A Look Inside the Drying Room of America’s Best Salumeria

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It’s 33 degrees today in Chicago — a good temperature for butchering, according to Lardon chef Chris Thompson, but not for curing, a task best done at about double. But the weather won’t deter Thompson from his usual Thursday morning routine: whipping up coppa, finocchiona and more for his restaurant Logan Square’s pork-based menu, which is a bold and unapologetic break from culinary trends. avant-garde.

Thompson proudly leads the way through the drying room, a tight squeeze made even tighter thanks to the plethora of bresaola, prosciutto, salami and more hanging inside – meats Thompson proudly calls his “babies.”

“We probably have over 3,000 pounds of meat here right now,” he says with a smile, most of which comes from whole pigs raised locally and humanely by Trent Sparrow of Catalpa Grove in Dwight, Illinois.

“Trent and I text every Sunday,” says Thompson. “I tell him what I need; he takes the animals to the slaughterhouse on Mondays. They massacre them as little as possible; they suspend them for a few days. And then he picks them up around 3 o’clock on Wednesday morning, and he drops them here around noon on Wednesday.

About 400 pounds of pork pass through these doors every week. From there, Thompson and his team get to work breaking it down.

“It starts with a whole animal on the butcher’s table,” he explains. “We cut the shoulders, then we take these shoulders, these coppas, then we marinate them, we dredge them in coarse salt, a little dextrose for a little sweetness. And then we’ll vacuum seal them for a few weeks.

When they come out, they are rubbed in a spice mixture and hung until ready to be sliced ​​and served. With two decades of experience under her belt, Thompson can tell a piece is ready just by the touch.

Two pieces of black peppercorn pancetta hang in the drying room at Lardon

bacon

Thompson first discovered the art of curing in Telluride, Colorado’s Rustico, relying on a secret spice blend prepared in Italy by one of the owners’ mothers.

“None of us really knew what was in there,” Thompson recalled. “It was like, ‘This is Peppe’s mum’s recipe, and don’t mess it up!'”

His technical prowess only grew from there as he moved from restaurant to restaurant, learning not only the art of curing but also butchering, cut by cut.

“One thing I wasn’t afraid to do early in my career was to give my time to learn from people who can do things that I can’t do,” he says. In the kitchens of San Francisco’s Spruce, which he joined in 2008, he regularly came two or three hours before his sous chef shift began reaping the benefits of the temperature-controlled room occupied by two full-time butchers. time.

“Hey man, show me how you do it. ‘Let me watch you do it a few times.’ “Watch me make one,” he recalled. “Working with people who know more than I do, volunteering my time to get an education on these things.”

When he traveled to San Francisco’s A16, with its narrow orientation and strict adherence to tradition vis-à-vis the regional cuisine of southern Italy, “I was able to lead the whole ship,” he said. “I was able to put whatever we wanted on the menu…but always with that Southern Italian perspective.”

At Lardon, the rules are anything but rigid. To date, Thompson has featured no less than 17 different deli meats on its menu, ranging from the authentic to the esoteric. He loves gleaning ideas from out-of-print books he finds at flea markets or flea markets.

“The guy who wrote the book might not even be alive anymore, and you know he’s not working in a butcher shop,” he says, “but the knowledge is still there, for anyone who wants to pick it up. and try to carry that cheeky torch.”

It bolsters a few must-haves with a regular revolving door of new arrivals for around a dozen deals at any one time.

“This room is only so big,” he laughs. “But we have our signatures.”

Bresaola – a corned beef option – is one such staple; the same goes for Italian salumi like soppressata and finocchiona, the latter featuring the juicy flavors of red wine and the underlying aromas of licorice thanks to wild fennel. The trendy, spreadable ‘nduja is made with pork belly and lots of heat.

bacon bresaola

Bresaola

bacon

Pressed to pick a favourite, however, there’s no contest: Thompson is in love with his coppa and its mouth-coating fat, nutty notes and balanced spice.

“I think that’s probably the piece of meat I’ve done that I’m most proud of,” he says. “I watch them hanging around the room for four to six months, and that’s the one I’m the most, like… ‘Come on! When are you going to be done?'”

For his coppa, Thompson relies on a mix of sweet and savory spices, including homemade chili powder made from the tops of fresno peppers that he pickles for salads. The stalk ends are dehydrated and ground for a kick that’s a little spicier than cayenne pepper — and also helps Thompson cut down on food waste.

It’s a philosophy that also applies to his approach to meat: aware of its heavy environmental toll, Thompson gleans even the slightest flavor. The livers are made into pork liver pâté; the feet form the core of a fried croquette; the bones and skin are used to make a pork reduction to enrich different sauces.

“We use every part of it; nothing really ends up in the trash,” he says, then he laughs. “The bones, after boiling them for about 30 hours, we will throw them away.”

It’s no surprise, given all the work that goes on in that little room, that the star of his menu is the charcuterie platter – the item he says he would most likely recommend to a first dinner, showing not just coppa and bresaola, but also more offbeat offerings like head cheese, truffled lardo or filetto made from dried filet mignon with cloves, thyme and garlic , for a robust flavor profile that makes up for its relative lack of fat.

“You think of all meats as musicians on stage, don’t you?” he says. “You don’t want anyone shouting louder than the others.”

A plate of bacon sopressata

A plate of bacon sopressata

bacon

Thompson is clearly a master of his craft, but it’s obvious he still considers himself a student. He hopes, over time, to perfect the French charcuterie that gives his name to Lardon with as much know-how as he has Italian. Its country sausage is one of its only French offerings, made with a blend of four spices and slightly less acidic than some of the Italian meats on its menu. The recipe, which comes from a French cookbook from the 1970s, has undergone a large number of modifications, in part due to the inability to find saltpeter, a natural mineral rich in sodium nitrate, in the United States. . According to his account, it took three attempts just to get the cure right.

“I really think we haven’t put together our best French sausage yet,” he says.

For Thompson, healing is a “disappearing craft,” and one he intends to keep alive. And he has Chicago’s food scene to thank, because without an audience, his art would fall on deaf ears.

“I can make up all this crazy, abstract shit, and if nobody wants to eat it, then it’s a waste of time,” he says. “But luckily we have an incredible culinary culture here in Chicago, and I think that has a lot to do with the history of the chefs who came before me here, and encouraging and inspiring people to try things that might be out of their comfort. zoned.”

And as a chef, he’s willing to put in the time and effort to bring Chicagoans the very best.

“A lot of the cooking I’ve done in my career has been, immediate reward, cause and effect, you do it today, it’s done today,” he says. “While meat, curing is a waiting game. And as I got older, I tried to learn more patience. Making charcuterie helps connect that.

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