Talking Salumi with Chef Cesare Casella

October 2010

Karine Bailley: Tell me about your childhood and watching your parents cook at their restaurant, Vipore.
Cesare Casella: In some ways I was lucky because I grew up in the restaurant business. My family had a restaurant, and my home was the same thing because we lived in the same building. Upstairs was the house, attached to the kitchen. So the kitchen from the restaurant was the house kitchen too. And you go downstairs, the coffee machine was there near the bar. The place they used to have at my house in Italy, one side was the alimentari side, the side with the grocery store. Then [there was] another door and there was the bar. And in the back was the restaurant. So the bar there was my breakfast room-dining room. If I wanted a snack I would go to the grocery. But to live upstairs practically was a full immersion [in] restaurant life.

KB: What was the restaurant like?
CC: We were in the country. I think that we were sustainable. We had our [products] very close. The village, they gave a lot to us. We [bought] a lot. We had farm. So most of the product was on the farm—all very local. And all the food came from a very limited area. That is what it was for me. Most of the food came from the area.

KB: So you always knew you wanted to be a chef, from the very beginning?              
CC: Yes I grew up in the restaurant. It’s easy when you grow up four, five or six years old. So that is how I grew up. My parents wanted me to have nothing to do with the restaurant business. They wanted a better life for me. Because now maybe, the chef [and] the restaurant business are more glamorous. And how they started, it’s slightly different. It was a lot of work, a lot of responsibility, longer hours. So the practical thing was for me was to go to school to be architect, doctor, other things. They were almost blackmailing me! Not blackmailing me, but they said “if you’re going to take some other job in school, they’d pay for my studies. But if you’re taking it for the restaurant business, then you pay for yourself.

KB: What effect did that kind of ultimatum have on you? Obviously you’re not a doctor!
CC: I think that at that time was when cooking was more stimulating for me. Not that it was rebellion. But it was something that—for me, there was some sense to help me make [the] easy decision that I wanted the restaurant. Not only because I love [it] but because they tried in some way to blackmail me! So I went to the restaurant/hotel school. And it was very difficult. I woke up in the mornings at five-thirty because I lived in this small village. The patron lived in the same village. He dropped me off and picked me up with his car and [took] me to the train station, and from there, the train took me to Montecatini. So it was a very long day. And then [I had] to come home to work in the restaurant! But I was happy because it was my decision and in the same time I was very—you know when you think something is right. Or you decide something, maybe it’s hard, it’s very hard, but you don’t want to convince yourself it’s hard. You think that it’s right! So that affected my life, from school in the beginning.

KB: What did your schooling consist of?
CC: I did a masters. I spent four years in school and cooking with my mom. My mom, until I was 18 or 19, she never taught it to me. She taught me because in the restaurant there was a pharmacy so a lot of chefs came there to study, too. She taught them. But only when I was 19 she started to share the kitchen with me. Before that she did not share the kitchen. Then she started to agree it was possible for me to be in the same kitchen.

KB: You earned your first Michelin star when you returned to Vipore after your time at culinary school. Was that a major goal for you in your career as a chef or was it more that you just loved to cook and the recognition was just a nice bonus?
CC: No, no. When my parents took Vipore, it was a very bad trattoria. They did a very good
job. When I started to be involved in the restaurant, I continued what they did but with different views. I tried to make it in my way, what I believed. What they used to believe, I maybe did things in the same way but maybe with more knowledge. More knowledge because at the time my passion was food, so I had taken trips in France, trips to Italian restaurants; I spent time with the masters. So I started to see what they were—“great restaurants.” And never did I want just a great restaurant, an important restaurant. I wanted a place that was a great restaurant in my style. In my way. I worked hard for what I believed.

KB: Do you think chefs can lose perspective on their dreams?
CC: We think too much about the price. Because I learned the philosophy from my grandma that you need to do what you believe, what makes you happy and in that way it is possible for you to get what you want. If you want to have so many accomplishments maybe it will become hard because you focus too much on something little. You have the potential to focus on the big picture. I was surprised with Michelin because I thought it was a different restaurant. They gave the Michelin star because it was based on the quality of the food and the style in which we [sold it].  

KB: Did you have a formal education in charcuterie? Or was it just learning on the job and from your mom?
CC: No, charcuterie is a normal life in Italy. We raise pigs and they are your pets. From April to November it’s your pet. And then after that you kill the pigs for two reasons. Traditionally, because you need the meat for winter time and because in the winter time, they eat too much food because they need the energy. So it’s the moment to butcher. After nine months, the salumi becomes your pet!

KB: What do you make in house?
CC: We don’t make anything physically because it is impossible with the law. But we have a space upstate where we make all the products and cuts that we don’t find [in the market]. A lot, let’s put it this way, if I find something good and I don’t believe it’s possible for me to make it better, then I don’t make it. I try to make only products that I can improve on. Not like the prosciutto. The prosciutto di Parma, they make it for me in Italy.

KB: So which kinds of salumi do you make in your space in upstate New York?
CC: Normally it’s cacciatorini, cotto, pancetta, guanciale. Salami. The prosciutto will never be something we make. You have to have a license from the USDA for some meats and it takes a long time.

KB: Where upstate?
CC: Sullivan County.

KB: How do you source your meat?
CC: We have different sources because we try to find pigs without too much fat. To make good salumi, the pigs are very important to me. One source is Heritage Food and we have a few other farmers that we buy from.

KB: How many pounds of pork do you process per week at the space upstate?
CC: It’s about 300. Between 300 to 400 pounds per week.

KB: What are the turn around times for the salumi you produce upstate? Which cuts take the longest and shortest amount of time to properly cure and age?
CC: The pancetta takes more time because it ages for six or seven months. The shortest time is the Cacciatorini because that takes one month.

KB: Is most of the salumi is pork based or do use you other kinds of meat?
CC: It’s pork based. In Italy, it’s very rare to find other kinds of meat. Only some places in the country use game meats.

KB: How much do you pay to buy the pigs? How do you control margins for different cuts?
CC: The prices change. The restaurant is very young, so it’s not yet possible to look for the price. We look for quality. When we believe in the right product, then we’ll start focusing on the right price. We want to find the best product in the United States.

KB: So there must be a few cuts, specifically the ones that take four to six months to age, that you lose money on?
CC: Yes. While you don’t want to lose money, maybe you’ll make a little less money. But this place, because this is recession time, it’s a place where you‘re losing money. You invest. And after that, you start to look at the numbers.

KB: What’s the biggest risk in making salumi?
CC: The biggest risk is when people try to make salumi without the proper knowledge, without the equipment or the right place. It’s possibly dangerous, too. That’s why we don’t make it here in the restaurant. I wouldn’t have the ability to control it in the right way. But upstate, I have control; it’s an equipment-ready place.

KB: How often do you go upstate?
CC: About once per month

KB: What do you think are the best items on your menu?
CC: Prosciutto di Parma

KB: What’s your favorite kind of salumi?
CC: Mortadella or parmacotto. They’re my favorite in the morning with bread, pizza bianco. It’s like a focaccia.

KB: Do the salumis that you offer change seasonally? What about the rest of the menu?
CC: No. We have 50% that are house items and don’t change. The other 50% of the menu we do change. We don’t change the salumis because once we find the right product we don’t want to change.

KB: I know you serve some more adventurous items on your menu, like the Headcheese. Are a lot of people curious to try this and other less commonly served cuts?
CC: No. It takes time to educate people. For instance, chicken liver or sweetbreads. It’s not because one is better or worse than the other, it’s just because these meats are not part of the everyday life of some people. 

KB: Have you seen a change in the way people have been ordering and eating in light of the current economic situation?
CC: No because we opened right at the middle of it and we’ve been lucky that business has been good. Maybe if we wait a few months [we’ll see a change] but in the meantime it’s been good.

KB: How do you balance your time between the restaurant, the Center for Discovery, your work with the International Culinary Institute and all of your other side projects?
CC: I spend most of my time at Salumeria Rosi. I actually think it’s rather easy because my job is a life that I love. It’s not difficult. Food is life. I’m also lucky because I have many great people working with me—I have two sous chefs and one chef. And I live six blocks from the restaurant, so it’s very convenient. I train the chefs to make them understand the culture and know what to expect and what’s realistic. I’m very demanding.

KB: You were appointed the Dean of Italian Studies for the French Culinary Institute, now the International Culinary Institute. What’s the most important thing you teach your students about Italian cooking?
CC: The most important thing to learn about Italian food is not just how to make it, but also where it comes from. I have a program at the school. It’s a 29 week program, 10 weeks in New York, then nine weeks just in Parma at ALMA, The International School of Italian Cuisine, and nine weeks in different restaurants in different parts of Italy. Then you take the final exam at ALMA. They study the language and the culture to learn about Italian food. Most students love it so much that they end up going back!

KB: What’s being a chef like?
CC: For me it’s something natural. It’s what comes naturally to my heart. It’s spontaneous.

KB: What’s the next step in your career?

CC: The Da Vinci Project. It’s a sustainability project to help bring sustainable lunches to schools at the Center for Discovery. Many chefs from the city help here, like April [Bloomfield] from The Spotted Pig.