Interview with Chef John Toulze of the girl and the fig, Estate, the fig café and wine bar and the girl and the fig caters! - Sonoma, CA
JJ Proville: How long have you been doing charcuterie? How did you get into it?
John Toulze: It’s been 10 years. I can remember my father making headcheese at my house and it being a total disaster [laughs]. I remember it was always a big feud between my parents on how to make it. For a kid it was a pretty big novelty to see a pig’s head in the fridge. That was a fascination for me. On Sundays we always had French bread, cheese, and a pâté of some kind.
JJP: Have you been formally trained in charcuterie?
JT: No. My experience comes from trial and error and a lot of reading; trying a lot of things; asking questions.
JJP: Was it something you immediately got into at the beginning of your culinary career?
JT: It evolved. In the beginning we always made what I call wet charcuterie. Rustic terrines and country-style pâtés with chicken liver mousses and things like that. It just kind of evolved over time and still is. You get good at something and one road will lead to another. You get good at making pâté de campagne and then you ask, what’s next? Wet charcuterie leads to some of the very simple cured dried meats. Timing and space also plays an important part. As we had more space and more time, it got easier to take on some of the more complicated elements that take months to start and finish.
JJP: Would you say that wet charcuterie is a more natural place to start at the beginning of one’s charcuterie career?
JT: I think so because it gives you that first element of the importance of your grind and it allows you to have a first look at the transformation of a product from raw to finished. The good thing is that it’s quick. There’s some technique involved, but there’s a relatively quick turnaround. Pâté de campagne takes three days.
JJP: How long did it take to reach the point where you knew what you were doing?
JT: It took a good year and a half for the dried stuff before I felt confident about understanding why things were going in one direction and not the other. We’re constantly playing with different starter cultures and different cuts, but now it’s coming from a base of understanding and being creative instead of going “OK, I think I did everything right.”
JJP: How many projects do you currently oversee?
JT: We have three restaurants and a catering company. We also have a line of food products called Fig Food.
JJP: How many different types of charcuterie do you offer in the restaurants at any given time?
JT: We usually offer between 7 and 11 types at any given time. For the Fig Café we have two or three. Right now we’ve got two types of cured salami for their cheese plate and some chorizo for their pizza.
JJP: How do you allocate the charcuterie to the restaurants?
JT: We store it until its ready and then the restaurants can take what they want. Right now we started a batch of rosette de Lyon for a salami sandwich. We brainstorm over the menus for the restaurants, make the charcuterie, and then once it’s ripe that whole batch will be brought over to the restaurant. We also have items that we frequently do like sopressata, lonzo, lardo, pancetta, rosette de Lyon, and chorizo. We always want to have three or four salamis that are ready. The only one that doesn’t rotate off the list is the sopressata.
JJP: What are the shortest and longest timeframes of charcuterie that you practice?
JT: The shortest would be something like a chicken liver mousse or a boudin, which is basically casing up some chicken liver mousse. From there it would be terrines of all different types, like pork liver terrine or pâté de campagne. We also do our own bacon and smoked salmon which are on the short side. It’s a four day process for us.
The ones that take the longest to make are the salumi, the rosette de Lyon, the Genoa-style salumi, or the large sopresattas. Right now we’ve got some prosciutto in the process which will become the longest; that takes about a year and a half. You start feeling like a wine maker because you’re aging a product and you don’t know your success until you try it!
JJP: What’s the greatest risk in charcuterie?
JT: The peril is that you don’t know how it’s going to turn out for at least a year but you can’t wait that long to start your next batch. So it’s a leap of faith that you have some idea what you’re doing. I think our confidence has evolved to a point where we’re pretty sure we can execute it and we have control over our environment enough that we can do it.
JJP: What keeps you coming back to it?
JT: It’s the suspense of not knowing how it’s going to turn out but it’s also the transformation of the product that’s incredible. I also enjoy it because some of my sous chefs really got into it and I like sharing that excitement with them about what is a very old tradition—which is really controlled spoilage.
You don’t necessarily know how it’s going to turn out and I think that’s the fun of it. Even if we change the starter culture or if we cut it a little different you have to be patient to see how that turns out. The other thing is that you have to keep pretty fastidious notes because how else do you know? That’s the excitement of it. When we take out a new batch, everyone is excited to try it and see how it is.
JJP: What are some of the important lessons you’ve learned?
JT: Some of the things that we’ve learned is that a few more grams of starter culture makes the difference between a beautiful fermentation all the way through, and having one where we couldn’t get the pH to drop fast enough, and that’s just not something that you can guess at. And you’re also dealing with products that in large doses aren’t necessarily considered safe, with your nitrites and your nitrates. That’s what I use and I haven’t gotten comfortable playing with alternatives.
JJP: Is most of the charcuterie you do pork-based?
JT: Its 95% pork. We do beef. We haven’t done a lot of lamb, but I’d like to start.
JJP: How many people are involved in the production?
JT: There are three of us. I have a sous chef that does 90% of it. He’s 23 and been working with me since he was 16. He’s really into it. I help out and so does my chef Chris Jones.
JJP: What are your favorite charcuterie items to make?
JT: My favorite things are the simplest ones. Bacon, pancetta, and the lardo. Bresaola too.
JJP: How do you make your bacon?
JT: We cure it for about three and a half days. Three days is not quite enough and at four days it’s too salty. We smoke it for about three hours. Our technique is really simple. We put it in a 210°F oven and we have an old pan that we throw a bunch of chips in that we get smoldering really good. We throw that underneath the bacon and cook it until the bacon comes up to an internal temperature of about 150°F. However long that takes is how long we smoke it. That has been a really good method for us.
JJP: What kind of wood do you use?
JT: We’ve done fig wood but apple wood has been the nicest [for the bacon]. We tried hickory, but that was just not good [for the chorizo]. It didn’t work with the flavors of the paprika and spices we put it in.
JJP: How long does your chorizo take?
JT: It takes about 10 weeks. It’s one of the most elaborate things we make. We start by cubing up the meat and doing the marinade, which takes three to four days and then we grind it, ferment it, and let it dry out for a couple days. Then we smoke it and hang it.
JJP: Do you do all the ordering and supply management?
JT: No. I work with my sous chef who does the direct ordering. We have pretty strict regulations about the way we order and the way chefs in our company order product.
JJP: How many meat suppliers do you use?
JT: We’ve been using Niman Ranch. We did make some jambon from suckling pigs and brought in a whole pig once to make coppa di testa, lonzo, and pancetta. We’d like to be able to bring in whole pigs, but we have to put together the rest of the facilities to do that. That’s the ultimate goal.
JT: Not anymore. Right now it’s just getting to that next step. But one of the reasons we’ve been successful in this program is that we’ve gone step by step and we haven’t bitten off more than we can chew. Most folks don’t realize what kind of commitment bringing in a whole pig is. We have the space and we have a catering kitchen, but its off-premise. So it’s doable, but we need to make the time.
JJP: What do you do in the off-premise space?
JT: We do most of the fabrication there. Some of the easier things we can do in the restaurants like wet charcuterie and bacon, but anything that requires fermentation and extended aging time we do down there.
JJP: Should chefs starting out in charcuterie start out by ordering individual pieces as opposed to a whole pig?
JT: That would be my advice. It allows you to focus on that one product and that one item. If you are trying to do fermented and dried products, you can start with high quality pork shoulder for example. Start and get good at it. That’s been our method of growth.
JJP: How much do pay for your basic cuts? Do you always pay the same thing for your meat?
JT: No we don’t, but they don’t vary that much. You can get pork belly for $1.39-$1.79/pound price range and that’s how much we pay. Shoulder is around $1.19/pound and back fat is about a dollar. Leg is going to be more expensive. It depends on how much we order. If there are fifteen pork bellies, we can get a better price from our purveyor.
JJP: The margin seems to be pretty good.
JT: It’s a no-brainer. For example, with bacon we used to use Nueske’s and were paying around $7 per pound. There’s not a lot of shrinkage when you’re making bacon, maybe 10%. I think we’re making bacon that’s just as good if not better, and we are paying around a dollar for that [laughs]. So even in a worst case scenario we are paying two dollars a pound. But it’s not [that much], even after all the spices, salt sugars, and wood—and I’ve got plenty of wood for my wood-fired oven. [It’s the] same for pancetta—before we were paying around 6 dollars a pound. We use collagen casings to wrap the bellies and those cost around 60 to 70 cents. We can do 10 pancettas in an hour. There is a cost of labor involved, but it’s not significant.
JJP: What charcuterie product contributes the highest margin?
JT: Lardo has the largest margin by far. Some people love it but people can be reluctant to try it if you’re not there to really explain it to them. In the restaurants, where we do have time to explain it to them, it sells really well. It’s neat because there are not a lot of people who have had it. We recently put it on a salad and it sold wonderfully.
JJP: What other products offer similar margins?
JT: All of our bacon and all of our salamis. Prior to ramping up our production we would source very expensive salami. Now we are using pork butt for it which is around $1.20/ pound. But even with a 30-35% weight loss, you’re still in the $2/pound range and you get all the added value with how it’s made. Compare that to a $12-$14/pound product from somebody else and it’s such an incredible margin and it’s so much interesting for me to sell. There is a tremendous opportunity for savings. If you manage your staff, time, and space there really is not a product there where your food cost won’t be amazing.
JJP: Is every piece of charcuterie profitable?
JT: I think there’s no reason they shouldn’t be; I’ve never come across one that hasn’t [been]. Unless you spoil it, it should be profitable and significantly so.
JJP: What’s the biggest challenge to maintaining that margin?
JT: The biggest logistical challenge is just staying ahead. It’s really about thinking in advance about how much you’re going to use in six weeks. If you get behind, you can’t shrink your timeframe. It’s not going to go bad but you don’t want to have too much on hand.
JJP: Is putting charcuterie on the menu well fitted to the economic climate?
JT: I think so, and for two reasons: You can be very flexible with the pricing if you need to be, because you know your margins and there’s a lot of perceived value. People know there’s a lot of hand work and time involved. The other thing is that, right now, I think people are looking for a lot of comfort food. I think that salumi is the ultimate comfort food. There a lot of “food trends” right now but I think there’s one that never goes away and that’s the idea of handmade production—simple, ancestral foods that have a place and a story to be told. And it’s an easy story to tell. People are looking to get value for their money and obviously it’s about quantity and quality, but it’s also how interesting it this. What’s the story behind it? A plate of sliced cured meats and maybe some crusty bread by the fire, or a salami sandwich, or a plate of wet charcuterie is the greatest comfort food. And you can bring that to the guests in the dining room, too.
JJP: You said that sopressata was a constant on the menu. Do you always order a fixed quantity of it?
JT: No, and we have a lot of fun with that too because I’m always changing the size of it. The last one we did was all by hand and we stuffed it into beef bungs (casing). So it’s a bigger format salami. It’s basically the same ingredients but just in a different way. You get more of a mosaic look. That’s close to mortadella size and about five and a half inches in diameter. It has a six month aging time.
JJP: Where do you get the casings?
JT: I get most of them online from Butcher & Packer or The Sausage Maker. We get our cultures, molds, salts, and simple sugars from Butcher & Packer. It makes our life so much easier. It’s all very inexpensive.
JJP: How do the simple sugars come into play?
JT: We use dextrose and glucose and a couple other simple sugars. You really need to have them because they’ll help fermentation and make the process so much easier than if you use [a complex sugar like] sucrose.
JJP: At what point do you think you are going to go local with your meat supplier?
JT: We’re definitely moving towards the direction of ordering whole pigs and at that point we’re just going to have to be really intelligent about the pricing and tell a good story, and produce a really phenomenal product. That’s really the next logical step to improve what we’re doing—that is, to refine the product that we are bringing in. Now that we are at a point where we are very good at technique and making things happen it’s finding a fresher, better product. That’s where our program needs to go from there.
JJP: Is sourcing whole pigs going to remain as profitable as ordering separate cuts?
JT: I think the economics are hard on that because there’s so much additional labor involved. I also think you can charge more for some of the things you make out of it. The idea of breaking down a whole pig is a story to be told and you can build that into your price. Is it going to be more cost effective? Probably not. If you’re going to deal with whole animals, you’re going to be paying a fixed price and you’re going to be dealing with smaller producers who will charge a higher premium, as it should be. So I think from a strictly economical standpoint I don’t see how it could be more cost effective than the broken down Niman Ranch pork bellies. What we have to do is think ahead and have different outlets for it and build that premium into some dishes.
JJP: Do you have any health and safety tips?
JT: With salumi, it’s all about about pH. That’s what folks need to learn. That’s going to control your bacterial growth. For safety measures we don’t send out our charcuterie to be tested. Consistency in processing temperatures, watching your pH levels, having the right ratios, getting in fresh products—that, to me, is what you do to have a safe product. And don’t count on someone else to do your due diligence. I think that’s the chef’s responsibility. That and continually developing purveyor relationships so that you can trust your product.
JJP: Do you have any parting advice for chefs starting their own charcuterie programs?
JT: The most important thing a chef can do is read, find someone else who’s been doing it for a while, and do the basics: watch your pH, your salt and preservative ratios, and be smart about it. It’s no different than any food. If you bring in a fish five days before and hold it a room temperature, it’s not safe! There’s no different between these things. It’s really common sense.