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From trotters to head cheese, pigs are so hot these days that, as Mike Sula pointed out at today's panel on snout to tail cooking, You Ate the Whole Thing, you can't throw a rock in a new Chicago restaurant without hitting a plate of artisanal charcuterie. So I was pleasantly surprised that this morning discussion turned out not to be some gluttonous bacon-crazed celebration of carnivorosity. (Not that there's anything wrong with that. I'm still trying to score a ticket to Bacon Fest.)
Rather, the panelists—chefs Rob Levitt (Mado) and Paul Kahan (Blackbird, Avec, the Publican), plus Ehran Ostrreicher of E & P Meats, and Greg Gunthorp of Gunthorp Farms—were united in their earnest, heartfelt, passionate conviction that whole-animal cooking can save the world.
"As long as we're going to eat animals, we should eat as much of them as we can," said Sula. "We should eat the skin, the bones, the weird bits, the blood. We do this not to horrify our vegetarian friends but because it's the right thing to do. It's the sustainable thing to do. And it's delicious."
"Cooking starts with reverence," said Osterreicher. "Whether it was a vegetable or an animal I always try and recognize that it was alive and that it gave its life to nourish mine."
Whole-animal cooking, they pointed out, is sustainability in action. "Everyone wants a pork tenderloin or a boneless, skinless chicken breast," said Gunthorp, who raises pastured pigs, chickens, and ducks in LaGrange, Indiana. "But you take a pig carcass that weighs 200 pounds and maybe 3 pounds of that is going to be tenderloin. So there's a huge percentage left over that a farmer like me needs to figure out how to deal with. It's not a sustainable process to just sell those three pounds of tenderloin."
From the chefs' perspective it's both fun and financially sound practice. At Mado, said Levitt, a 200-pound pig will last him a week and a half. And, it's not limited to pigs. While he doesn't have the space to physically handle a whole cow, he can get a good deal on the leftovers. "I call up cattle farmers every week," he said, "And say, 'What do you have that nobody wants?' We get a lot of tongues, hearts, kidneys." Last night, he added, the restaurant sold more beef heart than chicken.
For that to happen on a Friday (aka "amateur night") says something about the mainstreaming of offal. Still, said Levitt, "There are people who embrace what we do and there are those who think we are nuts. They walk in and see beef heart or kidneys on the menu and they leave. Like, they can't even be in the same room as someone eating a beef heart."
Paul Kahan traced his enthusiasm for the odder bits to the early days of Blackbird when his business partner "didn't know anything about the restaurant industry."
"I was able to get away with using the whole animal, making sausage and whatever else I wanted," he said, because "I didn't have someone breathing down my neck saying 'This isn't selling, you have to get rid of it.'"
Using every little scrap of the animal is one key step to greening your kitchen, which can be, said Kahan, a "horribly gluttonous place," using massive amounts of energy and producing a mountain of waste. "If a farmer has tails he can't sell, we buy the tails," he said. "It's delicious, it's fun, and from our standpoint as restaurateurs, getting people to eat it and understand it is what it's all about, and how we can make the world a better place."
The USDA and the city don't see things quite the same way, though, and at the end of the panel the good vibes gave way to a controlled frustration with a health department that has, over the last few years, shut down restaurants' charcuterie programs and poured bleach on pounds upon pounds of house-made preserves. (See this TimeOut Chicago article from last fall for more on that.)
"If the city wants to truly be green," said Kahan, with feeling, "they need to get on top of this." The sentiment was echoed by a crowd of nodding heads. For the city's food culture to thrive we need to figure out how to support chefs who want to cure and preserve foods rather than criminalizing them.