Interview with Chef Bobby Hellen of Resto

December 2010

Francoise Villeneuve: How did you get into charcuterie?
Bobby Hellen: When I was really young I heard stories about how my grandparents would cook for everyone in their neighborhood, and it involved a lot of [charcuterie]. As for myself, it started with working in California, with large animals. At first I butchered pigs, and after you butcher a pig a couple of times, you want to know what the next step is. I started doing head cheese and making sausages and terrines.

FV: Where did you train?
BH: I’m kind of self taught, I guess. I worked with a couple of people who made sausage. But it really came from reading a lot and eating out at a lot of places. Now, my guys [at Resto], we push each other to do something different. It makes for a good working environment.

FV: Where do you eat out when you want to eat your research?
BH:Bar Boulud and all Daniel restaurants, Hearth—they have a good plate, The Meat Hook in Brooklyn—if I want to really have something a little inventive. They always have something a little off, that you’re not even thinking about, and it’s different sides. The Meat Hook is a butcher’s shop—it’s more comfortable; the Dinex Group is a little bit more of a find, but I get a lot out of both.

FV: Do you try and get whole animals or does it come in in cuts?
BH:It depends. For our everyday sausages, we’re getting in shoulders, but when we’re running a specific sausage, we get whole animals in—we do a lot of whole animal butchery.

FV: How much of your charcuterie is pork?
BH:On the plate, kind of everything has pork in it. The fat in lamb sausage is pork fat, because lamb fat doesn’t melt the same way—it’s not as meaty; the texture isn’t there. So we have Boudin Blanc with black truffle that’s pork. Boudin Noir is pork and pork blood, and we do bacon, chorizo, and lamb.

FV: Do you have a price range for different cuts?
BH:If we’re running a special, like getting a whole animal in from Four Story Hill Farm, the price doesn’t go up because we can make money back on other cuts of the animal, but we want to sell it. We want to get it out there. And we want people to eat it and word to spread that you can get great stuff, that you can really taste the difference between what you’re eating now [at Resto] and what you’re getting somewhere else.

FV: What’s your best selling type of charcuterie?
BH: We do the whole plate. Everyone likes everything for different reasons. Boudin Noir would be my pick if I were putting one charcuterie item up. That recipe has been changing since I started using it, always improving, or I’m really OCD and changing it all the time.

FV: How has it evolved?
BH: When you first make a recipe, sometimes the flavors are all there in layers. After a while, you want the flavors to be round, not just separately in layers. They should all meld together. The recipe evolves texturally, as do the spices and percentages of meat that we use.

FV: What charcuterie contributes the highest profit margin?
BH:Definitely the Boudin Noir because it doesn’t cost that much. And it yields a lot because it’s liquid—the blood increases the volume.

FV: Are all the charcuterie you make profitable?
BH:Yeah, everything is. If there’s a certain addition that I know I want to make sausage from, I’ll use that item up, and all the trim from that item will go to that sausage.

FV: What takes the most time, energy, and labor?
BH:Boudin Blanc because there are a lot of steps. The bacon takes the longest—that’s not labor, it just takes a while because it’s cured. For Boudin Blanc, you’re breaking down the meat, grinding it, emulsifying it, you’re encasing it, and then poaching it. And a mistake gets pretty high in cost. When you’re tying the sausage, if you get a hole in the sausage, you burst something there, so you have to tie that up. If you over poach stuff, the sausage will pop in the water, so the Boudin Blanc is definitely the hardest—it has the most steps and its the most labor intensive. If you’re doing charcuterie, management is important. You need someone that’s trained, reliable, and fast. If you’re turning a lot of covers, it’s an everyday thing for one person to do charcuterie as their main job, while they’re expo-ing or on the line. It’s pretty dedicated.

FV: Anything stand out as a winner in terms of food cost?
BH:The bacon: There isn’t any loss, you’re yielding a lot—if you’re getting in pork belly—there’s no loss. Any loss can be recouped. You can use it in a thousand other things. The only thing is it takes a little while to do. It has the highest yield. The moisture loss is probably a cup of liquid for 15 pounds of belly after the whole curing is done; it’ll leak down a little bit but you’re still left with a nice bit of product.

FV: How many different types of charcuterie do you have on the menu at any given time?
BH:On the charcuterie board seven, along with seven garnishes, then in-house, twelve different pieces.

FV: How does your menu feature the charcuterie? Is it on its own or mixed in with the menu?
BH:It depends on the season and what we want to showcase. We run additions on a chalkboard. That we rely on—anything that we want to do as a special we put on the board and it contributes a lot to sales. We’ll run hot dogs—we made a big batch of hot dogs that are going on the board. They’re close cousins to the Boudin Blanc. We’ll do some things on our menu, but we try and keep the charcuterie on the charcuterie section.

FV: How much do you smoke?
BH:Smoked bacon and hot dogs, and we sometimes do smoked pork rillon.

FV: How much do you cure?
BH:The bacon’s cured, as well as the ham—there are probably three items that are cured.

FV: Does the health department put a damper on charcuterie production in New York?
BH:Yes and no. I would like to be able to make a bunch of things that we can’t make, because we don’t have the proper space. We have to have eyes on everything because we don’t want to get anyone sick. People have been doing this forever, or pretty close to it, so we try to keep it as clean as possible. We know where everything is coming from. The health department is getting better. I think a couple of years ago they didn’t know what they were looking for.

FV: How do you decide which new items you’ll include?
BH:We test it out on the chalkboard; I’ll have all my sous chefs taste it; Kristen, one of the owners, will taste it. And your staff—if you’re staff is not behind the charcuterie program, they’re not going to sell it, because they’re not passionate about it. They have to be invested in the program to really keep it moving. We tweak it a little bit if it needs tweaking and monitor it. Looking at the menu mix, what you sell says a lot, because you know what kind of diners you have every night.

FV: Anything interesting that you’re working on now?
BH:For the restaurant week menu, we’re going to be doing pork and winter vegetable terrine. It’s kind of nice because we get in a bunch of heirloom carrots, and it gives us a really cool color. It’s an emulsified terrine, wrapped with bacon.

FV: Do diners in New York go for the nasty bits?
BH:You have to know your customer. On Friday and Saturday night, less nasty bits; then Monday through Thursday or even Sunday night dinner, those’ll be the people who are all about the nasty bits. We had a private party and the guy didn’t want offal, and we sent around Boudin Noir and he didn’t know what it was but loved it. It’s all about knowing who’s coming in.

FV: Do you feel like you have a good grasp of what your customers want?

BH:I hope so. I think I do, but it always changes. Peoples’ wants and needs always change. You have to get out there and get feedback. I try to do it personally. We play with a lot of stuff when we do the large format feasts, and we try and get their feedback and understand them better. Foot traffic is minimal at best—we’re not in the East Village—and for us it’s a destination stop, only a small percentage of people are walking by.