Chefs and the charcuterie gap

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentifies the restaurant in California’s Napa Valley where chef Jason Story used to work. It is Bouchon, not the French Laundry. This version has been corrected.

May 8, 2012

“Move with purpose, not to impress,” the chef begins his tutorial. “A smooth arc, slicing in a clean motion. Move the knife away from yourself, to the right of your hip.” Exposing the pig’s shoulder, teasing a flexible blade against the bone, Jason Story sets his feet just so. To his left stands a tentative, wide-eyed, would-be apprentice.

It’s after-hours on a weeknight in early April at Three Little Pigs Charcuterie & Salumi, the new charcuterie in Petworth. Yet its spotless, cool workroom below hums with activity. The 27-year-old chef, who opened the small shop in March with his fiancee, chef Carolina Gomez, is midway through breaking down a 200-pound Old Spot from Evensong Farm in Sharpsburg, Md.

After the evening’s work, Story will spend days and weeks smoking, salting and curing pork and making sausage, as many of the world’s cultures have done for centuries. Although Story graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., and has worked in more than a dozen restaurants, including Thomas Keller’s Bouchon, learning how to butcher a whole animal and how to transform its parts into these traditional foods was not part of his training. Those are skills he has learned on his own.

“Nobody, not once, showed me how to do this,” he says, wiping the blade of his knife with a clean towel.

While restaurant chefs enhance their menus with house-made, artisanal meats, culinary schools are just beginning to respond with the broader kind of training required. Most of the schools in the States educate students on the cuts of meat, portioning and buying, as well as garde manger, literally “keep to eat,” which includes pâtés and fresh sausages. But one chef said that a chicken was the only animal he learned to break down at culinary school; another said about 31 / 2 hours were devoted to learning those familiar charts of meat cuts.

Neither charcuterie nor whole-animal butchery garner much, if any, class time. At the CIA, certain instructors are known to add to the prescribed curriculum here and there. Should a group of students wish to study charcuterie, for example, they are likely to learn through experimentation as part of an unofficial “club,” with a faculty adviser looking on. When there is no such club, student chefs are left to create their own opportunities. And those, due to economics and demand, are few and far between.

There is an almost palpable need for comprehensive butchery education in this country. Smaller culinary schools, such as the Seattle Culinary Academy, are infinitely more nimble in responding to this, but budgetary restrictions limit their ability. Larger schools remain unable to significantly alter their long-established culinary curriculum without committee meetings and oversight. Chefs interviewed for this story who employ whole-animal butchery in their restaurants receive constant requests from new graduates and line chefs to assist, to work, to watch the butchery in action.

So as soon as the culinary schools hold graduation ceremonies, freshly tattooed chefs are knocking on the doors of renowned meat artists such as Chris Cosentino of Incanto and Boccalone in San Francisco; Matt Jennings of La Laiterie in Providence, R.I.; and Craig Deihl of Cypress in Charleston, S.C.

The apprenticeship angle

Asked why the CIA does not offer charcuterie classes, chef Mark Erickson, provost, replied that “schools expose the students to cuisine and technique. We’re talking broad coverage versus deep knowledge. European apprenticeships are the place for this deeper study.”

Anne McBride, who is studying for a Ph.D. in food studies at New York University, says that “many gather their pennies, go to Europe and stage in the kitchens and butcher shops there, picking up whatever they can learn. These days, young chefs travel around the world, really, and also train/stage/eat extensively in the U.S.”

This practice, the stage (“stahj,” from the French “stagiair,” or apprentice), is arranged through what seems to be right-place, right-time or who-you-know or sheer-luck circumstance. The underground tom-tom beat is what moves promising young prospects from one stage to the next, each time building their experience level.

In France, for example, there is a centuries-old and well-established apprentice system, says Hugh Cossard, chef-instructor of garde manger at Stratford University’s Culinary Program in Woodbridge. “To become a butcher, you apprentice for two years. As animals are butchered, the bits and pieces become sausage, and other cuts are salted, spiced and cured. In time, you see the process over and over.”

In the United States, there are few nationally revered, deeply cultural or established roads to artisanal cured-meat production, although Virginia’s country ham tradition is one notable exception. The road to cured meat begins in the butcher shop, where bits and pieces — the trim — are destined to become charcuterie. Yet neighborhood butcher shops seem to be closing, coincidental with cutbacks in the meat industry.

Most of the large culinary schools offer one- or two-day post-graduate workshops, and often tackle subjects such as whole-animal butchery. In addition, independent storefronts such as the Meat Hook in Brooklyn and Oregon’s Portland Meat Collective hold classes that attract line chefs and home hobbyists alike.

Plain economic sense

Beyond the trendiness, savvy restaurant chefs are motivated to butcher whole animals and make their own charcuterie because it makes plain economic sense. Chef-restaurateur Deihl, 34, nominated for a James Beard award this year, says that after Johnson and Wales, his post-graduate meat education was scrappy and happenstance.

“I had an offer for some great hams at a very good price,” he remembers. “My farmer told me it’s the hardest part of the hog to sell. So I bought them.”

In fine dining, ham has no real application, and it takes forever to cure. So he turned it into salami, sopressata, mortadella, speck, using an abandoned walk-in freezer that he cobbled into a curing chamber. Deihl learned charcuterie by the book, citing Paul Bertolli’s “Cooking by Hand” (2003) as an enormous influence. After some trial and error, a charcuterie plate was added to the Cypress menu in 2007.

“My ability to stay open means focusing on the dollars as well as the food,” Deihl says. By purchasing whole animals and using every bit, I can make more money.” Simple as that.

In a perfect world, Deihl would “open a butcher shop working with whole animals, use the trim and bits and pieces for an American ‘junk food’ restaurant, serve the most amazing hot dogs and bologna sandwiches, then take the center-cut meats and use them in a fine-dining restaurant,” he says. “Yeah, that would be perfect. And then I would send all the compost and scraps right back to my farmers.”

Deihl’s advice for chefs who wants to learn charcuterie: “Make it every single day.”

The last American butchery school, the National School of Meat Cutting, closed in 1985, a relic after the meat industry migrated to boxed beef. Today the people in white coats behind the counter at grocery stores, for the most part, are cutting open boxes and prepping “added-value” meats: those pre-marinated flank steaks and stuffed chicken breasts.

Kari Underly, third-generation butcher and Beard-nominated author of “The Art of Beef Cutting: A Meat Professional’s Guide to Butchering and Merchandising” (2011), says she gets “e-mails and phone calls every day from people wanting to come learn. But I don’t have the setup. We need a school to teach butchery with an American food perspective.”

Consumer requests for more local, grass-fed, pastured meats are driving a resurgence in butchery in some independent groceries. In 2007, Wagshal’s in Spring Valley hired Pam Ginsberg, who learned butchery from her father. She dispatches whole animals and sides of beef in a spotless butchery in the Wagshal’s Market basement.

The seed of a charcuterie

When Story met Gomez at the CIA in 2009, the idea for their own shop began to form. She had made pies at Restaurant Nora before going to culinary school. She had traveled in Europe and dreamed of having a small restaurant: “My style, my kind of food. Not pretentious. Just nice food and good service,” she says confidently.

In his work-placement in 2008, Story trained under chef Brian Polcyn, co-author of “Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing” (2005), which has become a kind of bible to home hobbyists. Working for Polcyn “was the hardest I ever worked,” Story says. “He was so demanding, but I learned what it was like to work, what it took, to be a chef.”

The lessons stuck. Three Little Pigs is a charcuterie. Meat, salt and spices combine with time and smoke and tradition, and the resulting sopressata, saussicon sec, Polish snack sticks, Korean spiced bacon and more are all displayed in the butcher’s case. Crisp, modern, clean slate presentation boards are Gomez’s evident touch.

Story butchers a pig about once a week, and when he does so, he keeps the downstairs environment impeccably clean. Three freshly sharpened boning knives, a cleaver, a hacksaw, butcher paper, sheet pans, cutting boards and towels were neatly laid out and at the ready when he, Gomez and an assistant moved the pig from the walk-in to the stainless-steel table.

“I attribute it to time spent detailing cars before culinary school, and probably some OCD,” he shrugs. Story also considers such treatment a gesture of respect for the animal that has given its life — something he never forgets, he says.

Like the entrepreneurial chefs before him, Story has read every meat book he could get his hands on, pointing to a tall stack with well-worn Post-Its marking dozens of pages. He credits one very scientific, technical tome, “Home Production of Quality Meats and Sausages,” by Stanley Marianski (2010), for his deep understanding of the hows and whys of cured meats. He has read it maybe three times, he says.

With three swift, sure slices, Story removes the two hams from what’s left of the pig. The hams will hang for 10 to 16 months in a walk-in he customized: another skill acquired via research.

His assistant for the pig breakdown, 27-year-old Rockville resident Jonathan Gracias, would not continue toward an apprenticeship at Three Little Pigs, Story discovered later. The demands of the stage proved to be too much, coupled with Gracias’s full-time job. But there is another eager assistant in the wings.

Story is a natural educator, as it turns out: patient and thoughtful, with a knack for capitalizing on a teachable moment. He wanted to train the people who will help out at Three Little Pigs. In the eight weeks or so since the shop opened, four are in training.

“I always thought I would teach, “ the chef says. “I just didn’t expect it to happen so quickly.”

Barrow, who teaches cooking and charcuterie classes in Washington, joins our Free Range chat today at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.

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