Chef Mark Cutrara In the basement prep kitchen of Cowbell restaurant in Toronto, chef/owner Mark Cutrara and his sous chef Ryan Donovan busily prepare for the evening’s service. Donovan is butchering ducks from Everspring Farms: he swiftly chops off heads and removes tongues, tossing each into separate buckets for later use, before carving up torsos into breasts and legs.
In one corner of the kitchen, a newly made sopressatta hangs off a trolley by ropes. Across the room next to an active smoker, a sous-vide machine quietly hums like a fish tank, its water temperature holding at a steady 60°C. Against another wall sits a makeshift contraption for curing meat (an old Coke cooler propped slightly ajar, filled with water baths to keep the moisture at 80 per cent humidity and running at a temperature of 18°C). House-made prosciutto and sausage hang in the wine cellar and walk-in cooler, and a huge bin brims with vacuum-packed meats.
Rather than being an obscure exception, Cowbell’s kitchen is exemplary of two of the most prominent protein trends in foodservice. Across the country, meat is being delivered to high-end restaurants, not in the form of neatly trimmed tenderloins and chops, supremes and ribs, but as whole animals (if they’re small enough), sides or quarters. And, instead of coming from huge production facilities, it’s arriving straight from the farm gate.
The hoof-to-snout and locavore crazes are not new. Both ideas hark back to the way our ancestors ate out of pure necessity. But in the past decade, there’s been a resurgence of interest, thanks to, among other factors, a couple of books: in 1999, Fergus Henderson of St. John restaurant in London, England, wrote Nose to Tail Eating: A Kind of British Cookery, which was highly influential in the revival of using the whole animal; and in 2004, The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating, propelled the buy-local philosophy into mass-consumer consciousness.
Chefs have been the engines bringing both ideas to the fore. “It’s getting more and more popular to use the whole animal,” observes Scott Pohorelic, chef at Calgary’s River Café. The reasons are many, but an obvious one is the bottom line. Cutrara explains: “You buy tenderloin, for example, for $21 per pound, but by buying the whole animal you get so much more per pound.”
At Le Local in Montreal’s historic district, chef Alexandre Gosselin regularly has a side of pig hanging in his walk-in cooler. “It’s so much cheaper to buy half a pig because you’re not paying the butcher to do a job you could be doing.” He points out an important consideration, though: “You need a big fridge — [the pig] weighs like 40 pounds.”
Nose-to-tail cooking also requires manpower. “It’s really only doable in high-end restaurants,” says Pohorelic, “because labour costs can be an issue.” Gosselin pumps out 400 covers a day, but he also has 18 cooks in his kitchen. Poholeric has 27 kitchen staff on the schedule during winter and approximately 35 in summer. “We have one dedicated full-time butcher all year — Jason does butchery five days a week and Andrew, our sous chef, does the other two days. They handle all the meat cutting, portioning and charcuterie. In the busy summer they get help from some of the part-time staff. It’s a big job.”
In fact, the opportunity to learn advanced butchery and charcuterie skills is a major labour recruitment tool, as it provides impetus for cooks and apprentices to apply to places like River Café, Le Local, Cowbell and to Lot 30 in Charlottetown, where chef/owner Gordon Bailey is one of few restaurants on Prince Edward Island bringing in whole animals. “It’s the best way for cooks to understand what they’re dealing with,” Bailey says. “Those who really want the butchery experience are in with me at 10 a.m.”
When Pohorelic started cooking more than two decades ago, standard cuts of chicken, pork and beef dominated menus, he says. It was rare even to find lamb, which was the first animal he ordered whole at River Café. “It has made us better cooks. We had to figure out how to use the entire thing, so we did lots of reading and lots of experimenting.”
This approach to meat has revolutionized kitchens, and thus menus, across Canada. Butchering the entire animal gives chefs an opportunity to serve a wider range of cuts than ever before, including offal, which by extension calls for versatile preparations like braising, brining, marinating, curing, drying, aging, smoking, grilling, roasting, searing, pan-frying, baking and sous-vide cooking.
It offers flexibility, says Bailey. “I can change cuts more often. I change my menu almost every day.” Like most chefs, he uses heartier cooking methods in the winter: braised pork belly with celery root and parsnip purée and maple vinegar sauce ($27) for example, or grilled artisan Atlantic beef ribeye with braised tomato and sweet potato pâvé ($32). He experiments with making “hams” from lamb and all kinds of charcuterie.
At Cowbell, flexibility often translates into composed plates. “There will be a grilled prime cut with a braised secondary cut and maybe a sausage,” Cutrara says. “It provides a full spectrum of flavours and textures.” That might mean a starter of pressed-duck terrine with Lyonnaise sausage and armagnac prune ($13) or a main of venison sausage with lardo, baked beans and red pepper ($23).
Using all the bits and bites is an essential tenet of Cutrara’s cooking philosophy. He serves everything from lamb testicles and tongue to beef heart. The only item that has been a hard sell, he says, is kidney, though he’s not sure why. All the animal parts that don’t make the cut as a stand-alone protein either end up in stock or in various forms of charcuterie. “It’s all part and parcel of using the whole animal,” Cutrara says. He has produced house-made salami, capicollo, sausage, bacon, ham, pancetta, prosciutto, braseola, coulatello, lonza, pâtés, terrines, and the list goes on.
In the modern high-end restaurant culture no animal part is taboo. “You name it we’re using it,” says Pohorelic. He pushes the envelope with seared lamb sweetbreads, pig’s ear terrine and wild boar jowl — braised with a ton of maple syrup. “We were calling it Alberta’s foie gras for a while.”
Pohorelic also serves more traditional cuts in creative ways: pasture-raised pork chop with creamed black trumpet mushrooms and forked rutabaga ($41); braised lamb and quince tourtière with honey-buttered turnips and mint (priced according to the cut); and a mushroom-dusted bison striploin with brown beech mushrooms and ‘barely risotto’ ($46) — first he sears the bison and then cooks it for 10 hours in a 120°F oven. “You’d think it would come out like a piece of jerky, but it’s rare from end-to-end and crispy on the outside. It doesn’t even have to rest.”
At Le Local, Gosselin offers a variety of textures and cuts, too. He serves his grandmother’s cabbage rolls with braised pork shank, bone marrow, double-smoked bacon, bread crumbs, a sunny-side up egg and marinated beets ($23); roasted grain-fed veal with braised veal cheek, onion purée, soy-marinated shiitake mushrooms, sangria reduction, foie gras (he burns through 44 pounds of it a week), pomegranate and “perigourdine” sauce ($27); and a paleron of AAA beef (a 22-pound shoulder braised in red wine and aromatics for 20 hours before being portioned then seared on a flat top) with parsnip purée, Savoy cabbage, lardons, du Puy lentils and “lapsang souchong” veal jus ($31).
For chefs who value using the whole animal, the source of the meat is vital. “We shop locally so we can have a connection to the grower,” Pohorelic says. “And it’s remarkably better for taste.” He’s particularly excited about his bison supplier, Olsen’s High Country Buffalo in Calgary, which owns the largest single herd of bison in the world. The farmer moves the animals from lowland pastures up to an alpine meadow for the winter, so they’re 100-per-cent grass fed, no grain. “It tastes like bison’s supposed to taste.”
But buying local isn’t always the easiest route. Cutrara says initially, he had a hard time finding suppliers. “But now there are many programs working to bring farmers into the cities.”
And in other cases, farmers simply don’t produce enough of a particular animal for it to be incorporated onto a static menu. Cutrara can take advantage of using elk, when it’s available, from a Rockwood, Ont.-based farm called Second Wind, because he changes his menu daily. Pohorelic chooses to put elk only on his “features” menu, “because I just can’t get enough.”
Using whole animals and buying local meat ultimately benefits the consumer, since they get more variety on menus and better tasting product. But it benefits the industry as a whole, too, because it has made becoming a chef a more interesting profession, one in which people can continue to learn new skills. “Twenty-five years ago people cooked until they found a better job,” Pohorelic says. “Now people think of it as a career.”
Reprinted with permission from Foodservice and Hospitality magazine. “Block Party” by Lisa Paul. April 2009.