Back to Basics
The nose-to-tail philosophy of cooking makes a comeback in the St. Louis foodie scene.
There was a time when the majority of cooks and chefs broke down their own animals in-house and used every bit in their creations. As the rise of modern methods of meat production made it possible to buy pre-cut, pre-packaged meat, off-cuts like organ meats began getting discarded instead of used. As a result, the art of butchering was no longer an important part of the chef's repertoire, and many dishes got lost along the way. Now, as local chefs are getting back to the roots of their craft by using whole animals, diners must get accustomed to finding terms like tongue, head cheese and sweetbreads on their menus once more.
“Butchering is part of the craft that I think was lost for a while and is slowly making a comeback,” says Chef Chris Bork of Blood & Sand, who does much of his own butchering in-house, including partial hogs and whole lambs. “It's not only rewarding for us personally but also for the restaurant, as far as food costs.”
The savings is an important selling point, says Chef Marc Del Pietro, co-owner of The Block restaurants in Webster Groves and the Central West End.
“When we started about five years ago or so, pork prices just kept going up and up,” Del Pietro says. “Finally, I just asked the farmer, 'How much for a whole hog?'” The difference in cost led him to start buying whole animals and processing them in-house. He quickly found there were many more benefits to be had beyond the bottom line.
“When we got into it, we found the meat cuts differently, it seasons differently, it cooks differently. It was slaughtered in the morning and coming in our back door in the afternoon. The quality was so far removed from what we were getting before,” he says.
Chef Anthony Devoti of Five Bistro has been butchering in-house for about eight years, usually whole hogs and lambs. Knowing exactly how the animal was raised and slaughtered is a big plus for him, and he likes that he gets a lot of interesting bits to work with, from fat to blood to sweetbreads. Devoti showcases his skill in dishes like his charcuterie plate, featuring all house-made delicacies like head cheese and beef tongue, one of his favorite parts of the cow.
“The whole point of a charcuterie plate is to show off what you can do with the animal,” Devoti says. “That's one dish that's literally nose-to-tail.”
Del Pietro, too, uses every part of the animal he can. Pig liver, for instance, goes into his homemade braunschweiger and the hide makes pork rinds.
While some customers still balk at tasting some of the more esoteric bits of the animal, many are starting to come around. “I think a lot of Americans are still very conservative about food,” Del Pietro says. “So it's a cool thing when people come in and try something. That's a great compliment for us.”
Bork says that he, too, sees more guests willing to do what it takes to develop their palates. “I didn't like liver the first time I had it,” says Bork. “I didn't like oysters the first time I had one. It takes some time. I find that more and more people are willing to work on it a little more and try things a couple of times.”
Red wine braised pork, The Block
Photo credit: Christopher Gibbons