Charcuterie's New Age: Modern chefs tackle the pinnacle of nose-to-tail cooking

Nashan, Craft, Galliano, Rook, Willmann, Fiala – a veritable who’s who of St. Louis chefs stood quietly in the kitchen at Sidney Street Cafe on a recent sunny Sunday afternoon. All eyes were focused on the older gent seated in the center of the room, the almost two dozen chefs listening intently. What could he possibly have to talk about that was important enough to pull these culinary top guns away from their families on a precious day off? Charcuterie, a branch of cooking that encompasses a myriad of prepared meats: sausages, hams, bacon, pâtés, terrines, galantines and other cooked or processed meat items.

The chefs were gathered for an intensive two-day workshop led by Certified Master Chef, dean emeritus of the Culinary Institute of America and charcutier extraordinaire Fritz Sonnenschmidt, who flew to St. Louis at the request of his former student, Sidney Street chef and owner Kevin Nashan. Before the advent of refrigeration, charcuterie was used as a means of preservation, but today, it’s prized for its flavors, and the craft of making it is considered a logical extension of the local, artisanal, nose-to-tail approach to cooking practiced by the best chefs in the country. As such, local chefs are no strangers to charcuterie; house-made fresh sausages, pâtés and terrines dot menus all over town. Now, chefs like Nashan are interested in taking charcuterie to its zenith: dry-cured meats.

It’s no small undertaking: The mother lode of ripening meat products – from salami to prosciutto, adouille sausages to fashionable fatback – hanging in the dark recesses of Sidney Street’s stone cellar must be checked regularly for beneficial mold and weighed for weight loss, the cellar’s temperature and humidity carefully observed, and all of it meticulously logged in a thick binder. Should they all age according to plan – which will take weeks in some cases, months or even years in others – the 36 different types of cured meats will star in pastas, sauces, stuffings and entrées on the restaurant’s menu.

Yet Nashan wants a cadre of chefs to jump on the dry-curing wagon. “It’s kind of like having only one farmer – why have only one?” he explained. Besides, St. Louis, a town crazy for all things pig, seems ripe for aged charcuterie, given its receptive diners, multiple local producers supplying quality pork (including the trendy Mangalitsa variety, a European heritage breed revered for its fat and flavor), and chefs not only eager to push the envelope of technical skill but willing to collaborate in order to do so.

“Sausage-making is a science,” Sonnenschmidt began. “You have to be precise.” Over the two-day workshop, he extolled precision in weight, temperature, pH, moisture, curing agents and seasonings, and chefs from as far away as K.C. and Columbia took notes.

Before releasing the chefs for a butchering demonstration, Sonnenschmidt reminded them to uphold the bonhomie that characterizes this community of enthusiastic chefs driven to elevate the entire St. Louis dining scene. “Today, we are just cooks. Chefs make decisions, and as chefs, we have our own opinions. As cooks, we just listen. So today, let’s get together as cooks and share the knowledge.”

Temperamental to temperature and humidity, dry-cured meats “can drive even professional charcutiers crazy,” write Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn in Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing. So why would Nashan and a handful of other chefs want to take them on considering the copious day-to-day chores already piled on their plates? Knowing how to dry cure is a mark of excellence, one of those elements in the what-it-means-to-be-a-chef equation. As Ruhlman and Polcyn concede, foodstuffs like pepperoni, sopressata, coppa, chorizo, saucisson sec and others are “the most exciting to attempt, and when you nail it, there may be no more satisfying accomplishment in the kitchen.”

“Charcuterie is a lost art,” explained Nashan. “In this fast-paced world, there’s no more patience. A lot of people don’t know the basics. You gotta pay particular attention to the details. You have to have the passion behind it and do the correct steps. It’s not like cooking, where you cook to taste; it’s an exact science.”

Ben Poremba of St. Louis’ premier artisanal salumeria, Salume Beddu in South City, agreed that one reason he’s drawn to charcuterie is because it’s a difficult, time-honored craft. “On the face of it, it’s supposed to be pretty easy,” said Poremba. “Take a piece of meat, salt it correctly and it’s left out to dry. But it’s not that easy, really. It takes expertise, precision, consistency and a lot of time.”

At its most basic, dry curing involves combining ground meat, fat, salt, spices, and sugar with a curing salt and live culture to control bacteria. The mixture is cured for 24 to 48 hours under refrigeration, then stuffed into casings, incubated for anywhere from 12 hours to a few days, and finally hung to dry in a temperature-controlled room.

Thing is, success is often elusive. Chef Gerard Craft spouted a long list of learning curves – the wrong texture, not enough humidity, the wrong mold, drying for too long – before Adam Altnether, his former chef de cuisine at Niche and current executive chef at Brasserie by Niche, interrupted to note that, “the hardest part is that it can take 18 months to learn a lesson.”

The devil’s in the details, explained Nashan: “There are certain things you don’t deviate from. Hanging salamis: It’s always 30 percent weight loss of the meat before it can be consumed. Certain percentages: 3 percent of salt per kilo of meat – you can’t go less.” Nashan said he’s learned a lot since starting his aging program. “You are looking for different nuances, eye appeal, color. On the casing you are looking for a particular bind. The more you work with it, the more you understand.”

Hence the workshop, to help other chefs understand. “I wanted to invite the whole town – every single restaurant,” said Nashan.
Besides reaping Sonnenschmidt’s tutelage, the chefs crammed into a back room to learn an Austrian butchering technique from Mike Sloan, president of Swiss Meat and Sausage Co. in Hermann. Cutting around and removing the ribs with a brace is an arduous process, yet using the Austrian technique enables chefs to get more yield and maximize the cuts for curing. “The way they break down the shoulder, leg, belly, it’s so they can be cured,” explained Monarch’s Josh Galliano, who has acquired multiple days of hands-on training at Swiss Meat.

Beyond the specific butchering technique and complicated aging process, dry-aged charcuterie also requires a tricky dance with bacteria – and therefore also requires certain procedures dictated by the health department, a time- and paperwork-heavy demand that causes many a chef to eschew dry aging.

“When you do any type of curing or smoking process, you have to follow the FDA’s Hazard Analysis Critical Control Plan,” said Kevin Huntston, an inspector with the environmental health division of the St. Louis City Department of Health. HACCP is used in the food industry to minimize or eliminate potential food safety hazards. “The FDA has pretty basic guidelines of what a HACCP plan has to look like,” explained Hunston. “You have to give a description of how you are handling potential hazardous products, describe the process and show that there will be no type of critical situation where [pathogenic] bacteria could grow. There has to be acceptable seasoning, certified wind devices and acceptable products for doing it.”

Huntston, who was a chef for 25 years before joining the St. Louis City Department of Health seven years ago, is ready to support those chefs willing to take the necessary steps to add a dry-curing program. “It is very achievable,” he said of dry aging. “It’s taking it back to the old school, hanging cured meats, salamis. I think it’s making a comeback, but [chefs] are going to do new things with it.”

Gerrin Cheek Butler, food and environmental program manager for St. Louis County Department of Health, said that, although they don’t often encounter in-house charcuterie programs, county food inspectors look forward to this trend among chefs. “We are kind of learning from them, and [they learn] the food safety aspect [from us]. It’s an exchange of information.”

So will diners begin to see more house-cured charcuterie on local menus? Yes, at least at a few spots. Galliano noted that charcuterie “fills a gap” in fine dining, offering a comingling of the “finessed and precise” with “rustic flavor and motif and ambiance that make [fine dining] a little more casual and not so stuffy.” Galliano, who already offers diners fresh and smoked sausages and terrines, would like to get a modified refrigeration unit for the restaurant so that he can begin dry curing.

At Niche, where Craft and Altnether are currently curing items under refrigeration, charcuterie shows up on the menu in several ways, from a cream chorizo sauce to pepperonis skewered with white-fleshed escolar and pineapple. “We’d quickly sear on all sides,” Craft explained. “The escolar, which you just barely cook, would pick up all that pepperoni flavor. It was an amazing flavor combination. And hams? That’s endless: prosciutto, country ham on croque madame or just shaved on a bruschetta.”

A mere two weeks after the workshop, Lou Rook III of Annie Gunn’s had already ordered 14 pig heads and a whole Mangalitsa pig. Tops on the aging to-dos: dry-cured bacon and guanciale, a cured pork jowl similar to pancetta that is used as a flavor enhancer. The bacon and a jamón are already hits on the Chesterfield restaurant’s menu; look for coppa and other aged products to show up there in the coming weeks and months.

Can’t wait that long? Head to Salume Beddu. Among the cured meats, fresh sausages and accompagnamenti, you’ll find stellar guanciale spiced with red pepper flakes, brown sugar, black peppercorns and rosemary. And Poremba called the coppa, or cured pork shoulder, among the best in the world. “There’s nothing we can improve on it. We can change the spice, but the technique – we can’t take it a step further.”

“Charcuterie is like jam making, like cheese making,” summed Poremba. “It’s something that people have done for many, many years out of necessity. Now we appreciate it for the pure enjoyment of it.”

Visit the Extra Sauce section to go behind the scenes of Sidney Street Café's kitchen as these nearly two dozen chefs prepare for Operation Charcuterie, a dinner that benefited Operation Food Search.

Want more? Go behind the scenes in the kitchen of Sidney Street Café where these nearly two dozen chefs prepared for Operation Charcuterie, a dinner which benefited Operation Food Search and showcased the artisanal skills the chefs learned in the two-day workshop they spent with chef Sonnenschmidt.