The Art and Economics of Charcuterie Part 1

by Amanda McDougall and JJ Proville
March 2009

In-house charcuterie programs have experienced exponential growth over the past two years. It is arguably the biggest and most far-reaching trend we’ve seen—bordering on an all out culinary movement. US Chefs are learning the craft—from old school/Old World techniques to more modern ones—and developing their own programs large and small.

With this in mind, we’ll be publishing a multi-part charcuterie series that looks at several different operations, but all run by chefs with a penchant for curing and aging all sorts of animal parts with a goal of bringing in some serious revenue for their restaurants.

Zach Allen and his Vegas salumi operation—not to mention his oversight of all of Batali’s dozen other restaurant salumi programs—is the first in this series of features (see below). The second in the series takes a look at how chef John Toulze of the girl and the fig (restaurant, café, and catering) and Estate works his brand of charcuterie into his two restaurants and catering operation. Seattle’s Adam Stevenson of Earth & Ocean at W Seattle is third in line, discussing his charcuterie program from a hotel chef perspective. The fourth piece goes small-scale with El Dorado Kitchen chef Justin Everett’s charcuterie on-a-shoestring.

Part 1: A Multi-Restaurant Operation Charcuterie—or sausage-making at least—has been a part of chef Zach Allen’s life since childhood. His family had annual family sausage prep days to take them through the year with a steady supply of the encased ground meats. But it wasn’t until he was working at Batali’s Lupa in Manhattan that his childhood family past-time turned into a professional pursuit.

Allen has spent time with Armandino Batali, Mario Batali’s salumi-famous father, but he’s also done formal training at Iowa State University’s Meat Lab, taking one of their multi-day classes on the science (and safety) behind curing meats. He takes a hands-on approach to his salumi-making too, doing most of the work himself at the three Las Vegas Batali restaurants, and visiting the farms that produce the pigs he turns into cured, money-making magic.

Although Allen doesn’t skimp when it comes to paying for top-quality pork (in the neighborhood of $5.50 a pound, even!), he’s still able to bring in the profit for nearly every piece of coppa or testa that goes to a table. Allen pays top-dollar for his pork, no doubt, and the fact that he’s still making money on it is a statement in itself.

There’s intrinsic value to salumi for diners—especially as they become more and more familiar with it—but it’s especially valued when it’s made in-house and tastes as good as Allen’s. As Allen demonstrates, he can charge upward of $20 for a mere ounce and half to two ounces of product. Granted, you have to take into account the time put into each product (some require multiple brinings, rubs, and other fairly time-consuming manipulation), but in the end, it’s usually literally time (for curing) that can be the most costly aspect.

Every week no less than 1,500 pounds of pork is processed in Allen’s kitchens—it’s brined, cured, ground, stuffed, aged, and sometimes poached in beer (see his recipe for Liver Sausage). It’s a massive volume of meat to process and Allen is careful to balance the menus at the three restaurants and therefore what’s curing in his salumi walk-ins (that’s walk-ins—plural) with a range of items, some taking only a day to make (like pâté) while others cure for months (take his nine-month minimum aged culatello for example). Planning ahead is essential, especially when you have, like Allen, twenty salumi items going at a time and a half dozen in development and testing for three separate restaurants with different price points and menus.

But at the end of the day, it’s always worth the effort and the wait. In Allen’s own words, “if you look at the cost versus the price you sell it at, they all make money.”

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