There are chefs who profess to follow the theory of “snout-to-tail” cooking. And then there’s Chef Adam Sappington.
At his Portland restaurant, The Country Cat, Sappington has been butcher for more than 17 years, and he fully takes advantage of the animal scrap piling up while cutting into, say, a whole lamb (using the tallow for braises, bones for stock, trim for staff meal). But he pushes the familiar "use everything" mantra one step further: charring lamb bones to make his own charcoal, which he uses to smoke and barbeque lamb shoulder, pork, and other meats.
"We’re trying to do this full-circle approach to our food,” he said during the recent International Association of Culinary Professionals conference in New York City, where he and Food Writer Josh Ozersky held a session devoted to loving lamb. Bone saw in hand (a gift from another chef, who bought it on eBay), Sappington extolled the joy of using every bit of an animal as he snapped through each rib like a gleeful lunatic during hunting season.
Sappington’s innovative butchering techniques have impressed more than a few people (Ozersky has said that Sappington is "the pre-eminent butchering chef in America"), and his house-made charcoal is no exception. "My cooks look at me like, 'Really, dude, I have to do this?' and I‘m like, 'Yeah, yeah you do,'" Sappington says.
First, he dries out the bones and mixes them with wet wood before smoking in a retort kiln, a device similar to a tandoor oven that Sappington calls “basically a big trash can.” The kiln has a cast iron grate over the top, where he lays the bones, and an air-tight seal to deprive the bones of oxygen in order to get an even char. The bones are smoked until black, then put through a chipper to get the right consistency.
Yes, the idea is a little creepy (especially if Sappington happens to be outside in the snow, a la "Fargo," whilst chipping his charcoal), but the result is oh so tasty. Sappington might take some lamb shoulder steaks, braise them low and slow for a day, then smoke them quickly over the charcoal to intensify the lamb flavor. It’s lamb, plus lamb, plus smoke.
Sappington’s approach is rare, even among sustainability-minded chefs. While bone charcoal (also known as “bone char” or “black ivory”) has been used for other means—such as for certain black paints, to decolorize sugar during the refining process, or even to make petroleum jelly—most chefs don’t think to make their own charcoal.
There are a few exceptions. In 2010, Blue Hill at Stone Barns bought a gasifier to make its own charcoal, which it also uses primarily to fertilize the soil on the farm. And in 2011, at the annual Meatopia festival (which Ozersky helped found), Chefs Sean Brock and Rodney Scott barbequed a whole hog over pig-bone charcoal.
What’s holding up more chefs from buying bone char (and keeping many butchers from making it), is that it’s hard to justify the costs. At Saugatuck Craft Butchery in Westport, Connecticut, Owner Ryan Fibiger has tried to find a partner to char his leftover bones with no success. "We’ve got the bones, we’re ready to work with somebody, but haven’t found anybody to do the incineration," Fibiger says. "I think chefs would dig it, if it was done right. The idea that you can cook a burger with the bones from the animal is pretty awesome."
House-made Charcoal Technique
1. Reserve bones from butchering, making sure to scrape them free of meat and grizzle (these will burn during the charring process). Put the bones on a grate above where the fire will burn.
2. Light some newspaper or kindling at the bottom of the kiln. Temperatures in the kiln should be extremely high, as much as 700°F.
3. When the smoke becomes grayish-white, charcoal begins to form. Snuff the fire and close the lid firmly to make sure it is airtight (the less air, the better the char). Wait several hours for the charring to finish.
4. Remove the charcoal carefully and let cool. Chip in a wood chipper to desired size.
Lamb Charcoal King Adam Sappington Demos Lamb Butchery at IACP 2012