About five years ago, Nathan Anda was cold-smoking hams in a converted freezer outside a Northern Virginia restaurant. He had removed the Freon but left the compressor atop the freezer as he, over the course of two years, smoked various meats in the jury-rigged appliance. It was only while adding wood smoke to those hams that the chef realized something awful.
The freezer, it turns out, was not designed to withstand heat, even the relatively mild temperatures of the cold-smoking process. “Eventually the heat broke down the enamel,” Anda recalls. “This thing literally crumbled,” the compressor tumbling right into the hams.
Worse, the appliance turned into an inferno, shooting out flames that eventually spread to a nearby tree. “It was awesome that I responded the right way,” says Anda, noting that someone called the fire department while he grabbed the fire extinguishers, “because I was amazed I didn’t stand there and like . . . .”
Here, Anda pauses and makes the kind of face usually seen in news footage of a family watching their home go up in flames. Anda had lost four hams, gorgeous specimens that he had spent months curing and aging.
The anecdote underscores an important point about the artisan charcuterie movement: What was once a wild west of chefs curing, aging and/or smoking their own meats has, in just a few short years, turned into a professional world of high-tech curing rooms, pH meters and certified food-safety plans. No one embodies this radical shift better than Anda, the partner and creative force behind Red Apron, Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s gourmet butchery, sandwich shop and cured-meats emporium.
First introduced via farmers markets in Penn Quarter, Dupont Circle and other spots, Red Apron moved into the bricks-and-mortar world this year with two locations. In January, Red Apron opened a shop in Union Market in Northeast and, little over a month later, launched a more expansive Mosaic District store in Merrifield. A third shop is expected to debut on D Street NW in late summer.
Those who haven’t visited a Red Apron store might be hard-pressed to imagine its offerings. It sells not only chef-driven sandwiches, such as Anda’s signature Porkstrami (a pastrami-like product that starts with pork sirloin rather than beef brisket), but also pâtés, rillettes, dry-aged salami, fresh sausages, house-smoked bacon, pancetta, stocks, meatballs and a line of house-made hot dogs. As if that weren’t enough, Red Apron serves as a butcher shop, too, selling fresh meats both common to U.S. markets (rib-eyes, T-bones, tenderloins) and rarely seen here (such as the secreto, a pork cut similar to beef skirt steak).
Red Apron, in other words, is a candy store for meat lovers.
Such a Falstaffian rollout of products does not occur by accident, of course. The Neighborhood Restaurant Group has been working on Red Apron for five years now, an undertaking that has been slowed by construction delays, lease negotiations and the massive amount of paperwork required to secure the government’s blessing to feed the public cured meats.
At the center of the Red Apron empire is its 3,500-square-foot production facility near Union Market. The state-of-the-art commissary deals only in whole animals (about 10 to 12 pigs and 1 1 / 2 cows a week) and features rooms for fabricating, curing, smoking and aging.
As the man who runs this protein-based empire, Anda, 36, seems singularly suited to a life devoted to transforming animal carcasses into tasty morsels.
Born in Dallas and raised in New Hampshire until he was 13, Anda even seems to have the right look for the job. Stocky and typically sporting ample facial hair, Anda is an Ewok in horn-rimmed glasses. An Ewok, that is, with the personality of a late-night talk show host.
Anda’s friends, relatives and colleagues single out his sense of humor. Former Vermilion chef Anthony Chittum still remembers the day he accidently slammed an oven door on Anda’s arm when they both worked at Equinox in the early 2000s. How could Chittum forget? “I hear about it every time he introduces me to someone,” says Chittum, now chef and partner at the forthcoming Iron Gate.
“Nathan likes to have fun,” says his mother, Stevia Anda, who lives outside Charlottesville.
Perhaps humor is a kind of release valve for Anda, who seems to take on every hobby or project with a near-obsessive devotion, whether it’s tennis (he was a city champion in doubles in Omaha, where his family lived when he was a teen) or charcuterie. His mother recalls the exact day her son expressed serious interest in sausagemaking. It was her birthday, and Nathan bought her a grinder and sausage-stuffer attachment for her KitchenAid mixer.
“I don’t think my mom ever planned on using either grinder or stuffer,” Nathan notes.
At the time, Anda was living with his parents in Charlottesville, where his family had moved from Omaha. He was working for his father, Bill, in the beer distribution business and taking classes part-time at the University of Virginia, where he was losing interest in his business studies, largely because he had discovered a love for cooking.
Manual labor never bothered Anda. His father made sure his two sons understood the backbreaking work required of those who don’t seek higher education. Nathan often worked the merchandising side of his father’s business, sometimes stocking shelves early in the morning or on holidays. Her husband “never gave either one of them a break,” Stevia says.
During the first of two externships required by the New England Culinary Institute, Anda worked at the Ivy Inn Restaurant in Charlottesville, where chef and owner Angelo Vangelopoulos continued the young charge’s education by showing Anda how to butcher animals. Even though Vangelopoulos faintly remembers the culinary student spending the first few weeks “burning himself and burning things,” the owner says he knew Anda had the raw talent and, just as important, the work ethic to make it in the hospitality business.
“I knew he would climb quickly,” Vangelopoulos says. “He’s a smart guy, and he’s a hard-working guy.”
Vangelopoulos helped Anda climb. While Anda was still working at Ivy Inn, the owner called a friend, chef Todd Gray of Equinox, who agreed to let the young cook work in his kitchen for a couple of short stints. Anda managed to parlay that experience into an externship at Equinox, where he worked the grill station, the hardest station at the restaurant, recalls Chittum, the sous-chef at the time.
“We went through over 20 cooks at that station,” Chittum says. “Not everybody was built to do it. But Nathan from the start was good at getting his [meat] temperatures” right.
By 2004, just two years after graduating from culinary school, Anda was already an executive chef. Neighborhood Restaurant Group founder Michael Babin and his partners tagged Anda as the chef for their next project, Tallula, in the North Arlington space formerly occupied by Whitey’s, a ragged old roadhouse known for its “broasted” chicken. The Post’s Tom Sietsema awarded Tallula and its upstart chef two stars.
In 2007, when Neighborhood Restaurant Group opened the adjoining EatBar, a fleet little gastropub, Anda was clearly headed in a meaty direction, creating all manner of offbeat and offal-based products.
“EatBar was really the beginning of Red Apron,” says Babin. “We’d scratch out something on the chalkboard in the middle of the night and change it to something else, because you have to do that if you’re going to commit as a small restaurant to [butchering] whole animals. That enabled us to start getting the whole animals and have a menu that can accommodate all those odd things you’ve got to do to make that work.”
A year later, Anda and Babin worked out a deal for the chef to leave his post at Tallula/EatBar and focus his attention on the Red Apron brand. They never figured it would take five years to open their production facility and their first bricks-and-mortar location. On one level, that half-decade was a long, frustrating period of construction delays and landlord disputes, but on another, it was an opportunity for Anda to fine-tune his craft.
The delays, in fact, were beneficial to Anda, Babin says: “I think he’s developed a base of knowledge about [charcuterie] that is really hard to achieve. So he knows how to make something work the first time around and to do something really creative.”
Before the production facility opened, Anda worked in the back of Tallula, often sharing equipment with cooks at the restaurant. Still, he managed to fabricate, process, cure and age a variety of products for Red Apron stands at farmers markets while also traveling widely to gain more experience. He interned at the Fatted Calf, an artisanal charcuterie shop in Napa, Calif.; he attended workshops on cured and fermented meats at Iowa State University; and he traveled to Italy to better understand the traditions that underpin his meat program.
And yet the thing to remember about Anda’s meat program is this: While it may be based in the Italian tradition, it’s not bound by it. His spreadable ’nduja pork sausage, for example, is not made from scrap meats such as lungs and kidneys; it’s made with skin-off pork belly, which Anda grinds into a spreadable texture. Likewise, Anda breaks from tradition by using vermouth instead of wine in his spicy Calabrian salami. Then there are the products that have nothing to do with Italy, like his Tete de Pho, a sort of pig’s-head terrine designed to mimic the flavors of the Vietnamese noodle soup.
Anda’s open-ended approach to terrines, rillettes, sausages and pâtés has caused one of his peers to tag him with a somewhat unique, somewhat critical descriptor: the “American” charcuterie maker. “He gets creative and ingenious like Americans,” says Jamie Stachowski, the Old World chef and butcher behind Stachowski’s Market and Deli in Georgetown. “He’s a new breed and new school.”
To Stachowski, what can get lost among all that creativity — at least with some of the Red Apron products he has sampled — is the European tradition of developing and layering flavors. While appreciating Anda’s dedication to the craft, Stachowski says some of the Red Apron charcuterie can be too dense in texture and “leaner in flavor.”
“Everything starts with the tradition,” Anda responds. His goal is to balance that with personal expression. “There are some things,” he adds flatly, “that I want to be mine.”
Whatever you label his charcuterie, Anda is creating it at staggering rates for such a small artisan producer that uses only pigs certified by the group Animal Welfare Approved. (Red Apron is about nine months away from buying only AWA cows, too, Babin says.) If you add up the many varieties — dry-aged, smoked, cooked — Red Apron has about 5,000 pounds worth of product hanging in its commissary near Union Market. Babin says the new facility hasn’t come close to its capacity yet, either.
Red Apron’s sheer scale and its high-profile stores in Union Market and Merrifield put the butchery in a unique position, says Julien Shapiro, chief butcher and charcuterie specialist at Range, Bryan Voltaggio’s sprawling restaurant in the Chevy Chase Pavilion. Red Apron could have enough influence to change how and what people eat in the Washington area. It could entice shoppers to sample unusual cuts of meat and taste terrines that they once thought would never cross their lips.
“With a shop like that, you can start to educate the public,” Shapiro says. “If you start educating people about food, they’re going to buy better food.”