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Tag: Dish of the Year

Thanking the Pig: Why Fleurie’s “Autumn Olive Farms’ Heritage Pork, Prepared Nose to Tail” is the 2018 Dish of the Year

Autumn Olive Farms is a magical place. Hundreds of pigs roam wherever they like on a ninety acre farm and a seventeen acre forest of oaks, hickories, wild cherry trees, black walnuts, hackberries, and, of course, Autumn olives. Stand near the middle of the forest and, above birds chirping and the gentle ruffle of leaves, you will hear the sound of nuts giving way to the jaws of some of the happiest pigs on earth.

The pigs live under the care of Clay and Linda Trainum, who began raising them at the farm in 2010. Not long before that, the Trainums had actually stopped eating pork altogether after seeing videos of the treatment of mass-produced pigs. At their spacious farm near Waynseboro, Virginia, the Trainums were determined to do things differently. “Our pigs live their lives in an environment of things that bring them satisfaction and pleasure, like exposure to the warmth of sunlight, mud, and rooting for the underground forages they love,” says Clay Trainum. “Foraging on green vegetation, nuts, and fruits is deeply ingrained in their DNA, and they derive great pleasure from doing so.”

Rooting

Caring properly for hundreds of roaming pigs is hard work: building triangular “houses” throughout the farm for their shelter, maintaining good bedding, sustaining fields with diverse forages for year round ground cover, and catching pigs when it’s time to move them from one field to another. Then there is the constant fight against predators that lurk beyond the farm’s edges. “Battling predators is difficult as it takes place when I should be sleeping!” says Trainum.

While it would be easier to confine the pigs to a pen, the labor needed for their freedom is worthwhile. Allowing the pigs to roam on Autumn Olive’s eco-rich farm and forest is not just good for the pigs, the Trainums say, it is also key to the quality of the pigs’ meat. As the pigs root under the ground for nuts, insects, fruits, seeds and plants, they literally eat soil, and the minerals and nutrients the soil contains. The Trainums liken this to the wine concept terroir. Like grapes, the pigs pull up from the ground the unique attributes of the Shenandoah Valley farm.

The impact of nutrition and wellness on meat quality, it turns out, is not just a feel good story. “Nutrition impacts meat quality,” says Dr. Elizabeth Hines, Swine Specialist at Penn State University. “And, animals that are abused or not treated well will generally have poor meat production, both in quantity and quality.”

Whatever the reason, the Trainums’ products are beloved by chefs. “Love, passion, attention to detail, ingenuity, intelligence, organization, reliability, good morals, and good people,” says The Dabney’s Jeremiah Langhorne, a 2018 James Beard Award winner. “If you apply those ideas to raising and selling heritage pork, you’ll understand why they are the best.” Langhorne is not alone in his adoration. Follow Autumn Olive Farms’ Instagram feed and you will see photograph after photograph of the wonders chefs create with Autumn Olive Farms pork. While I have tasted many such creations, never have I encountered a dish that better honors Autumn Olive Farms’ pigs than one I had this year at Fleurie, in Charlottesville, Virginia. At Fleurie, the same respect that the Trainums accord their pigs in life chef Jose de Brito accords them in death.

At Fleurie the same respect that the Trainums accord their pigs in life chef Jose de Brito accords them in death.

Fleurie plating

Photo by Tom McGovern

Nose to Tail Eating

One cause of the mass production methods the Trainums despise is that so many meat consumers refuse to eat most of a pig. Think about meat displays at a supermarket. Every day they are filled with the same familiar cuts: chops, loin, ribs, and ham. And yet, these cuts comprise just a fraction of a pig. Where do the remaining parts go? You rarely see them because demand for them is so small.

Even the Trainums are not immune to the effects of this. One might think that with a product as extraordinary as the Trainums’, consumers would want it all. Not so. “All parts of the pig can be utilized for food,” says Trainum, “but not enough people choose to consume all parts.” This can leave the Trainums with excess undesired parts like shanks, heads, feet, hard fat, leaf fat, and skin. “We are challenged to sell all parts in ratios that balance out the whole pig,” says Trainum.

The market’s response to this has been to make more pigs. Find other uses for parts humans won’t eat, and make more pigs to produce more parts that they will eat.

But, there’s another possible response. And, that response is at the heart of the story of the 2018 Dish of the Year. Instead of supply changing to meet consumers’ demand, what if consumers were to change what they demand? Many people assume that they would not enjoy eating certain pig parts simply because of the sound of them. But, what if they were to discover that they really would enjoy those parts? Rather than making more pigs to eat, we could just eat more of each pig.

The Origin

The story begins with a decision by Fleurie owner Brian Helleberg to change how he purchases Autumn Olive Farms pork. To align with customers’ demand, restaurants typically place meat orders by the cut: rib-eye steaks, pork chops, a leg of lamb, etc. But, Helleberg believes so strongly in what the Trainums are doing that he began purchasing entire sides of their pigs, which Fleurie’s kitchen staff breaks down in house, from nose to tail. “I’ve visited the pigs at Autumn Olive, and I have always observed them growing whole,” says Helleberg. “So it makes for the most straightforward transaction with the farm if we purchase it whole and add the value in-house. That leaves the farmers more time to do what they do best.”

That said, there are reasons so few restaurants buy entire carcasses at a time. “As the Chef de Cuisine, getting an entire pig seems fun,” says de Brito, “but it is not.” The challenges are many: moving and storing the carcass, butchering it, selling it, and, ultimately, making money with it. “It requires time and serious planning,” de Brito says.

The parts easiest for the restaurant to sell are chops. Fleurie’s beautiful double chops are so popular that a whole rack can sell out in a night. Ok, now what? The rack is gone, but 80% of the carcass remains. De Brito initially set out to work through the pig’s less-desired, primal parts one by one, introducing nightly specials from vintage types of cooking, like pig feet terrine, confit of pork galantine, and paupiettes. Unfortunately, the “strange-name preparations,” as de Brito calls them, did not sell well.

So de Brito looked for another outlet: the tasting menu. “The people who order the tasting menu usually just put themselves in the hands of the kitchen,” says de Brito. On top of that, the number of Fleurie regulars who order the tasting menu had been increasing. “I had the numbers and a better audience,” says de Brito. “Nose to Tail was finally possible!”

Challenges remained, though. Most significantly: planning the right percentage of servings among a pig’s various parts. Like the Trainums at the farm, how would the restaurant avoid having too much pork belly left after it runs out of loin? De Brito’s solution was twofold. First, he would extend the parts’ shelf life with preservation methods of cooking, so he could have parts available as needed. Second, instead of the standard approach of featuring just one cut of meat on a dish, he would create a dish for the tasting menu with many parts of the pig all on one plate. This would also allow de Brito some flexibility in how to describe the dish on the menu, so “strange-names” would not deter diners. De Brito remembered a lesson from his time at The Alley Light when a delicious crispy crepe filled with pork head and feet did not sell. After de Brito changed the menu description from “pork head and feet” to “braised pork,” it suddenly became a best-seller. “People were moaning over it,” de Brito says. If De Brito were to create a dish at Fleurie incorporating many parts of a pig, he thought, it would help to have a similarly vague – but accurate – description. Thus, “Autumn Olive Farms’ Heritage Pork, Prepared Nose to Tail” was born.

The Creation

The great effort required to make “Autumn Olive Farms’ Heritage Pork, Prepared Nose to Tail” is a tribute to the pigs of Autumn Olive Farms and their caretakers. Behold what goes into one single line item on the menu – the fourth course of Fleurie’s tasting menu.

First, De Brito and his team carry the carcass inside the restaurant.

Pig arrival

Next they break down the carcass, a four-hour process.

PIG OPERATION TABLE

Pig Post-surgery

Once the carcass is broken down, the noble parts are separated from the rest. Noble parts are rack, loin, half of the shoulder, ham, and belly. The remaining, primal parts include skin, feet, head, soft fat, hard fat, the other half of the shoulder, kidney, and liver. The noble parts go through an old fashioned French method of preserving meat, petit salé. First, the meat receives thirty-six hours in a brine as salty as seawater, with sugar, bay leaf, thyme, clove, and black peppercorn. Next, the meat is de-brined for twenty-four hours in clean water. These processes tenderize the meat and give it a slight briny flavor and, when cooked, a beautiful rosy color. They also keep the meat fresh for up to five weeks, or until the next pig arrives.

Pig Brine

After the brining process, De Brito marinates the racks and loins for three days in orange, lemon, fennel seed, olive oil, thyme, rosemary, and espelette pepper. This boosts umami and tenderness.

Pig rack

When it comes time to serve the dish, De Brito cooks a three-bone chop first by pan-searing both sides in pork fat. Then he stands the chop on its side and turns down the heat to render and crisp the fat around the edges, before roasting it atop a grate, to allow airflow around the chop. Because of the time that searing and roasting require (30-45 minutes), de Brito and his staff do it just before restaurant service begins. Then, to order, de Brito, sears the chop, cuts a slice, and bastes it with a mixture of butter, pork fat, crushed bay leaf, and thyme. On nights when he is short on chops, de Brito roasts loin instead.

Chop sear

Photo by Tom McGovern

Another brined part, the pork belly, de Brito cooks sous vide for twelve hours. At service, he pan sears it and coats it in an agrodolce of mustard seed.

As for the primal parts, still another component of the dish combines skin, feet, head, and blood. De Brito boils the skin in cream, and boils the head and feet in water and aromatics. He then de-bones the boiled meat, chops it all together, and emulsifies it with blood, nutmeg, shallot, and garlic. The result de Brito bakes until set with caramelized onion, thyme, egg yolk, espelette pepper, nutmeg, black pepper, and a touch of cream. At service, de Brito slices a cube of the terrine, and pan sears it to order.

pig blood

pig blood terrine

Bones help make another component: sauce. De Brito first roasts the bones, and then covers them in a pot with stock made from the head and feet used for the blood terrine. The broth is slowly simmered and reduced over several days, until very dark. The result: demi glace de cochon. Next, de Brito caramelizes sugar in a pan until amber, and deglazes it with orange, lime and lemon juice. He “confits” the citrus peels by cooking them in a syrup of citrus juice, sugar, water, cinnamon, and cloves. Then he combines the confited peels with the citrus glaze and the demi glace de cochon. The mixture is reduced for several more hours, after which de Brito strains the spice and peel and passes the sauce through a muslin several times to remove any specks. He rounds out the sauce with butter and pork fat, and then removes it from the heat to infuse with a few sprigs of thyme for about twenty minutes. Voila! That’s the sauce for the finished plate.

pig sauce

Another component is pork confit, made by curing shoulder and other odds-and-ends of the pig, and covering the meat in rendered soft fat. The cured meat is roasted slowly at a very low temperature until falling apart. De Brito then shreds the meat and covers it in more fat for preservation, and stores it in a container for weeks, as needed. To serve the confit, de Brito shapes small discs of confit called crepinettes, and wraps them in caul fat, the lining of the pig’s intestines. He sears them to order along with pieces of the pork belly.

Seared belly and crepinette

Photo by Tom McGovern

Finally, there is lardo, made from the layer of fat between the skin and the loin, called hard fat. De Brito cleans the hard fat and cuts it into two pound blocks, which he rubs with salt, rosemary, and black peppercorn. He wraps the blocks in plastic and stores them in a lightless bin in the walk-in refrigerator, where the blocks are aged for a minimum of six months to build flavor, being flipped every two months. When the blocks are done, de Brito washes them, lets them dry for four days, and then hangs them, wrapped in cheesecloth. For service, de Brito puts some of the lardo in the freezer so it is easy to cut into thin slices to drape across the pork. The heat lamp on the pass-through from the kitchen to the dining room is all it takes to provide the melting each slice needs for service.

Fleurie lardo

Photo by Tom McGovern

The Components

Fleurie components

Photo by Tom McGovern

The Plate

What drives a chef to devote such an enormous amount of time to a single plate of food? In this case, to honor the life of the pig. In part that means not wasting a thing. “An animal is not only a belly and a tenderloin,” de Brito says. “I strongly believe that I should do my hardest to use everything.” It also means creating the best product he can so that the pig’s death is put to the highest purpose. When de Brito first considered how to tackle the surplus of unpopular parts of the pig, he thought of turning them all into sausage, where no one would know the difference. But, de Brito ultimately decided that would be “unfair to the pig.” Instead, he set out to create a dish that would show proper respect for the pig.

To that end, it helps that de Brito and his staff are so skilled. When it comes to culinary expertise, de Brito’s decades of study and experience have yielded a chef who can run circles around much of today’s younger guard. “Jose is a naturally gifted, passionate chef whose love of the profession makes him a rarity in our industry,” says Patrick O’Connell of The Inn at Little Washington. Indeed, not every chef has de Brito’s passion for classical cooking methods. “I am so attached to old fashioned preservation and ways to make the most disliked cut attractive because I am amazed of the smartness and skills of chefs of the past, who have more than thousands of ways to make each last cut tasty and usable,” the French native says. “Those skills are now either forgotten or badly used, but I keep them as alive as I can.”

And yet, in the case of “Autumn Olive Farms’ Heritage Pork, Prepared Nose to Tail,” the purpose of de Brito’s application of those skills to the pig is not to mask its flavor. Rather, it is the opposite: slowly coax out the essence of an Autumn Olive Farms pig. Look closely at de Brito’s process for making the dish and, among occasional gentle seasonings and aromatics, you will find that the primary ingredient is time. More than forty-eight hours for petit salé. Twelve hours to sous vide the belly. Several days to reduce broth to demi glace de cochon. Weeks to age the confit. Months to age the lardo. All of this time works gradually to evoke and concentrate the flavor of the pork.

In the end, on the plate is a pork chop (or loin), a piece of pork belly, blood sausage terrine, confit crepinette, and draped across the top, lardo. Richness-cutting acid comes from garnishes of apple puree, braised apple and onion agrodolce. And, perhaps most importantly of all, de Brito says, is the generous pool of sauce. “A good dish is the marriage of different ingredients,” says de Brito, “and the bonding in this marriage is the sauce.”

Fleurie sauce

Photo by Tom McGovern

The result is a lesson for diners who usually eat just a fraction of a pig. Here is a dish that, out of respect for the pig and the Trainums’ care for it, uses almost every part of the pig. And, thanks to de Brito, the dish is extraordinary.  “Jose and his team have the drive and talent to make the forgotten odds and ends of the pig taste every bit as good as the center chop,” says Helleberg. “That gives us the best chance to utilize the whole pig just as it is raised on the farm, and to be part of a sustainable and rewarding process.”

So, if you go to Fleurie for the dish, when the plate emerges from the kitchen and is placed before you, before digging in, pause for a moment of gratitude. Thank de Brito and his staff. Thank Helleberg. And, the Trainums, too. And, most of all, like they all have done through their work, thank the pig.

Fleurie plate

Photo by Tom McGovern

2017 Dish of the Year: Burger at Smoked

smokedfinalburger

A burger at a barbecue place? Really?

Okay, hear me out.

Years ago, I was part of a panel tasked with naming the best burger in the Charlottesville area. A top chef, a beef industry insider, and I each spent months sampling dozens of burgers around town, in search of the best. But, we never finished – in part because of an editor change at the publication behind the competition, but also because our search bore such little fruit. Sure, there were a handful of decent burgers. For the most part, though, the burgers were of a quality that my strict focus on the positive forbids me from describing. At few restaurants did the burger seem to be much more than an afterthought. “Where is the love?” I wondered.

Enter Smoked Kitchen & Tap. Justin van der Linde is such a wizard in the barbecue pit that it can be difficult to order anything but barbecue. But, if you do manage to resist the ‘cue, and opt for a burger instead, you will be rewarded. Co-owner Kelley Tripp has nailed it.

Sure, 2017 brought plenty of outstanding dishes more complex than a burger. Charlottesville cooking has never been better. Like 2014, 2015, 2016, the year was full of inspired creations. Lampo dazzled me almost weekly. Jose de Brito brought his magic back to Fleurie. Dishes from Brasserie Saison, Oakhart Social, and Cote Rotie are all etched in my memory. And, at Ivy Inn Angelo Vangelopolous still wows. But, among the many masterpieces, the dish that stood out most was one in which a chef took a simple dish, which can sometimes be ordinary, and applied the attention to detail necessary to make it extraordinary. He made it with love. Given the choice among: (i) fancy ingredients,  (ii) culinary brilliance, or (iii) food made with love, I’ll choose the latter every time.

It’s in the Details: The Burger at Smoked

It seems simple. Grind meat. Apply heat. Put it on a bun. From the first time I tasted a burger at Smoked, though, I could tell that a lot more goes into it than that. You can taste the love. When I later asked Tripp about the burger’s preparation, I was not at all surprised to learn the care that goes into each step. With help from photographer Tom McGovern, witness below the attention to detail behind the 2017 Dish of the Year: the burger at Smoked Kitchen & Tap.

Tripp starts with an 80-20 lean-to-fat blend of the best ground beef he can find, which he portions loosely into spheres. “We don’t bind them up, which is crucial for them texturally,” Tripp says.

Smoked1

Tripp places the spheres directly onto an extremely hot grill. “A searing hot grill makes all the difference,” says Tripp. “No oil or butter needed since the fat resides in the meat.”

Smoked2

Next comes the smash, a la Riverside. “Getting the perfect sear and maximizing the Maillard reaction is what we are looking for,” Tripp says. “We utilize the sear and smash method for this very reason, and press our burgers only once to ensure no additional loss of the goodness inside.”

Smoked3

Seasoning is kept simple, so the burgers taste like meat, not seasoning. “Each patty is individually seasoned on front and back with just kosher salt and fresh black pepper,” says Tripp.

Smoked4

Bread matters too. “We only use Martin’s potato buns and we special order an over-sized bun which is 4″ in diameter,” says Tripp. “We lightly butter it, and it also hits the grill with a steam lid to sear the inside while slightly warming the middle for maximum softness and subtle snap.”

Smokedrolls

“We cover each patty with the cheese of your liking,” says Tripp, “making sure that we melt it perfectly until it is almost fallen off the burger.” Briefly covering the burger creates steam to yield that result.

smokedcheese

Smoked5

“Then it’s time to top it the way you want it,” says Tripp. “We have all the basics, plus a couple interesting additions like our house brown sugar bacon, smoked jalapeños, and our own comeback sauce.”

smokedcomeback

“After it’s built,” Tripp says, “we wrap each burger in butcher paper and get it right out to the customer. We take pride in our timing of all of our food but we especially ensure that our burgers get plated and delivered within seconds.”

Voila:

smokedcheeseburger

It might seem like a lot of effort and for a simple dish. But, as culinary legend Joel Robuchon says: “the simpler the food, the harder it is to prepare it well.” That difficulty is evident form the burgers that can emerge from kitchens that fail to take the care that Tripp’s does. At Smoked, with all the care that goes into it, the burger spawns drive-worthy cravings.

The Smoked Burger

I’m a burger minimalist. When trying a restaurant’s burger for the first time, I order it the same way I eat it at home: with just cheese (usually American), and nothing else. Only after tasting it do I decide whether it needs any additions – e.g. mustard, mayo, salt, pepper, etc. If I find myself halfway through a burger before I’ve even thought to reach for condiments, I know it’s a good one.

At Smoked, I have never reached for a condiment.

Not everyone likes their burger as simple as I do. And, for those who prefer adornments, Smoked’s attention to detail extends to those as well, with many made in-house, some even in the smoker. The “Smoked Stack’d,” for example, is a triple cheeseburger with house bacon, cheddar cheese sauce, American cheese, smoked jalapeño, comeback sauce, bbq sauce, lettuce and tomato. My fondness for a plain cheeseburger has never allowed me to try it, but it looks good:

Smokedtoppedburger

Where the Love Is

Tripp is not the only one in the area cooking with love. All over the region, chefs and artisans devote similar care to their craft – from the humblest morsel to the most lavish feast. They make not just our meals, but our bread, our cheese, our chocolate, our pastries, our bagels, our gelato, our charcuterie, our beer, our wine, our spirits, our produce, and more. The 2017 Dish of the Year is a tribute not just to Tripp, but to everyone in the Charlottesville area who wakes up each day and cooks with love. For your efforts, we are blessed.

Here’s to lots more love in 2018.

 

2016 Dish of the Year: Szechuan Pastrami Panuozzo

pastramisand

I have this thing.

Whenever I come across an extraordinary dish, I have an impulse to share. If I’m dining with others, I’ll give it to them. If I’m alone, I’ll blurt about it on social media, or even offer it to strangers. The aim, I imagine, is to bring to others the same human-created joy I am experiencing, as if to say: “look what we are capable of.” I used to think this was a universal part of human nature, but years ago when I told a friend about it, he said he has the opposite reaction: hoard the good stuff. Alas, universal or not, the strength of my impulse to share a dish has become a trusty indicator of how much I enjoyed it.

In choosing my 2016 Dish of the Year, then, a place to start was recalling dishes that caused me to share. Not surprisingly, the most common place for this to happen was Lampo, the Belmont steakhouse pizzeria where chef-owners Mitchell BeerensLoren Mendosa, and Ian Redshaw never stop dreaming up delicious specials to complement an already stellar menu. And, sure enough, the standout among all of the year’s impulse-triggering dishes came from Lampo’s kitchen. It was one I enjoyed so much that, after tasting it, I took to social media to tell as many people as I could, emailed friends I hadn’t seen in months, and even forced it upon the stranger sitting beside me at the bar.

My 2016 Dish of the Year is Lampo’s Szechuan Pastrami Panuozzo with burnt corn aioli, Brussels sprouts slaw, Schnebelhorn cheese, and ramp kimchi.

Panuozzi are essentially sandwiches made from pizza dough. At Lampo, they all start with the same foundation: a beautiful, warm, soft, oval of dough, irregularly charred with spots of enhanced flavor by the extreme heat of the wood-burning oven. That heat allows Lampo to cook the bread to order, in a matter of seconds. What didn’t take seconds is the time and effort Lampo’s chefs spent perfecting the dough, yielding an ideal building-block for a sandwich. Hot out of the oven, the bread  is sliced open and stuffed with any of the menu’s variety of combinations. Last year, three chefs named one – the porchetta – as the best thing they ate all year. This year, a chef named another one – the polpettine – as best of the year.

My choice for dish of the year was a special panuozzo created by Ian Redshaw, and drew on two of his great strengths as a chef: a passion for meat and a knack for combining flavors. A devotee of charcuterie, Redshaw became inspired to make pastrami in April after learning that Katz’s Deli – NYC’s temple of pastrami – survived a possible closure. So, he tracked down the finest brisket he could find, from Sherwood Farm, and set to work. More than two months of work.

First, he dry-aged the brisket for sixty days. Next, he brined it in equilibrium for a week. After that, he dried it overnight in a coating of Szechuan pepper, fennel pollen, and Aleppo pepper. Finally, he smoked it with wood from leftover bourbon barrels. That’s just the meat.

To assemble the sandwich, he drew on other inspirations at the time. “I had been obsessing about corn aioli, and it happened to burn, creating another layer of flavor,” he says. Though he initially imagined sauerkraut with the pastrami, “on the fly” he switched to Lampo’s popular Brussels sprouts salad. As for the cheese, Redshaw had recently received a sample of one he thought would work well from Nadjeeb Chouaf, the national cheesemonger of the year. And, finally, the most assertive ingredient of all was a kimchi of ramps Redshaw had arranged to be made by Sussex Farm.

As a home cook, I can follow recipes, and I have even reached the point of adding my own riffs to techniques I have come to understand. But, only a gifted chef like Redshaw, who also created the 2015 Dish of the Year, has the mental palate to “taste” combinations of flavors in his mind without even putting them in his mouth. Combinations that trigger the sharing impulse.

“Shake-my-head good,” I wrote on social media. “I can’t believe how good this is,” I emailed a chef I hadn’t seen in months. When he asked where, I responded: “Lampo. Sorry for the random email, but when I enjoy something this much, I inevitably have an irresistible impulse to share.” And, share I did. I sliced off a quarter of the sandwich, and slid it down the bar to the unsuspecting man beside me. Lucky guy.

The next day, I went back and had it again. Did I enjoy it just as much? No.

More.