Cooking Nose to Tail
Once upon a time, chefs did not have to cope with the challenge of garnishing a pig’s face for service. These chefs would place an order for tenderloins and chops and—presto!—there was half of the menu, with no faces involved. But when the modern interest in locally raised food collided with Fergus Henderson’s influential 2004 book, The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating, local chefs became interested in reviving traditional foodways. Of course, those traditions are steeped in an ethos of economy that dictates that nothing must be wasted. If a small-scale farmer had raised an animal with great care (and at great expense), you could bet that he wouldn’t permit Purina to purée the animal’s remaining third—what’s left after the prime cuts—into the slurry basing “Beggin’ Strips.”
At The Cookery in Dobbs Ferry, Chef David DiBari has long been a proponent of offal, the “specialty cuts” (ears, tongue, innards, etc.) once eschewed by fine dining restaurants. At any given time, The Cookery’s walk-in refrigerator might contain a gallon of purplish pig’s blood, a flavorful (and commonly discarded) fluid that DiBari whips into dusky timbales of blood pudding. The pudding, though clearly animal-based, displays Chef DiBari’s signature finesse. Still as carnal as can be (with pigs’ blood, shank, and fat), the iron-rich dish is fluffy with cream and egg, and hauntingly offset by allspice.
But a pudding is one thing: an animal’s face is another. Last fall, DiBari took on the Italian tradition of capozzelli di agnelli, or whole split lamb’s head. In DiBari’s version, whose presentation he likens to that of a “stuffed clam,” he roasts the entire head, then removes all of its meat (tongue, cheek, eyes) and grinds that into a sausage. After seasoning, this is repacked into the skull, and then roasted again before being plated whole and served to diners. “I have a personal love of these foods,” says DiBari. “Plus, if there’s one thing that we can do to honor the animals that we kill is to not waste any of their meat.” Currently, DiBari is offering whole suckling-pig dinners; customers must call at least four days ahead and pay $65 per person. According to DiBari, the Pat LaFreida pigs are brined with anise, chili, and rosemary before being roasted. They’re presented at the table—head, face, and all—by the chef, and, according to DiBari, “they’re selling like crazy.”
Every week, at Armonk’s Restaurant North, Stephen Paul Mancini and Chef Eric Gabrynowicz buy a 160-pound pig from Meiller’s Farm in Pine Plains, New York. While Mancini is eager to echo the popular Slow Food tenets—“know thy farmer” and “it’s about sourcing an outstanding product”—it only takes a nudge to push him off-message. “It’s a bit of a macho thing,” Mancini admits. “You know, a couple of guys have to take the pig down together: it’s physical. And being asked to come up with dishes that use the non-traditional cuts starts a desirable creative energy in the kitchen. Everyone knows what to do with the loin; the ears are a bit more challenging.”
Along with all of the expected loins and chops that you might expect from its 160-pound pig, North is offering many more options, like porchetta, made from the animal’s saddle. Where once he had used La Quercia lardo on his flatbread, now Gabrynowicz makes his own lardo—as well as smoked bacon from his pig’s belly, Canadian bacon from the loin, and the traditional Italian headcheese, testa, from all parts north of the shoulder. (The name “Head Cheese” is misleading: it’s actually a sausage made from all of the meat scraped from a boiled pig’s head.) Finally, the meats that don’t go into any of these dishes go into what Mancini and Gabrynowicz call “Peasant’s Ragu.” Essentially, this is a Bolognese sauce that uses meat that they’ve trimmed from the other cuts—plus their pig’s offal.
Sure, there are high-minded economic and ecological reasons to raise and kill fewer beasts (while using those that we do kill more efficiently), but for many chefs, the ethos of cooking nose to tail is far more spiritual. According to Mancini, “People usually get their meat order sealed in plastic Cryovac bags: it has no soul. When we get that whole pig in the door, you want to do your best by it. You’re going to put your soul into it.”