Fine dining’s trash-to-table movement
By Tim Carman,
Two decades ago — or even just a few years back, before the great economic calamity of 2008 — many of the featured ingredients on sous-chef Adam Brick’s tasting menu at Graffiato would have been found rotting in the trash. Pineapple skins. Lamb hearts. Egg shells. The tough little side muscle on a sea scallop that’s typically excised with extreme prejudice.
Back then, few self-respecting, chef-driven restaurants would have considered serving an ingredient such as beef tendon, the stuff often seen floating in a bowl of soup at suburban pho parlors. In the white-tablecloth world of fine dining, beef has always meant rib-eye or filet mignon, or perhaps sirloin if you’re really slumming it. But right there among Brick’s new dishes is a small plate of beef tendon, a tough connective tissue that requires prolonged heat to soften its collagen-rich fibers into something rich and gelatinous and delicious.
The tendon is just one of 12 courses that Brick has conceived for his $85 “Gems” tasting menu, which will be offered every Sunday and Monday starting Jan. 13 at the six-seat bar upstairs at Graffiato in Chinatown. The tendon, served on a split veal bone with a soft-scrambled egg infused with smoked marrow, will take its place among some of the other “gems” on Brick’s menu: diced lamb-heart tartare with smoked yogurt; halibut tail meat glazed with chicken-wing sauce; raw tuna marrow in a broth prepared with the fish’s roasted spine; fried chips made from purees of rice and those tough scallop muscles; an egg-shell meringue sprinkled over chocolate custard; a pineapple-skin semifreddo sitting in Thai-scented coconut water.
Eccentric on its own, Brick’s tasting menu is a departure in another way for Graffiato, the small-plates restaurant that former “Top Chef” contestant Mike Isabella conceived as a kind of homage to his Italian-American roots in New Jersey. The multi-course menu is a tiny oasis of fine dining tucked into a place that trades on its clubby informality and the two-fisted, blue-collar drive of its celebrity chef. It’s like Graffiato’s own minibar, but with ingredients foraged from the garbage.
Once the “gems” menu is available to the public, it also will be the strutting, rock-star front man of the scrap trend already well underway at fine-dining restaurants in the area.
“If we don’t use all the byproducts,” says Cathal Armstrong, chef and owner at Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, “there is no way that fine dining could survive.”
Armstrong will be the first to tell you that fine-dining temples have always kept a close eye on waste. In the early 1990s, he was a saucier at Vidalia, where chef and owner Jeff Buben had assembled a future all-star team that included Peter Smith (who would go on to helm the now-closed PS 7s) and Eric Ziebold (now leading CityZen). Armstrong recalls that Buben required cooks to have a hotel pan at their station for scraps: perhaps the outer leaves of cauliflower or thyme stems or shrimp shells, stuff that often would be turned into stock.
Such a basic conservation philosophy has hardened into a rigid waste-nothing mind-set in recent years, Armstrong notes, as the sagging U.S. economy has delivered a one-two punch to high-end restaurants. Diners, the chef says, are loath these days to pay an extra dime for dinner, yet food costs continue to soar for the people who prepare and sell the meals. That often is why chefs embrace whole-animal butchery in their restaurants, where they can buy and break down entire carcasses, which are far cheaper than individual cuts of beef, pork or lamb.
But whole-animal cooking requires not just a line cook who knows how to butcher, but also a chef who knows how to turn off-cuts and byproducts into appealing dishes. Take, for example, the veal hearts from the Randall Lineback calves that Armstrong buys.
“Very often that’s a cut of meat that’s thrown in the trash can,” Armstrong says. “In nine out of 10 restaurants, no one is going to order veal heart.”
Instead of tossing those organs, however, Armstrong now brines them for a couple of days before slowly braising them until tender. He’ll then sell plates of the braised hearts to select customers who show an affinity for offal. At two dishes per veal heart, and two veal carcasses a month, Armstrong says those organ meats now generate an extra $100 instead of feeding rodents at the garbage dump. The chef performs a similar trick with veal testicles, which he treats as sweetbreads for the adventurous diner. He figures he earns about $20 per gonad. Perhaps that’s not an image you want to associate with Restaurant Eve, but those veal testicles help to keep the restaurant’s doors open.
Look around the local dining scene, and you can find similar whole-animal cooking at other restaurants, which are likewise devising ways to use byproducts beyond traditional stocks and charcuterie programs. Rogue 24 chef and owner R.J. Cooper, another Buben alumnus from Vidalia, pays $30 a pop for wild Scottish hares, which he breaks down into a number of components: the legs for rillettes, the bones for consomme, the loins for a poached-and-roasted dish, the ribs for a pint-size rack of rabbit. Cooper even soaks the whole hare in milk to extract the blood, which he’ll then turn into a parfait.
“You’ve got to learn how to use the whole animal to make any kind of profit” from those pricey hares, Cooper says.
The paradoxical thing about whole-animal programs is that some chefs don’t always buy whole animals. Sometimes, they buy them in pieces. This past summer, Logan Cox, chef at Ripple in Cleveland Park, bought yellowfin tuna collars, the bony section of the fish near the head that has long been a delicacy in Japan. He brined the collars, braised them and finally caramelized them under a salamander. He’d then sell the collars for $40 for two people. At one point, he was buying the collars for a mere $2 a pound (although clever fishmongers soon started upping the price once they realized the meat from the collarbone can be as rich and flavorful as meat from a bone-in steak).
“It’s the most intense umami flavor,” Cox says. “This meat is succulent and delicious. . . . This is easily the best part of the fish.”
Like Cox, Graffiato’s Brick routinely has to place special orders for oddball ingredients. His halibut tail is a prime example. A whole halibut could easily cost hundreds of dollars wholesale, which in turn would require that Graffiato find a way to generate hundreds more in revenue from that single fish. That isn’t going to happen at this small-plate emporium. So Brick, whose résumé includes stints at Aureole, Daniel and Momofuku Ssam Bar in New York, buys the tails from Samuels & Son Seafood. The vendor provides the tails with about three inches of extra flesh, perfect for picking up the gelatin on the bone. Likewise, Brick has to buy separate tuna spines to extract the marrow and individual pig’s heads to butcher the meat for his Sardinian gnocchetti with “pig snout” ragu.
Eola chef Daniel Singhofen can sometimes buy his young pigs with the head still attached — not that it makes it any easier to extract the brain, the part of the pig that’s routinely tossed away. The key for Singhofen is to buy heads without that single hole in the forehead, which indicates the pig was incapacitated with a captive bolt gun, rendering the brain unusable.
This is where the skill of a chef comes into play with whole-animal cooking. Through a lot of trial and error, Singhofen and his kitchen team have perfected a method for extracting the brain. It involves cracking the skull with a cleaver in two locations, and the cooks have to know exactly where to strike the skull, exactly how much pressure to apply and exactly the right angle at which they should brandish the knife.
Once the brain is removed, Singhofen will “cold poach” it, cube it and fold it into tortellini, which are then boiled and served with brown butter, butternut squash puree, crushed hazelnuts and sage. “Texturally,” the chef says, “it ends up being very much like a cheese tortellini.”
I’m reminded of the skills required to deal with whole, or even partial, animals as I’m butchering my own pig’s head on the counter of my Takoma Park kitchen. I bought the head for $20 at Harvey’s Market inside Union Market and now have Brick on the cellphone to walk me through the process, so that I can make his pig snout dish at home. As the sous-chef directs my cuts and I slowly, agonizingly, begin to peel the skin and fat and meat from the skull, I’m forced to literally feel my way around my poor subject’s head.
The reward for my work is two thick slabs of face meat and skin, each half in one continuous roll, from the top of the skull to the bottom of the jowl, far more than I’ll need for Brick’s dish. And there’s another benefit to butchering my own pig’s head: When I’m this intimate with the source of my food, I understand, deep in my bones, the desire to waste nothing.
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