The Art and Economics of Charcuterie Part 7

by Francoise Villeneuve
Vicky Wasik Antoinette Bruno
December 2010

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. For the seventh installment, Chef Bobby Hellen of Resto discusses his creative approach to modern charcuterie.

Part 7: Modernizing Charcuterie

Boudin Blanc is such a classic that there are probably thousands of recipes out there, mostly involving a pork and chicken mousseline base. Chef Bobby Hellen’s inventive ground fatback and lean pork version eschews the chicken for a better texture produced by pork fat and includes orange zest and coriander for a lighter flavor profile than the classic version, with a slight hint of citrus on the finish. Just because charcuterie is a classic craft, doesn’t mean you can’t interpret it through a modern lens.

Hellen had no formal training in charcuterie specifically, but learned from fellow chefs and by reading and eating out to see what other chefs were doing with their charcuterie programs. His charcuterie faves range from the stellar Bar Boulud and Hearth to the down-to-earth Brooklyn butchery, The Meat Hook. His list might seem like an odd high-low combination, but Hellen says “I get a lot out of both.” He admires The Meat Hook for its unusual flavor combinations and Dinex Group restaurants for their attention to detail. In the end, he’s in the happy position of getting to eat his research.

Boudin Blanc is his most labor-intensive addition to the menu (although the house-made bacon takes the longest; it’s mostly in curing time, not labor). This seemingly simple sausage requires breaking down the fatback and lean pork, removing any sinews, grinding it, emulsifying it, encasing it, tying the sausages, then poaching them, and grilling them on the pickup. “A mistake gets pretty high in cost,” Hellen explains, so he entrusts the task of the charcuterie to his most reliable, most trained, and fastest staff members. “If you’re doing charcuterie, management is important.”

Suggestive gestures aside (everything’s really phallic in sausage making), Hellen takes his sausages very seriously. “[The chalkboard] contributes a lot to sales,” says Hellen, and he also attributes a lot of experimentation to the large format feasts at Resto. The chalkboard of specials at Resto is often the testing ground for sausages and charcuterie items like the house-made hotdogs. To get a better idea about which charcuterie items go over well, he tries to talk to his customers in person to better understand their tastes. Since his business doesn’t rely on foot traffic, with its off-the-beaten-path location, feedback plays a huge role in the tweaks Hellen makes to his charcuterie recipes. The Boudin Noir, one of the most popular items on the menu—and the one he’s most proud of—has undergone many changes since its inception, as he tweaked the flavor profile to better reconcile the many layers of flavor. Part of what makes his charcuterie program so exceptional is that he’s never afraid to experiment and mix up his beloved recipes.