It's been pretty well established that no restaurant in town hews as religiously to snout-to-tail doctrine as Mado. Rob Levitt's assiduous, economical, and respectful devotion to what chef Fergus Henderson calls The Whole Beast results in a fantastic array of dishes from spicy pig head stew to grilled beef tongue to various miracles of charcuterie. But lately, Levitt's sous chef Chris Turner has taken things a step further, producing art from parts not even they can find a delicious use for.
The restaurant goes through a whole hog every one to two weeks, and the bones from said beasts take some punishment. But if perchance a hog skull manages to survive a long braise without disintegrating Turner—an erstwhile student at the School of the Art Institute—will rescue it before it hits the Dumpster, then boil, dry, and bleach it clean. He lays on a coat of acrylic paint to seal it before spray painting, and then adds flourishes such as gold leaf on the teeth or costume jewelry in the void left by a hydraulic bolt stunner.
So far Turner has a box of skulls at home waiting for this treatment, but with one day a week off he's only managed to make progress on three of them. Yet it isn't the first time he's made art with parts that would otherwise go to waste. He's made pig blood paintings and rescued bones for other creative sorts who've needed them.
"I hate to throw these things out," he says. "I had a friend call me up and say 'Can you get me teeth?' I can get you teeth. It makes my day, especially if it helps move people toward an understanding of what we do at the restaurant.
Turner says he may eventually start charging a few bucks for these but right now they're just for friends and family, such as his piece de resistance, a cow skull destined for the wall at Kuma's.
"I said, 'You guys serve so much hamburger that you deserve to have one on your wall.'"
Incidentally, I'll be moderating a panel discussion at this weekend's Family Farmed Expo, on this very subject, titled "You Ate the Whole Thing?" Along with Levitt, Paul Kahan, farmer Greg Gunthorp, and underground charcutier Ehran Ostrreicher of E & P Meats, we'll be talking about all aspects of making the most of the animals we eat or "using the whole animal to promote sustainability, avoid waste, and dazzle your culinary senses." It starts Saturday at 11 AM. Watch this space for more info on the expo.