Prelude To Cochon: Art and Soul’s Wes Morton Heads To The Country For Pig Practice, Cajun Style
Let's dispense with the full disclosure right away: In the aftermath of Wednesday’s gripping Reviewgate controversy, I feel compelled to note that this is not a restaurant review. It’s the recounting of a boucherie, a traditional Cajun pig slaughter and roast, which I attended on Sunday in the shadow of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, about two hours south of Washington. I made my own way down there and worked for my food, but the dinner was provided gratis. If I’ve offended your sensibilities with this information, feel free to stop reading at any time.
The boucherie was hosted by Wes Morton, the Louisiana-born executive chef who took over Capitol Hill’s Art and Soul about a year ago, after management cleaned house. Morton's resume includes stints at such illustrious D.C. eateries as CityZen and Citronelle. He also served as the opening chef at Againn.
Another confession: I've long held a certain bias against Morton's current restaurant, Art and Soul. It seemed a stupidly named feedbag from an overblown celebrity chef. (For the benefit of those who don't know, owner Art Smith is the former personal chef to Oprah Winfrey and now a fixture on TV.) But, after seeing Morton and crew at work this past weekend, I can tell you that these guys are talented and serious about their craft. And they've earned my respect.
Morton planned the event as a run-through for Cochon 555, the sort of Olympics of Pork, in which he’ll be competing for the first time this weekend. Other participating D.C. chefs include Mike Isabella of Graffiato, Nicholas Stefanelli of Bibiana, Ed Witt of 701 and also, the defending champ, Scott Drewno of The Source by Wolfgang Puck.
Having covered the event closely in years past, I can tell you that Morton is coming at it differently.
Cochon 555, a nationwide tour that celebrates sustainable farming, food and heritage breed pigs, is a grueling battle for both culinary bragging rights and a trip to the Aspen Food and Wine Festival. The competing chefs normally don’t telegraph their plans in advance. Not only did Morton put his menu out in public, but he quite openly and emotionally made the day about his Cajun heritage. His mother, Meredith, was there from Lafayette, La. His wife brought their six-year-old son and two-week-old daughter along for the Cajun rite of passage. There were even a few tears shed before all was said and done.
“A boucherie is a cultural thing in Cajun country,” says Morton, whose team for the day included Art & Soul’s general manager Patrick Chiapetta, chef de cuisine Mike Kraus and sous chef Doug Alexander. “We’d slaughter a pig and butcher it, then each family would make a specialty like boudin, cracklins, hog’s head cheese or backbone stew.”
The Virginia iteration was slightly different, but no less full of wonder. We arrived at the Locust Dale Hunt Club at 8:30 a.m. and headed out to visit two farms from which Morton buys produce for the restaurant. At Whisper Hill Farm, we ate juicy, peppery radishes that proprietors Holly and James Hammond pulled out of the ground as they discussed their commitment to sustainable, small-scale cultivation. At the Heartland Institute of Health & Education, a teaching farm run by the Seventh Day Adventist Church, we tasted impossibly flavorful hybrid salad greens grown in rows of perfectly-kept greenhouses.
By the time we returned to the hunt club for the real festivities, a 200-pound Yorkshire/Berkshire pig from Papa Weaver’s Pork was sitting on a prep table, waiting to be broken down. Morton and Kraus wasted no time or movement over the next hour. Within 15 minutes, one of the hams and a shoulder were rotating slowly over a wood fire, throwing off the scent of Cajun spice and the sizzling sound of fat dripping into the embers. Coincidentally, the custom-made spit roaster bore the famed New Orleans inscription “Laissez les bon temps rouler.” Morton certainly seemed to be following those directions as he quickly worked his way through the rest of the pig, smiling even as he took on the tedious and tiring task of sawing its backbone into soup joints.
“Wes learned cooking from his grandmothers and his aunt,” his mother, Meredith, tells me. “We all grew up in Abbeville Parish, about 20 miles from the Gulf in pure Cajun country, and we’d have big dinners of crawfish, shrimp and catfish with the whole extended family every Sunday. That’s the Cajun way.”
In Morton’s version of the boucherie, the family members were his chefs, who each took on different parts of the pig to make traditional dishes. Alexander went to work on the pig’s head with an axe, splitting it for a long simmer in a pot. Kraus stirred Sea Island red peas from Anson Mills in pork stock, studding the finished dish with pulled smoked ham hock. He also tended rice grits, which have a deeper flavor and quicker cooking time then their corn cousins, and stewed greens. The two worked together on grinding, seasoning and casing 15 pounds of Andouille sausage, before throwing it on the wood fire with the ham. Fragrant Carolina gold rice sputtered away in a rice cooker.
“It took me a lot of years working in kitchens to realize that I had this really beautiful cultural heritage that you can’t find anywhere else,” Morton tells me. “The food that we grew up with, you don’t find it in restaurants, you get it in someone’s home from their grandmother. The secrets are shared from family to family and town to town.”
His focus through much of the day was on the dishes you’re not likely to find on menus outside of Louisiana. He made a dark brown roux and added aromatics and Cajun spice for the base of “backbone stew,” which gets its name from the rich taste the backbone marrow imparts in it over hours of simmering. Once it reached a brown gravy consistency, Morton added chunks of pork tenderloin and scallions to finish.
The chef’s next trick was the day’s highlight for me. Boudin, a spicy sausage made of pork shoulder, liver, rice, spices, scallions and parsley, is the fast food—the great equalizer—of Cajun country. It is sold in roadside shacks, gas stations and restaurants, and every family has their own recipe. Morton took scraps from the pig and simmered them for six hours in broth with carrots, celery and Cajun seasoning. Once the meat was tender, he mashed it with a wooden spoon and gently folded in the gold rice. He then worked it gingerly until the rice had absorbed as much braising liquid as possible. The mixture was cased in great coils and added to the meat circus on the wood fire.
By the mid-afternoon, the heat and toil started to take a toll. Some people stepped away for cat naps. The chefs cleaned their spaces, prepared garnishes and made sure the pots on the stove were constantly stirred. On cue, Chiapetta, Art and Soul’s GM, stepped in to try to spur on a strong finish. He mixed drinks for everyone with Smooth Ambler gin, soda water, a splash of Tomr’s Tonic and lime. As we enjoyed the drinks, he and a few others set a beautiful table for 20 on grass near the cabin.
“Families and communities come together [around Cajun food],” says Morton. “And the beauty of it is, no matter what was going on in the family, the food always brought us together.”
Just before sunset, the community started to come together for the meal. Tom and Tina Weaver, owners of Papa Weaver’s Pork, arrived. Morton’s face showed true deference as he met the people who had raised the day’s pig on a farm that Tom Weaver's ancestor had purchased from James Madison. Mollie Visosky, owner of The Fresh Link, a farm co-op that provides produce to Art and Soul and other DC restaurants, was there as well.
I’m not sure I can do the meal justice on paper. The ham, after untold hours on the wood fire, was tender, its skin like pork brittle. The red peas and rice grits, both of which I was tasting for the first time, were outstanding. The boudin and Andouille, spicy and perfectly textured, were among the best of either I’d ever eaten. Sous chef Doug’s jars of ramp, green tomato, cornichon, mixed hot pepper, and okra pickles, based on his mother’s recipe, stood up to anything similar that I've tried. Kraus’ wife, Jennifer Kraus, a pastry chef at D.C.'s Four Seasons, made shortcake biscuits with strawberry, rhubarb and whipped cream. Morton called the biscuits the best he’d ever had. Sitting at that table felt like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It was exactly the kind of eating I love most, not least because of my own Acadian roots.
Morton’s mom, Meredith, told me the whole day felt like being back in Abbeville Parish, surrounded by food and family. I asked her whether Morton’s grandmothers, who’d taught him the appreciation of taste and place that has driven him in his career, would be proud of him. Her eyes welled up with tears. “They’d be very proud," she tells me. "Both of them.”
Photos by Morgan Lynn Photography