The Art and Economics of Charcuterie Part 5
DIY charcuterie operations have exploded over the past five years. Sure, charcuterie has been around for years, but now the demand for house-made terrines, ballotines, pâtés, brawns, all manner of cured or smoked meats has reached fever pitch. What’s more, it’s not limited to one area of the country. Over the years we’ve seen in-house charcuterie programs in Napa from Chefs John Stewart and Duskie Estes at Bovolo and Zazu, and at Cochon and Delmonico in New Orleans, and Chef Adam Stevenson of Earth & Ocean in Seattle, to name just a handful. Chefs all over the country are staging and traveling to pick up Italian, Swiss, and French techniques for charcuterie! But what’s even more exciting is that this surge in popularity is spawning some serious experimentation, whether it’s in tiny 30-seat restaurants or larger multi-unit operations across the country.
With restaurants big and small in mind, we are continuing our charcuterie series to take a good hard look at how different sorts of chefs, using different techniques for their charcuterie recipes, all try to balance the bottom line with a love of charcuterie. Chef James Tracey and Craft’s revolving charcuterie program is the fifth in this series. The sixth in the series follows Chef de Cuisine Michael Fiorello of Mercat a la Planxa and his approachable selection of charcuterie, including lamb bacon.
Part 5: The New York Chef
Charcuterie was a love Chef James Tracey discovered while studying at the Culinary Institute of America, and he’s been building on that knowledge ever since. Tracey spent time at classic DC restaurant Vidalia before coming to New York, where he met future mentor Tom Colicchio at Gramercy Tavern. Tracey would go on to become part of the opening team at Colicchio’s flagship Craft; at the time of opening, he was preparing most of the charcuterie as sous chef. Fast-forward 10 years and he’s still doing it—which makes for a lengthy real-world career in charcuterie.
“Getting really great pork is a key factor,” says Tracey, and although his eco-friendly Fossett Farms-sourced whole pigs might seem like a pretty big initial investment, they're able to bring home the bacon at the end of the day with the most potential items per animal. The charcuteries on the Craft menu are currently priced from $15 to $25 per serving, but it stretches further due to the restaurant’s family-style menu approach, so the pay-in per person ends up being pretty manageable.
Salumi aren’t the be-all and end-all of charcuterie, and Tracey’s ballotines and pork trotter roulades step away from the curing and smoking guanciales of the charcuterie world. As savvy New York diners become more and more familiar with what real charcuterie should be, it pays to give them a peek at something they see less often, like pâté en croûte, which may be old-school, but its richness and comforting meat and pistachio-studded filling and flaky pastry wrapping make for a winning combo. Chef Tracey also finds a use for the tasty meat parts that are hard to sell by themselves (who orders lamb shoulder scraps?). Put those scraps into a delicious terrine and you have a sellable product that tastes great and has novelty to boot.
Sure, it requires several hours of labor, but for Tracey, it’s worth it. Such items don’t require the wait that long-term cures like prosciutto do (Tracey still makes prosciutto with employees for fun, but it isn’t sold in the restaurant). And terrines don’t suffer from the weight loss, which means profit loss, of a cured or brined item.
Every week whole pigs and grass-fed beef arrive at the restaurant to become bresaola, suckling pig ballotine, and pork trotter. It’s an intensive amount of labor, but Tracey points out that having an accomplished butcher to break down the whole animals makes charcuterie feasible. For him, trying to utilize the whole animal is more about ensuring there’s little to no waste than it is about getting more money out of the diner. And he knows not every off (or off-off cut) investment will pay off. Sometimes even New Yorkers can’t fully embrace the marvels of charcuterie ingenuity that come out of Tracey’s Craft kitchen—like the buffalo semisoft cheese-stuffed pigs tail. Overall, though, the charcuterie program at Craft is a prime example of how an operation cuts down on loss (and amps up creativity) with some clever, classic, efficient use of product.