Salko cut his teeth in Boston, forging a friendship with the butcher across the street. “I was really green and I would come in on my days off and go to the butcher shop,” he says. “Like anything, the more you do it, the more you like to see the whole thing done.” The butcher was David Reynoso, now head chef at nearby Al Forno and part owner of Tini (the others are lauded restaurateurs Johanne Killeen and George Germon of Al Forno).

These days, the two share whole animals where they are able to trim the fat and keep the bones (the “good stuff,” Salko calls it) to make stocks, sausages, hot dogs, salamis, cured meats and more. “It’s a brilliant way to approach it.”

Chez Pascal, Hewtin’s Dogs Mobile Food Truck, Wurst Kitchen Window, Providence

Pork meat loaf, house-made hot dogs, pâtés, charcuterie, sausages, cured meats, roasted duck … these are just some of the dishes Matt Gennuso of Chez Pascal in Providence has created since working with whole animals in his kitchen.

“Coming to the process of butchering whole animals as a cook brought me a new perspective, where it becomes more like a puzzle. I don’t just see flank, loin, chop but possibilities—how will this piece cook if I cut it a different way, and so on,” he says. While he started with smaller cuts and animals, Gennuso says he realized he was “missing the boat” when it came to harvesting the gratuitous muscle that other larger animals proffer. Pork belly, for example, he uses to make bacon used in many dishes, or he can cut it to be slow-roasted and served as an entrée. He estimates that upwards of 30 pounds of ground pork can be garnered from just the trimmings of an average hog and he’ll use that to make the menu items on his Hewtin’s Dogs Mobile Food Truck.

Gennuso’s most recent addition is the “Wurst Kitchen Window” at Chez Pascal, a walk-up window that serves his house-made pork butt pastrami, sausages, sandwiches and more with custom-crafted relishes and condiments.

Persimmon, Bristol and Persimmon Provisions, Barrington

“I didn’t know the difference between braising and boiling,” teases Champe Speidel, owner/chef of critically acclaimed Persimmon in Bristol and Persimmon Provisions, a butcher and artisanal foods shop in Barrington. He was speaking of his time spent learning butchery as college student—a gig he landed more for the paycheck than a career.  After enough time, however, the craft sparked his culinary interest.

When he opened the doors of Persimmon with his wife, Lisa, in 2005, sourcing top-quality protein was the top priority. Buying whole or half animals, explains the chef, allows utilizing less-mainstream parts for dishes at the restaurant, while keeping a reasonable price point. Taking the rib off a side of beef, for example, and aging it in-house makes it possible to oversee the progression from process to plate. When the couple opened Persimmon Provisions in 2010, it allowed them to share the fundamental cuts from the restaurant’s coveted sources and inspire consumers to cook up their own creative dishes at home.

“I don’t want people to think it needs to be a special occasion to eat good food,” he says. “Everybody should have access to that kind of food.”

Farmstead Inc., Providence

When Matt Jennings took the crown in a three-peat win at Cochon 555 in Boston in 2011, he functionally secured the title of Providence’s Prince of Pork. The 10-city culinary competition is the “pigapalooza” of snout-to-tail cooking, and was just another opportunity for Jennings to showcase his affection for all things swine and using every part of the animal.

“It’s our duty as chefs,” he says. “Farmers don’t raise just pork loins.”

Jennings waxes poetic about the responsibility intrinsically incurred when an animal lays down its life, and the chef’s role in ensuring it is not in vain. “It’s a sensibility factor,” he says.

From stocks, sauces and sausages to dishes including pig ear bacon, seared chicken livers, smoked pig ear ragu, house-cured pancetta, bone marrow and more, Jennings is committed to finding a use for every inch of an animal. Since introducing a charcuterie program in 2006, the platters have grown to include a variety of flavorful rillettes, sausages, pâtés and terrines, all made from lesser-used animal parts and served alongside, among other local farm finds, Baboo’s Mustard fashioned from Jennings’ own great-grandmother’s recipe.

“The goal is to have as many house-made products as possible,” he says. eR

Andrea E. McHugh is a freelance writer who has written for the Hartford Courant, Baltimore Magazine, Daily Candy, Design Sponge, Providence Monthly and more. She resides in Newport.

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