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After watching the ingredients of Sunday Dinner Club's cassoulet being prepared Monday morning (see part one here), I returned Tuesday afternoon to Honey Butter Fried Chicken and found that the dining room tables had been rearranged into a single line stretching to the door. Aluminum pans ran down the length of the tables, which amounts to a pretty good slide into third.
In the kitchen Josh Kulp, co-owner with Christine Cikowski of both Honey Butter and Sunday Dinner Club, and a staffer named Jared ("Red" for short) were finishing up one of the other courses: a foie gras torchon, loosely inspired by a recipe in Suzanne Goin's The A.O.C. Cookbook. (A copy of the recipe, annotated with his own notes, was taped nearby.) Unlike the cassoulets, all of which are being made in advance, the torchon will be made fresh at the start of every week, then hung to cure until serving. I had seen the duck livers, packaged whole, the day before and remarked on how they were bigger than I had ever realized. Kulp instantly suspected what was going through my head: thoughts about the (legal, but still controversial) organ meat and about using it in a place that aims to use ethically raised animals.
"One of the things we always think about with foie gras ducks is we do want to make sure that we're responsibly sourcing," he says. "These are from La Belle Farm in upstate New York, and certainly we're conscious of—it's something that we're always talking about here, how the animals were eating or being raised. But if you compare a foie gras duck to a factory-farmed chicken, for example, the foie gras duck is most likely having a much better life experience.
"Not to diminish what's happening at the end with the gorging, but I think a lot of the farmers that are doing foie gras ducks, especially doing it traditionally, and responsibly and thoughtfully, are doing it in a way that is so far superior to what the average American eats in factory-farmed meats. People who'll readily go to McDonald's but won't eat foie gras to me are not fully aware of the meat they're eating at Mcdonald's, you know? I think it's important to be conscious, and to respect as much as you can the food that you're serving and preparing. It's something that we take pretty seriously."
Meanwhile, the various trays and bins of meats have been stacked or rolled out in the dining room, and Cikowski gathers the staffers, from both Honey Butter and Sunday Dinner Club, who are helping today. Except for Kulp and Red, they're all female. "Josh and a bunch of chicks," Cikowski announces.
They have a precise idea of how things go together in the pan, so that the juices from some things flow onto other things. "The first is beans, and then the lamb and the bacon," Cikowski says.
"We want the lamb on the bottom, so the bacon kind of drips on it and braises the lamb," Kulp says. "How many layers are we doing?"
"I think three," Cikowski replies.
It's an efficient system with natural roles: one person scoops beans out with a plastic pitcher, someone behind them pats them down into shape, and if one tray seems a little low, a third fills it in. The hunks of lamb, 100 pounds of it all told, are tossed around the pan, then come the cubes of bacon and the two sausages, the saucisson l'ail from California and the bacon sausage from Chicago. Finally, the shredded ham from the ham hocks that cooked with the beans yesterday is scattered on top.
One thing that becomes obvious along the way: they have way more of the two sausages than even these meat-heavy cassoulets really need. "We can grind that garlic sausage up and have a pizza special at Honey Butter," Cikowski suggests.
"Ooh, that'll be good," someone else says.
"Remember to write down how much we used, for next year, before you forget," Kulp says to one of the Sunday Dinner Club cooks.
Another layer of beans is laid down and patted into place. Then the shredded duck confit is scattered on top of that. A final layer of beans is carefully allocated to each pan to make sure it stretches to cover them all. Meanwhile, Red is working by himself at another table, putting a small quantity of pork-free beans into the no-pork cassoulets they had planned for the day before.
"Pretty crazy, huh? We should open a cassoulet factory," Kulp says.
"We are a cassoulet factory," Cikowski says.
Compared to the long and fairly low-key prep work yesterday, the business of filling the pans, which goes quickly and almost festively, is done in under an hour. "Cass-oooou-laaaay twenty-four-TEEN!" someone shouts at the end. The pans are topped with aluminum lids and sealed, though technically they're not entirely finished—they'll be topped with bread crumbs and the duck fat and duck gelee (the gelled juices from the confit) as they slow bake for six hours over some 20 nights through the end of February.
There's only one question I have at the end. For many of the city's underground dining chefs—Iliana Regan of Elizabeth, Abraham Conlon and Adrienne Lo of Fat Rice, and so on—the underground dinners ended when operating a permanent restaurant began. Yet Kulp and Cikowski are running one of the city's busiest restaurants and a three-to-four-nights-a-week underground dinner schedule side by side. Why?
"I would be so bored as a cook if all we ever made was fried chicken," Kulp says. "Sunday Dinner Club is our creative space, it's a community, and it's somewhere we can make the food we want to make on our own terms. And some of it will end up at Honey Butter Fried Chicken. We never thought of stopping SDC. Honey Butter is something that came out of SDC and we do SDC because we love to do it, because we love to cook."
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