Interview on Charcuterie with Chef Adam Stevenson of Earth & Ocean - Seattle, WA

May 2009

JJ Proville: How did you get into charcuterie?
Adam Stevenson: My mother used to go all over Albuquerque to shop for food. She would go to a bakery, to a butcher, and a fish market. There was a little Italian deli that I always loved going to and was always intrigued by all their products and how they were made. It wasn’t until culinary school that I started to realize that I could make these things. One of my focuses there was to learn how to make sausage. That interest carried on for a number of years until I figured how to dry it into salami. It’s been with me all along.

JJP: Where did your training take place?
AS: I learned the basics of fresh sausage in school. When I worked at Tulio Ristorante I volunteered to take on the sausage making. I took it very seriously there and met all the requirements to make great sausage.

Heather Sperling: What were some of your best resources?
AS: Paul Bertoli's book, Olivetto, is the best salami and charcuterie book out there as far as the precautionary scientific angle. I have The Professional Charcuterie series by a group of German chefs—they've got hundreds of different kinds of charcuterie in different forms; crazy artistic products, too. Armandino Batali taught me the first steps for making prosciutto, and I made my first one at his facility, and then started doing it here.

HS: How do you offer it on the menu?
AS: There’s a charcuterie and cheese plate on the room service menu. And we have every style that we have available printed on the menu in three price-point choices: one sample for $7, three for $13, or five for $17. We always have six to nine varieties available at any time. There's always salami, pâté, a cured meat or two, a rillettes, and sometimes a smoked item. We rotate about 15 items.

JJP: What’s the percentage breakdown of meats you use in your charcuterie?
AS: It’s 98% pork. Every now and then we make Thuringer summer sausage, lamb ham, lavender lamb salami, or bresaola.

JJP: How many suppliers do you have?
AS: For pork I use one supplier: Skagit River Ranch. It’s about 50 miles from the hotel and they do organically raised hogs and grass-fed beef. I’ve been using them exclusively for two years. We’ll pick two pigs out of the herd for every other month and they will get a certain kind of feed and attention from the farmers. They are tagged so that he knows they are going to Earth & Ocean. So every two months he brings me anywhere from 500 to 600 pounds of pork. They pay very close attention to how they are raising their animals and raise them on grasses, clover, flax, and barley.

JJP: Does the farm deliver whole hogs?
AS: They don’t like to deliver whole animals because it’s so inconvenient to transport. The pigs are broken down into the sections that I want, which makes it easier for me. I end up with the fore and hind legs, the loins from neck to rump, the bellies, jowls, livers, and spleen. I don’t generally get the head just because of the customer perception at Earth & Ocean. If you say headcheese, people will cringe, so if I don’t have an outlet for them I won’t use it. And the more obscure cuts are just harder to utilize.

JJP: Do you think it’s the specific clientele of your hotel is not drawn to the obscure cuts like headcheese?
AS: It’s definitely the clientele that we draw. The restaurant is driven by hotel guests and since it’s a business travel hotel, there are not a lot of adventurous eaters that come through. We certainly get our share, but it’s not the majority of our business.

JJP: Do you still use some of the more obscure cuts?
AS: I might make the pâté and then put that into a butter and put that into a pasta dish or a risotto. Or we’ll get the head, ears and tail and put that into the rillettes. People tend to relate to the rillettes more than the headcheese. There are a couple smaller restaurants [in Seattle] that can get away with doing those things, but those have a more adventurous clientele.

JJP: What cut of beef do you use to make the bresaola?
AS: You can use top round, strip loin, tenderloin, or rib eye. I play around with all of them, but I prefer to use the tenderloin even though after it’s dry it ends up costing around $40 a pound. We used it for holiday menus so it was kind of worth it.

JJP: What are some of the go-to preparations for the pigs?
AS: I turn the two hind legs into sopressata or into Cascade ham, which is my version of prosciutto. The two fore legs will become sausage or coppa. We cure the loins and serve some of them fresh for specials.

JJP: What’s the biggest challenge in ordering 600 pounds of pork at once?
AS: It’s tricky to covering the cost of $3000-4,000 on two hogs in a month. The challenge is to figure out what we are going to hang up in the room for later use or sell fresh immediately.

JJP: How much do you end up paying for the pork?
AS: I get it for about $6-6.50 a pound depending on the season and the cost of feed. Each of the two pigs is about 250-300 pounds and we get it six times a year. If I need supplemental meats I can call them up.

JJP: How much are you selling it for?
AS: Regardless of what cut it is, we will price our charcuterie on the menu at about $40-45 a pound.

JJP: Do you delegate the work or do you do it yourself?
AS: I have a sous chef who has been with me for three years. He’s learned the entire process from me. He manages the program with my help and we decide who we are going to train to help us out.

JJP: How long does it take?
AS: When we receive the animals its usually about seven days before we have everything accounted for. There’s a lot of activity when the animals come in and its quite a stressful situation because you don’t want the meat to go bad. We also have to balance the meat processing with our regular business and everything else that comes with running a hotel.

JJP: Where do you do all this? How about the curing?
AB: In the hotel kitchen. We have quite a large space and several walk-ins. The cured items stay in the meat walk-in depending on how long they have to be there. When the items are ready to be hung to dry we put them into another walk-in which is designated for the items that are drying. That one is temperature- and humidity-controlled. After the items are dried they go back to the regular walk-in. Some of the things are vacuum-packed so we can hold them for a bit longer in that state.

JJP: How are those walk-ins different?
AS: Curing and drying are two separate things. Curing takes place under refrigeration and drying takes place under temperature-, humidity-, and ventilation-controlled environment.

JJP: How do you time everything?
AS: It’s tricky. A lot of the time I end up doing the cutting, rubbing, and grinding. It’s hit or miss whether I’m going to have help doing it when the meat comes in. When the shipment comes in, it takes precedence over everything else. If I want somebody else to work on it, I might have to cover their station. Or it might mean coming in on my day off.

JJP: Is it more complicated because you are running a hotel?
AS: I sometimes wonder how my stress level would be if I was doing just charcuterie and not running a hotel. I tend to get anxious when the meat comes in because I’m weighing all my other tasks against processing the meat. The time that we spend on getting 400-500 pounds of meat stable probably ends up being 40 hours between 2-3 people.

JJP: What are your best selling charcuterie items on the menu?
AS: The coppa and it’s a toss up between the fennel pollen salami and the sopressata. They all do really well.

JJP: If you weren’t getting your meat at a single price what would be the product with the best margin?
AS: Whether it’s a prime cut or a humble cut, I get the whole hog at the same price. If I was looking at it the other way (with the cuts priced separately) the salami would fetch a greater yield and return on investment. I could charge a lot for the Cascade ham because of the perception that it takes a year to make. People have no problem paying for it.

JJP: In light of the recession, would you say that charcuterie is a smart thing to put on a menu?
AS: I don’t think it hurts. There are more expensive things we could put on the menu. The return on it is good because it doesn’t require daily attention. You can get a couple hundred pounds of meat and then serve it 30 days later. I think it’s pretty economical if you do it right, but the key is how fast you can sell the fresh cuts. That’s a big part of it. You have to sell that fresh stuff soon to offset your costs.

JJP: Are there any health and safety procedures you pay particularly close attention to?
AS: I’m a real stickler to taking accurate notes on pH, temperature, and humidity. We test pH constantly. Having a food lab validate the finish product is important too. It’s one thing for you to say “this meat is good because it tastes good” but it’s another thing for a lab to say that your meat is good.

JJP: Any tips for other chefs getting into charcuterie?
AS: To get the right ratio of meat to fat in making salami, you really have to isolate as much of the lean from the fat as you can so that you can then combine them in a consistent way. That’s the biggest time commitment: cleaning the meat. You have to pay close attention to the safety of the process. You need tools and know-how to do it the proper way; use the right amount of curing salts and cultures.

Do your homework and pay attention to the fundamentals, but first and foremost you have to use a great product. That’s why I source where I source. That meat tastes better than anything else I’ve ever tasted. A lot of this process I’ve had to learn on my own through research development over the last five years and I think that’s what people should do on their quest to learn.

JJP: Any plans for the future?
AS: I’d like to be able to sell it. I can’t do wholesale as that requires USDA certification, but I want to reach a greater group of people in Seattle at least.