Countering hectic lifestyles and demands for instant gratification, chefs are taking time—and pride—to deliver products that are months in the making.
Open a refrigerator door at Baur’s Restaurant in Denver, Colorado, and you’ll see a row of cured hams. Hanging there for around 12 months, these meats are a fixture in the restaurant and are just one of many products Executive Chef Robert Grant spends weeks, sometimes months, preparing.
He makes prosciutto, culatello, coppa, head cheese, charcuterie, fermented vegetables, and stocks. All signature slow-food items that take a long time to make.
Slow food is, in some ways, the antidote to the instant-gratification world we live in. “There’s an element of joy in the time spent waiting for food, of investing in something and then seeing the result,” Grant says. “This is a chance to slow down and savor things.”
But it’s not just that, he says, “I really enjoy the tradition behind it. If I can help bring back an old technique and help preserve it for future generations, it’s almost my duty.”
And there’s another very important, pragmatic reason chefs are becoming involved in slow cooking: finances. Be it cold cuts, pickles, or fermented foods, slow food can have a positive impact on the bottom line.
“Utilization is one of the huge cornerstones on which a restaurant operates,” Grant says. “And with slow cooking you’re increasing your inventory at the same time—you’re using products in season.” A whole pig costs around $4 a pound, he explains—and that’s a free-range, organic, heritage breed—versus buying pork loin alone for $9 to $12 per pound.
“Time has become the most valuable commodity in people’s lives,” says Arlene Spiegel, a New York City restaurant consultant. “Now, with the public’s awareness of quality ingredients that are often accompanied by a pedigree, attention is being paid to the care and handling of these ingredients. Chefs who create meals, often painstakingly slowly, add to the halo effect that consumers are willing to pay for. Slow-cooked foods can feel like a remedy for the time-starved, stressed-out lives we lead.”
Through Chef Grant’s cured-meat program he makes salumi and coppa—which typically take 80 to 120 days, depending on their size—and charcuterie of different kinds, as well as head cheese.
For the latter, after deboning the head and removing the eyes, brain, and ears, he cooks the meat with pork jus. He pulls the meat from the bones, chops, and seasons it, and then the “cheese” is packed into terrine molds to set in the refrigerator for 24 hours until it’s ready to serve.
Grant also makes coppa di testa. For this, he cures the head meat with salt— ground with pepper and herbs—for 24 hours to season it through. Then he rolls it up and cooks it sous vide in a Cryovac bag with some pork stock for about 48 hours.
“The important thing is to do it low and slow,” he says.
Grant also makes lamb mortadella, which takes about a week from start to finish. “You have to butcher the lamb, then freeze it, grind it and freeze it, and grind it six or seven times to get a really silky smooth texture. Then you make a really smooth sausage and whip it with pork fat and pistachios, peppercorns, and spices, and put it into a beef stomach casing and cook that in a water bath or court bouillon for a couple of hours, at least.”
Using the whole animal feels good, Chef Grant adds. “It’s satisfying to use every last bit of the animal, and the final product is dynamite. You’re looking at something that can only taste that good if you invest time into it.”
Similarly, the prosciutto at Wild Olive on Johns Island, South Carolina, takes at least one and a half years to make, since the pig or boar’s leg needs most of that time to hang, says Jacques Larson, executive chef at its sister restaurant, The Obstinate Daughter in nearby Sullivan’s Island. Chef Larson also spends time at Wild Olive.