Interview with Chef James Tracey - Craft

December 2010

Francoise Villeneuve: How did you get into charcuterie?
James Tracey: I went to culinary school at the CIA. That was my first exposure to it. Through the years I’ve done stuff with chefs, different types of charcuterie. I was working it out myself, plus also seeing stuff people do, and just playing around with it.

FV: Where did you train?
JT: At school we had classes in charcuterie, but through all my years of working I’ve been around it. When we opened Craft 10 years ago I was the one who was doing all the charcuterie. Throughout the other places I’ve worked we’ve always done quick cures—guanciale, pancetta, stuff that doesn’t take so long on my own.

FV: What supplier do you use for the meats in the charcuterie program? Is there more than one?
JT: I use multiple ones. For the pig ballotine, we get five to eight pigs a week through Fossil Farms from a farm out in Jersey. They have these awesome pigs.

FV: Do you try and get whole animals or does it come in in cuts?
JT: Well I mean, depends on what it is. We get the whole pig in and we make roasts. We roast the shank, the belly gets rolled, [and] the short cut gets crisped on the pickup. Whatever’s left goes into the pig ballotine. The ears, tongue, trotter, tail, [and] snout are all braised and put back into the face so everything on that pig gets utilized. At one point we were doing a tasting menu course. We wanted to change it up.

FV: How much of your charcuterie is pork?
JT: Well here and there [we do] pork charcuterie. It’s not like I have a ton of charcuterie lying around, but guanciale, ballotine…We also have bresaola, grass-fed beef, we have a foie gras terrine, [and] pork trotter, so about 60 percent is pork.  

FV: Do you have a price range for different cuts?
JT: Foie gras is more expensive; bresaola loses a lot of weight, which ends up not being cheap. It depends.

FV: What’s your best-selling type of charcuterie?
JT: Foie gras terrine and pork trotter. Those are always on the menu; the other ones sell here and there.

FV: What charcuterie contributes the highest profit margin?
JT: I’d say the ballotine because it utilizes the rest of the pig. We utilize everything.

FV: Are all the charcuterie you make profitable?
JT: We’re making some profit; the foie gras is less profitable.

FV: Does anything standout as a winner in terms of food cost?
JT: Ballotine.

FV: What takes the most time, energy, and labor?
JT: The foie gras or the pork trotters are pretty labor intensive. I have a great butcher. He’s been here for 10 years. The ballotine though. You have to debone the face, braise it, cure it overnight, then wrap it in caul fat and roast it and poach it. All [the charcuterie we do] is on average a three day process.

FV: How many different types of charcuterie do you have on the menu at any given time?
JT: It varies, but usually around five.

FV: How does your menu feature the charcuterie? Is it on its own or mixed in with the menu?
JT: Our menu is set up family style, so it works with the flow of the menu. You start off with a salad, say a ballotine, sweetbread, and a beet salad, and everyone pulls off the middle and shares.

FV: How much of your charcuterie do you smoke?
JT: Right now nothing. We have in the past.

FV: How much of your charcuterie do you cure?
JT: Three-quarters at least. Only thing I can think of that’s not cured is the trotter. If we don’t cure it ourselves, we source pancetta from Salumeria Bielese.

FV: Does the health department put a damper on charcuterie production in New York?
JT: Sure. You don’t wanna make a lot of these things like a prosciutto. Unless you have the right storing area you can’t really do it. Because it needs to sit for a year or so, so I don’t know many kitchens that have a proper space for that. I’m not even sure what the licensing is for that. I don’t put prosciutto on the menu. We play around with it. At the end of the day you’re sitting on it for a year and my prosciutto is not as good as a San Daniele so it’s kind of like “What’s the point?”

FV: How do you decide which new items you’ll include?
JT: For a while they were getting half veals in so we put on the menu the shanks and the leg. It was 100 percent milk-fed veal out of Jersey. We had scraps left over, and we decided we should do some charcuterie, so we made a veal and lamb pâté en croûte which is very time consuming, but that’s one of the things we put on the menu. You never see it in the United States. The pastry chef made the dough; I made it with a nice top, stuffed it with pistachios, great veal, then added the consommé, so we did that for a while when we had the veal.

FV: So it’s sometimes an improvisation?
JT: That’s how these things come about. You always have leftover pieces that you wouldn’t put on the menu—like shoulder of lamb pieces or something. So it fits in perfectly. It actually came out great. But I was like "I don’t have that much time on my hands." That’s one of the most labor intensive things I’ve done in a long time. We used to do the ballotine and having a great butcher, he would debone the whole rabbit, livers, and kidneys and make the farce with prosciutto and roll inside it and roast it and poach it. Having a great butcher like that saves a lot of time.

FV: Anything interesting that you’re working on now?
JT: This isn’t quite charcuterie but it’s brining—corned beef wagyu brisket. It had great marbling on it so we started brining it last week. We have some great sauerkraut we made in-house with fennel and caraway seeds. Corned beef is rare, so we sear it and slice it real thin with the sauerkraut.

FV: Chef Daniel Patterson said recently that the acceptable range of textures in the United States is pretty narrow. Would you agree with that?
JT: You have dim sum and you have chicken feet. Gelatinous textures, those don’t go over well. People in United States are into the crispy-fried. I love pickled jellyfish. It has a very gelatinous texture and my sous chef was like “No way.”

FV: Do diners in New York go for the nasty bits?
JT: There’s one thing that we did that I loved; it was with sauerkraut last year: Fried Pig’s Tails. We cured the tail, confited the tail, and it has a lot of gelatin in it. We took the bones out and took the meat off the bone. Then we had buffalo semi-soft cheese and we put the meat back in the tail with the buffalo cheese in the same tail shape and breaded and fried it. It was really gooey and rich, but soft and gelatinous, which threw a lot of people off. The first night two of the four tables hated the pig’s tail right in the middle of Saturday night. I took it off the menu that next day and sold it à la carte. But in general I’d say New Yorkers are into it. They’re always looking for the next different thing. I thought about bringing that back. We just try it out.