Lunchtime at Restaurant Eve, and Dan Fisher is doing unspeakable things to a pig. Nearby, folks on the line stir, sautée, grill, and plate. Fisher? He’s skinning a pork shoulder; behind him, a vat of water boils, a pig snout poking up from the rim. He’s boiling the head to make headcheese, a terrine on the restaurant’s charcuterie plate. A pastry chef peers into the pot. “Poor piggy,” she muses.
Fisher, 27, has been training for four years in the art of charcuterie—turning less desirable cuts of meat into pâtés, sausages, confits, and rillettes. “Training” is perhaps the wrong word, though, since Fisher’s boss, Restaurant Eve chef and owner Cathal Armstrong, has basically left him to his own devices. “There are no secret recipes here,” Fisher says. “I just had to figure it out.”
Charcuterie-making lived and died with neighborhood butchers. A revival of the art has been under way since the late ’90s, coupled with the nationwide resurgence of farmers’ markets and growing appreciation for traditional methods of raising
While Nathan Anda, executive chef at Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s Tallula and EatBar in Arlington, was a student at New England Culinary Institute in Vermont, “Charcuterie was only three weeks,” he says. “This big fat French guy came in to teach us. At brunch, when we’d make what we learned afterward, he sat at a table, spreading rillettes on hot dog buns.”
It helps if you grew up in Europe. “My grandmother who’s a chef used to have 50 or 60 pounds of salami hanging in the cellar every winter,” says Mio executive chef Stefano Frigerio, a native of Como, Italy. He started learning how to make charcuterie from her when he was 9 years old.
Armstrong, who grew up in Ireland, had a lot of cured meats in his childhood, too. “My dad always had salami and hams hanging in the kitchen,” he says. Still, until he worked for executive chef Jeff Buben at Bistro Bis, Armstrong, like most restaurateurs, bought his cured meats. “We had seafood sausage, boudin blanc, and cassoulet on the menu. It got to a point where we said, ‘Why don’t we just make our own?’”
There are two good arguments against doing that. Charcuterie isn’t economical in the short term. “It takes a year to cure a ham. So if a ham is $100, that ham is not working for you. It ties up inventory and space,” Armstrong says. “A lot of restaurants don’t want to devote time to that kind of thing.”
Safe handling takes up a lot of resources too. Chefs need to be vigilant in every step of the process. “It’s a restaurant’s first responsibility that no one gets hurt,” Fisher says. That means a supersanitized prep area, as well as plenty of salt or liquid brine, plus, in some recipes, nitrates to prevent bacterial illness such as botulism. Then, you have to keep the curing area cool—between 40 and 60 degrees, with relative humidity—which is not easy to maintain for weeks and sometimes months.
Armstrong hired Fisher at Bistro Bis “as an act of charity” when he was 17 or 18, Fisher says. There, he paid his dues plating desserts for a year, eventually graduating to garde-manger. When Armstrong left to open Eve in 2003, he plucked Fisher to work as his charcuterie guy. Armstrong decided to sink money and time into Fisher’s culinary education. Because Fisher expressed an interested in charcuterie early in his career, he never made his way down the line, mastering the stations. “I’m not into fancy food. Butchering meats and making charcuterie isn’t fancy-dancy,” he says.
Armstrong bought Fisher books, equipment, curing salts, fermenting agents, meat grinders, and an old-fashioned stand-alone wine cellar where they could hang sausages and hams to age. “Cathal picked up a $600 sausage-stuffer for me, and it broke two months later,” Fisher recalls. “I was nervous about telling him, but he took it in stride and got me another one right away.”
Armstrong says Fisher “weighs as much as my right leg, but he does the work of 10 men.” His meats earn above their weight class, too. Eve’s $16 charcuterie plate, which features 12 to 15 of Fisher’s sausages and terrines, brings in $32,000 a month, Fisher says. Nowadays it seems like charcuterie is on every menu in town whether or not it’s made in-house.
Like Tallula and EatBar’s Anda, Peter Smith at PS 7’s, Anthony Chittum at Vermilion, and Frank Morales at Rustico have made it a priority to learn the craft. “It’s like a badge of honor,” says Morales. There’s something about the finickiness of the process that appeals to, well, let’s call them the “detail-oriented” types who tend to run fine-dining places. “I wanted to make everything myself so if there’s a problem, I can fix it,” Anda says.
On a recent weekend afternoon at Mio, a huge slab of belly destined to be pancetta and lardo and a 35-pound leg, hoof and all, are on the block. “That’s a fat ass,” observes sous chef Nick Stefanelli of the thick layer of fat under the skin. “That’s what you want,” says Frigerio, “since the fat melts inside the meat as it’s curing.” Frigerio says he wouldn’t accept a pig that’s been slaughtered in the summer or fall because it’s not porky enough.
Frigerio and Stefanelli practice a decidedly unorthodox method to extract blood; Stefanelli learned it while working at Galileo years ago. Frigerio places two baking sheets lengthwise on the floor, centers the leg on them, then frames two baking sheets over top. Then the two men jump up and down on the sheets for a minute or two. “You can withdraw blood with a syringe, but it’s better to do it with pressure,” Frigerio says. Extracting blood is necessary “so it doesn’t ferment with the meat and decompose the ham as it ages.”
As Armstrong notes, much of how charcuterie is made is tied to such traditions, passed down like folk tales. Recipes do exist, but most chefs take the renegade approach; paradoxically, they’re usually the ones with a hoity-toity clientele. Soon, area residents won’t have to dine out for house-made stuff. Both Eve and the Neighborhood Restaurant Group have plans to open butcher shops by next year, with Armstrong’s set to open in a building that’s under construction in Del Ray and Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s location, which it hasn’t yet announced.
In the meantime, chefs such as Fisher and Anda—who’ll run their employers’ respective butcher shops—continue to hone their craft. Fisher is looking forward to attending a course at Iowa State University in dry-cured salami and sausages. “I’m hoping to meet people there who I can go to when I have questions,” Fisher says. “Getting good information on this stuff can be hard.”
Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100, x 466.