Houston diners have proven to have some apprehensions and misunderstandings about the food at Feast. The restaurant experiences its share of diners who are put off by the offal and unusual cuts of meat on the menu, which extends to its charcuterie as well.
"Most people look at our menu and say, 'Oh, I couldn't eat that,'" Silk says with a resigned sigh. He could easily be referring to Bath chap, one of Feast's best dishes. It's made from the lower jaw of a pig and tastes addictively like the lovechild of bacon and crispy pork cracklings, yet can be off-putting when described merely by its ingredients. (It can be even more off-putting when served the old-fashioned way, with parts still attached. A recipe from the 1968 edition of Jane Grigson's excellent book Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery instructs chefs to "cut the end of the snout off, as it upsets some people.")
But at least the ingredients in Bath chap are easily identifiable. Silk is affronted by the idea that hiding ingredients somehow makes food more palatable: "You're like, 'You eat hot dogs, right? What do you think is in those?'"
Knight chimes in alongside him: "Beaks and feet! That's what's in hot dogs! And God knows what else!"
Chef Alfredo Mojica, who oversees the kitchens at Marco Wiles's Italian joints Vinoteca Poscol and Da Marco, agrees about some diners' preconceived notions of charcuterie: "It's hard to sell things like lardo, because all they see is fat. It's very difficult. People don't understand. Terrines are sometimes difficult to sell, too. Like the antelope terrine. It's such a delicious thing and such a lot of work, it takes a whole day to make it, but people just don't want to try it. People are uncomfortable with things like venison or rabbit. But they're all animals!"
For chefs like Silk and Knight, using all the parts of the pig is just standard — a normal way of life. But for young American chefs, the craft of charcuterie is a new treat and one that goes hand-in-hand with their passion for fresh, hand-crafted food and a hands-on attitude.
"The desire to take things from 100 percent start to finish — taking it all the way and utilizing every piece — is really what it is for me," says Ryan Pera, executive chef at The Grove. "I know the product is all mine, and I'm dictating the way it tastes. And ultimately that's what charcuterie is. If you're using it in a dish, you know that you made it and that it didn't come from elsewhere."
Pera says having a charcuterie program has been the plan for The Grove from day one. "I feel that's a part of rustic cuisine and that's something we were shooting for at The Grove. I think it's somewhat lost in the modern cuisine."
Pera's "Picnic Platter" at the downtown restaurant is one of the best dishes in Houston. In a recent post on the Houston Press's Eating...Our Words blog, former Press food critic Robb Walsh waxed poetic about Pera's charcuterie plate: "Pera has quite a talent for charcuterie. Nobody in town does a better job with the dry-cure stuff — his dense, hard salami with whole peppercorns and his Spanish chorizo with smoky pimentón are awesome." The thin strips of lardo — cured fat (yes, pure pork fat with a few delicate seasonings) — lie draped across the plate with slices of thick, rustic pâté, perfect with crackers and a glass of wine. After all, charcuterie is about more than just cured meats; spreadable ground meats like pâtés and chunkier terrines are all components of the craft, too.
And pâtés and terrines are just as important to the philosophy of eating every part of the pig. Not every restaurant with an eye to creating charcuterie has the space to hang hams, cure large chunks of meat and leave sausages to dry. Restaurants like Da Marco and Vinoteca Poscol may not be curing sausages and hams like Catalan, The Grove or Stella Sola, but Chef Mojica is crafting dazzlingly creative terrines out of pork as well as rabbit and antelope. For Mojica, it isn't a matter of being uninterested in curing meats — it's a matter of time and space constraints.
"Curing meat in Houston is rare," Mojica says. "Rare and difficult. You've got to have a lot of different coolers to make prosciutto. It goes from one temp to another to another — like three different temperatures — and you have to have humidity levels monitored. It's a lot of work, and we don't have the time."
And time is important: the time to carve away the tiny pieces of meat from the pig that make the best sausages, the time to make sure the fat is properly cooled before and during introducing it into the meat mixture, the time to try various recipes and admit failure after three months working on a sausage, the time to constantly monitor humidity and temperature and the growth of good mold.