Catalan executive chef Chris Shepherd, the man other Houston chefs call The Godfather, grabs a handful of his very own homemade sausages and starts slicing them into gauzy ribbons. Red strips of coppa fall from the meat slicer like streamers, gracefully dappled with spots of slick white fat. He hands them to me as they fall. The meaty pig's-neck sausage is dark and rich.
Shepherd next takes a link of soppressata and removes it from its casing. Unlike the typical Italian hard-cured sausage, this version of soppressata is still soft and creamy. "It's a spreadable dry-cured meat," he says. He takes a knife and swipes a hunk of it onto a piece of hot bread that was just pulled from the oven.
The thick chunks of fat in the pork sausage immediately melt into the bread. The meat remains on top, glistening pink. Shepherd passes it over to me. I take a bite, letting the luscious meat and fat spread across my palate. It tastes unlike any other sausage I've ever eaten. Paired with a juicy nectarine, it is the perfect lunch.
For Shepherd, curing and preserving his own meats — making charcuterie — was a natural extension of his desire to prepare fresh food using local produce. As I finish the soppressata, he points to a small pile of plastic-wrapped vegetables in one corner, a grin on his face. "That's my only store-bought produce for the week," he says. For a restaurant the size of Catalan, it's not much. Soon, the rest of the fruits and vegetables start piling in from the back door, all of them from local farms.
Shepherd began sourcing his meat locally several years ago when he worked in the kitchen at Brennan's. "Randy Evans and I — who were sous chefs at the time — decided to go exploring and find some local farms here in Texas. We found a few good farms and started buying more and more and more. Once you start doing the local farming, pigs are the next steps. You say, 'Who can I get to do pigs?' You start to find smaller farms and people who are raising pigs the right way — not the Chinese whites that are processed — and from there, you learn breeds. You learn what makes the best hams, what makes the best pork bellies, what makes the best bacon."
Today, Shepherd buys his hogs from area purveyors like Atkinson's, Revival Meats, Hatterman and Jolie Vue, some of which also provide much of the restaurant's produce. His ever-increasing enthusiasm for bringing the freshest food possible to the table at Catalan has led Shepherd to make his own housemade charcuterie at Catalan, while at the same time becoming one of Houston's leading chefs.
As it turns out, Shepherd is following a national trend sparked by the surging popularity of British chef Fergus Henderson's nose-to-tail mantra and Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn's best-selling book Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing. The art of charcuterie is experiencing a renaissance in the United States.
But despite the fact that cured meats have been considered perfectly acceptable and safe throughout most of human history, and are an everyday facet of life throughout most of the world, here in the United States the practice is regarded as unsafe unless highly regulated, with a strict set of standards regarding time and temperature for meat preparations. There are ways around this, but they are complicated and time-consuming.
Patrick Key, bureau chief of consumer health services for the City of Houston Department of Health and Human Services, says he's cited plenty of places over the years for curing meat in-house, often at Asian restaurants, where they sometimes hang Peking ducks at room temperature. "They like to hang the duck for several days to get the skin nice and crispy," he says.
Even so, plates filled with handcrafted salami, pepperoni and soppressata are making appearances on restaurant menus all over Houston.
James Silk and Richard Knight of Feast are sitting at a simple wood table in their dining room, their stares blanker than a fresh sheet of butcher paper. The two chefs, who are both from England, were just asked when they first became interested in charcuterie. Apparently, the question was akin to asking a fish when it got into swimming.
"When did we get into charcuterie?" Knight finally says, repeating the question.
Silk answers: "It goes with our philosophy, really. Nose-to-tail. We're foreigners," he laughs. "It's normal where we come from. It's thousands of years old. It's part of our life. It's what we grew up with."
While charcuterie might be the hot new trend appearing on restaurant menus and diners' plates across the nation, it's anything but a recent discovery. And it's never fallen out of favor in Europe, where cured meats are as common as hot dogs are in America.