Interview with Chef Zach Allen
March 2009

JJ Proville: For how many restaurants do you oversee the charcuterie program?
Zach Allen: Hands-on, three, but I help oversee all the restaurants we have in the group, so up to 15.

JJP: How did you get into charcuterie?
ZA: It kind of started as something I did as a kid. My family made this sausage at home every fall where we’d get together and make a bunch of different sausages for the year. When I started at Lupa in 2000, myself and another sous chef started playing around with the idea of doing salumis. We saw what Paul Bertolli had done at a dinner at the Beard House and wanted to do what he was doing.

JJP: Did you have any training prior to Lupa?
ZA: I had spent a little bit of time in Paris and Italy before, and I took the Iowa State University’s course on dry sausage. It’s a four-five day course that goes through all the science and technology.

JJP: How many suppliers do you have for the three restaurants? And who do you use?
ZA: For pork, one. [It’s from] Heritage Foods USA. They have about 10 or 12 farmers that supply them with pigs. They butcher about 125 pigs per week. I got some Duroc pork bellies from Good Farm in Missouri and some Red Wattle bellies from Larry Sorrel in Kansas. I mostly use Six-Spotted Berkshire. It’s all done in one slaughterhouse, which I’ve visited along with four of the farms to see the production.

JJP: How much do you order?
ZA: This week’s shipment of pork was 1,500 pounds.

JJP: In terms of suppliers, do you try and get whole pigs whenever you can or is it part by part?
ZA: I wish I could, but I don’t. We get it piece by piece. Bringing in whole pigs is just an issue of space. In Vegas, we do with the space we have. There’s a lot on the pigs that’s not always easy to use. And also just to produce the amount that I want at the level I want for three restaurants is impossible to do that way.

JJP: Do you delegate any of the supply management?
ZA: Most of it I just do myself.

JJP: What’s percentage of your charcuterie is made with pork?
ZA: It’s 95% pork.

JJP: Do you have a price range or price ceiling for different cuts of meat?
ZA: We pay a lot more than a lot of people would for pork. Usually you’d buy pork butts at the grocery store for $1.99 pound and for a restaurant you’d get it for $1.60, but I pay $5.65 a pound for it. It’s because I know exactly what the diet of the pig; I know how it was raised; I know how it was slaughtered; and I know the breed. I know the farm and slaughter date for every piece of pork that comes to me. Another important thing is the pH of the pork. With high quality pork you also get a very standard pH.

JJP: What’s your best selling type of charcuterie?
ZA: I’d say the coppa. It’s made with the part of the pig that’s the shoulder going into the neck. Not to be confused with Tuscan coppa di testa made with headcheese.

JJP: What charcuterie contributes the highest margin? 
ZA: Probably the ciccioli. I have two different types of ciccioli I make. One is the trimmings from the salumi itself, its cooked down with some thyme and bay and made into a rillettes. I obviously make a lot of money on that. Another one is the ciccioli that is pig skin cooked down and layered into a terrine with canned truffles. All salumi make a lot of money. You’re usually serving an ounce and a half for $20 instead of seven ounces of straight protein.

JJP: So even though you are paying a premium, you’re still making money?
ZA: Yeah.

JJP: Is every piece of charcuterie profitable?
ZA: We’re willing to lose a little bit on some things. A lot of time it’s just being able to have a certain product. But if you look at the cost versus the price you sell it at, they all make money. Where you get to the issue of not making money is the labor and the amount of time that you have to age the product. But if you look at the straight margin all the items are all very profitable.

JJP: What are the labor intensive ones?
ZA: Pâtés are labor intensive but they’re nice because you can serve the next day. Coppa takes at least four months, culatello takes nine months to make, and some sorpressas take seven months to make.

JJP: What’s your favorite cut of meat that yields the most product for the least amount of money?
ZA: Probably pig heads. We do the ears, tongue, and the whole head.

JJP: How many different types of charcuterie are in one restaurant at any given time?
ZA: At any given time, about twenty.

JJP: Do you see charcuterie as more lucrative to put on its own menu or mixed in with other main menu dishes?
ZA: In each restaurant we kind of have it both ways. You can get either one kind or a selection of products. We also use it in composed dishes. I think if you’re doing [the charcuterie] yourself it’s best to highlight the product by itself.

JJP: Where is the charcuterie produced? Does it cure in the same place?
ZA: We’re working on an off-site facility, but right now it’s done at the restaurants. It’s produced at B&B and Carnevino. It’s weird how it works. B&B and Enoteca San Marco share the same kitchen and a lot of the prep kitchen is the same. We have dedicated walk-ins. That’s where the curing happens.

JJP: How many people are involved in the production? How is the schedule organized?
ZA: It’s about four to five of us. Every seven days it’s rubbed and rinsed with white wine and re-rubbed. The first three days of the week are heavy salumi days and the rest of the week is focused on other parts.

JJP: Do you see any big challenges in overseeing charcuterie in more than one restaurant at the same time?
ZA: It’s just that you can’t be in all places at the same time to make sure that all the practices are always being done correctly.

JJP: Would you say putting charcuterie on the menu is well fitted to this economic climate?
ZA: I think it is. If you don’t know how to make it, buying it [ready made] is probably the best since [your initial product is] probably not going to be good and you could hurt someone. You can serve an ounce or two ounces of it and get away with it instead of serving an appetizer with three ounces of protein, like quail or something.

JJP: How much do you smoke versus cure?
ZA: I smoke very little. We do some cold smoked fish (hamachi and swordfish), and a house pastrami. We do a lot of hocks and shanks which we’ll cook with beans, but not really for slice and serve stuff.

JJP: What are your longest and shortest curing times?
ZA: We do a Calabrian sausage that is cured for four days. Culatello takes about nine months. You can serve it at nine months, but we like to cure it for a year.

JJP: Do [the authorities] breathe down your neck in Vegas?
ZA: For salumi, no. I set up Otto in New York, and it’s the first HACCP certified salumi program in the US. Vegas will be HACCP certified in a month (just went through fourth tests last week).

JJP: How much time do you spend coming up with new items?
ZA: We are working on six new salumi items right now at one of the restaurants—especially with the younger cooks who want to learn and get into it.

JJP: Any interesting charcuterie you’re working on?
ZA: We’re working on a pork heart ragu and pork kidneys.

JJP: What are the most important factors in curing?
ZA: Constant airflow, humidity, and temperature are very important.

JJP: Is it a challenge in Vegas to keep climate controlled in terms of curing environment?
ZA: I thought it was going to be really tough when I was moving out [from New York]. I was dreaming up all kinds of ideas of what I was going to have to do, but it’s actually become quite easy. I was worried about not having enough humidity and planning on getting non-sealed bricks to soak the humidity. In Vegas you are in such huge hotels that you don’t really know what’s happening outside.

JJP: Does your clientele in Vegas go for the nasty bits?
ZA: Yesterday we ran a pork liver sausage that sold well. Pork tails, pig ears, and head cheese do well. At B&B we do lamb tongue and lamb brains. We sold our ten pieces of veal tongue last week with no problems. They’ll buy it if you get the wait staff and everyone behind it.