Finding Another Way
Josh Lewin / May 20th, 2013
For the first 10 or so years of my culinary career, meat arrived in my kitchen, in one way or another, ready to serve. There were the minor prep tasks—multiple 40-pound cases of chicken wings that had to be “smashed” in half over and over again with a dull cleaver; plastic tubes of ground beef to be sliced into 8-ounce rounds; chicken breasts to be pounded into uniform flat planks for easy grilling; this or that cut of steak to be removed from its individual packaging and seasoned before joining so many others under the broiler.
To call that a career is a very loose statement. I started a few years before the minimum working age of 16. (And I just might have been found leaving early or skipping school altogether to cut those chicken wings.) I wasn’t learning much about meat, but there were lessons about working hard and serving food that were valuable at the time. Things continued like that into my 20s. The restaurants and menus changed; the scene and the packaging stayed the same.
My first exposure to thinking differently about meat came from working, mostly alone, in the kitchen of a small bar in the suburbs of Boston. The owners were fairly supportive of doing something unexpected and better. We started small, with whole chickens and other poultry, reaching out to some of our nearby farmers. We purchased primal cuts of pork. I hadn’t even seen that before, but we figured it out. And then we did it again. Suddenly, we found ourselves with more flexibility, a better product, and an education along the way.
I took that education with me to Beacon Hill Bistro in Boston, where there was already a strong tradition of farm-to-table cooking and whole animal use. Here, I found the opportunity for a deeper understanding of the farmer’s work, as well as the butcher’s. I had experienced and taken part in the slaughter of pigs, poultry, and rabbits. Our menu revolved around the scheduled delivery of whole animals, which are delivered by the farmers themselves.
And now, as I hire younger cooks—some of whom are having the first experiences of their culinary careers—I’m able to open up a world to them that wasn’t even a fantasy of mine at their age. As beginner career cooks, they have already developed a first name relationship with their meat producers (farmers), and if a portion of meat is going to be stored in plastic to be used later, it’s because they’ve carefully cut and packaged it that way themselves.
They are encouraged to spend educational days off with our favorite farmers—and not just as spectators, but to work and learn. And to experiment. Now that we have a general understanding of all the parts, we can try new things: What happens when we cut this way? What happens if we cure this piece, with these flavors? Inspiration is easy to come by when you’ve managed the meat from the farm, on your day off, to the day you cut it, after helping the farmer through your door. Visiting chefs may stop by to learn a bit from us about how to manage the purchase of whole animals, and the staff will excitedly share stories with them about past animals, curing projects, and new recipes.
The price is right, too—it took a little time to learn to get it right, but as we opened ourselves up to new presentations and experience, we saw the food cost drop a little lower each time, and became more efficient in processing.
We have a plan and we work it, and then we start over and do it again, always finding a new way to improvise along the way. We’ve made friends, built a reputation among our guests, and developed an educational and exploratory approach to cooking, which is appreciated by a staff eager to learn. And we have no intention of looking back.
The following recipe was developed with Maura Loosigian, one of my line cooks here at Beacon.
Pig’s Head Roulade
- 1 pig’s head, deboned
- 3 Tbsps. kosher salt
- 1 tsp. black peppercorns, freshly ground
- 4 cloves garlic, crushed
- 1/4 cup red wine
- 3 long sprigs spruce
In nonreactive container, coat meat evenly on all sides with cure mix.
Cure for 3 days, redistributing cure over meat once per day.
On third day, rinse pig’s head and dry; season liberally on both sides with salt and pepper.
Remove ears and julienne; line them evenly down the center of the head, opposite the skin side.
Roll meat tightly lengthwise, so that the skin is on the outside; tie with twine.
- 3 cups pork stock
- 3 bay leaves
- 1 tsp. black peppercorns, freshly ground
- 1/2 tsp. ground coriander
- 3 sprigs thyme
- 1 apple, quartered
- 3 cups mirepoix
Preheat oven to 325˚F.
Place all ingredients for braising, along with the rolled head, into a braising dish; liquid should cover meat by just more than half.
Braise for about 2 1/2 hours, or until meat is fork tender but still holds its shape.
Cool; rest in its liquid overnight, or up to 3 days.
Slice into 1/2” rounds; serve cold as part of a charcuterie plate or bread the slices and fry them until crispy.