On the surface it might seem ironic that the Culinary Vegetable Institute raises pigs for meat. But, in the grand scheme of the CVI’s minimal food waste policy, having a team of hungry animals to consume vegetable scraps and overage from the kitchen and The Chef’s Garden makes perfect sense. And, in return, the CVI has a steady supply of pork that is raised onsite ─ safely, humanely and happily.
“They live their best life,” said CVI Chef Jamie Simpson. “These guys are living it up. They’re just lovin’ it.”
“They love tomatoes, they love lettuce, they love root vegetables,” Chef Jamie said. “They eat asparagus just like we eat asparagus ─ they eat the tender ends and leave the butts. We’ve pulled 12 harvest crates of tomatoes over in an afternoon, which is about 600 pounds. They’re over-ripe, or not shippable. And they were gone. It’s the funnest one for them to eat. Because they will take the biggest tomato, and smash it, and it just goes. The little pig just runs with it and shakes it. It’s so cute.”
Occasionally, Chef Jamie said he breaks protocol and slips the enormous, black, floppy-eared pigs a little something special.
“Last week we had some chocolate ganache,” he said. “And I scooped some up with a leaf, and rolled it up and gave it to the sow. She got her little chocolate pouch and loved it. You can tell when they’re really into it. They make noises and they come back for more. And the boar. I gave him a little chocolate ganache pouch. The babies, you just throw it in there. It’s cute.”
“They’re happy and they’re fun, they’re playful and they’re friendly, and they only have one bad day,” Chef Jamie said with tenderness in his voice. “And it’s not even that bad of a day.”
A Delicate Subject
Chef Jamie acknowledged that raising and harvesting hogs in a place so hyper-focused on vegetables is a fine line to walk. But, done right, he said the two can exist harmoniously, hand-in-hand.
“It’s a sensitive subject and it’s a sensitive place to take something from that world into this one,” he said. “But I also feel confident that we’re serving it justice here. It’s not overcooked. It’s not under seasoned. It’s delicious and it’s exactly what it was bred for. I feel so grateful that we’re able to not buy random pork from a random farm or random producer.”
“We’re not pushing a vegan agenda,” he continued. “I don’t think that meat has to be necessarily such a bad thing. And I understand and completely connect with people who choose to not eat meat for various reasons.” In fact, the CVI readily accommodates those following vegetarian and vegan lifestyles at all of their events.
Chef Jamie said a further element behind the decision to raise pigs began as a way to manage kitchen waste, and to further the CVI’s connection with the resources of the surrounding land.
“We have direct access to some of the best vegetables in the world, but we also have access to a hundred acres that’s like a blank canvas of opportunity,” he said. “The region is really special. I’ve always made a conscious effort to figure out how to connect that with our guests and tell the stories of where this stuff’s coming from.”
Fifty bee hives and a flock of egg-laying chickens contribute to the “know thy farmer” philosophy, as well. “The bees supply our inventory with natural sweeteners from our property,” Chef Jamie continued. “We have thirty-something chickens, and it’s great. Because then you’re able to turn something into something. Those things really help us tell our story.”
Finding a Cure
Minimal food waste practices, such as preservation aren’t limited to vegetables, either. Once a 500-pound hog is brought into the kitchen, the potential for preservation is enormous.
“Preservation has been our biggest friend,” Chef Jamie said. “One finished ham that takes maybe two or three years to cure, we’ll section out and shave some, serve that, then shave some more and serve that. You can really stretch the hams, which is great because it doesn’t take a lot to really bring a lot of flavor. So ham is the one thing I’m really after.”
“The Coppa is another one that we cure,” he continued. “It’s the big muscle that runs either side of the back, at the shoulder. It’s the supporting muscle for the head and neck.” Coppa is traditionally made into cold cuts like salami but, from a food safety standpoint, Chef Jamie said he always preserves the muscle whole.
“Grinding pork and then sticking it into something else, it’s a recipe for failure because there’s more risk and more variables,” he explained. “I’m not trying to get that far down the rabbit hole.”
A highly prized leg cut called Culatello is treated the same way. “We don’t stick anything in there. We don’t cut into it. We just salt it and pay attention to Ph. It’s much safer. It’s much more consistent. It’s much more reliable.”
(As a further safety measure, no hogs are not killed on-site. By law they go to a USDA-certified slaughterhouse for inspection, and from there to a licensed processor who keeps them refrigerated until needed. After that, all of the butchering happens in the CVI kitchen.)
Remains of the Day
What remains ─ bellies, tenderloins, shoulders, ribs and even the head ─ are what Chef Jamie calls “question marks” as far as the exact way in which they’ll be saved or served.
“We look at what can we do to preserve these items, and what are we going to serve now,” he said. “We normally serve the ribs now. We’ll salt the bellies and do the bacon thing. We usually serve the loins now. We can preserve the loins and we can preserve the front shoulder, or we can serve them fresh, depending on the events coming up.We can serve 20 people with the loins. So, if there’s an event for 20, we’ll just let them age briefly until the event.”
Chef Jamie said his favorite way to serve fresh shoulders is barbequed. “The big puffy crazy crunchy skin,” he said. “We serve a lot of those. And the ribs, we’ve gone the staff meal route on those, you know, family meal for everybody. It’s not a whole lot. On one pig it’s only two slabs of ribs.”
“When we take the heads, we’ll braise the whole head and pick it and do head cheese,” he said. “We’ve done a couple versions of it. We don’t really serve cold cuts here, so we’ll just take it and roll it into smaller tubes, then let it set up and congeal, then cut it into thin slices and sear or fry those and serve it hot. It’s super rich and unctuous. We love those.”
Finally, the pork fat (to the tune of seven gallons from a large pig) is rendered into lard, a process Chef Jamie said involved a good deal of trial and error at first.
“It proved to be not as easy as we thought,” he said. “It was beautiful and it tasted great and we jarred it and pressure canned it so it was nice and sterile, and then we wrapped the jars to keep it from light, and it was perfect ─ for about three weeks.” A change in aroma signaled that the fat had begun to oxidize.
“We were just playing this game against oxidation on the first round,” he said. “So we took it all out and cooked it, then put it in the refrigerator. Then on the second round we learned you’ve got to bring it above 212 degrees. At 212, water is evaporating. And water was the problem. So it was a process. Keep skimming it and keep skimming it. Make sure nothing browns. We wanted it clean and versatile. Something you could fry in. Something you could put in a pie. It took a year to learn how to do that.”
The effort was definitely worth it in the end, he said. “The first pig we brought in, we brought seven gallons of lard ─ one pig! And it was raised entirely on kitchen and agricultural waste. And it had a good relationship with us. And it lived a great life.”
Come One, Come All to See and Taste for Yourself
In October 12, the CVI will host a day-long festival demonstrating various butchering techniques. The event, the Fête des Bouchers (or Boucherie), is a revival of a longtime Cajun Creole tradition led by acclaimed chef and culinary historian Chef John Folse.
“Basically the deal is like, you’re on a farm, you’ve got a hog, and it’s a big one,” Chef Jamie explained. “The neighbors come over. This neighbor is really good at making the head cheese. And this one’s good at making the ham hock stew. This one’s good at doing the andouille or boudin. And these guys make the best cracklins. So all the neighbors come together. They do the slaughter and spend the day cooking and preserving, and distribute it amongst each other. Then the next week they go over to the next neighbor’s house and they do the same thing. And at the end of the season, everybody’s got food, tons of it, that goes into storage.”
For the event, a cadre of Ohio butchers will be on hand at the CVI, manning various stations and demonstrating multiple techniques and processes for utilizing an entire hog, from snout to tail.
The day begins with a ceremonial slaughter on property including a ritual recitation of The Butcher’s Prayer. “It’s beautiful,” Chef Jamie said. “Dead silent. A hundred chefs and butchers out on the lawn. It’s super special.” (Chef Jamie explained that the ceremonial pig will not be served at the event, but will go for certified processing. Pork from a pre-processed USDA-certified hog will be used in the demonstrations for safety and time constraints.)
“The ten or 15 stations will already have the product that they’ll be prepping throughout the day,” he said. “You can’t make head cheese and serve it in four hours.”
The event will conclude with a “Spoils of the Boucherie & Charcuterie” lunch prepared from the morning’s production, and a bounty of The Chef’s Garden fall harvest vegetables. And, as usual, Chef Jamie already has plans for any leftovers.
“There’s going to be a lot of overage,” he said. “Then it’ll be our job over the next two days to add it to the root cellar or the freezer.”
The Butcher’s Prayer
“Heavenly Father, you who created the stars, the seas and the land, you who breathed your holy breath into every living being, be with us today in this celebration of life. We thank you for the bounties of the earth. For they give again and again with each growing season. As in Genesis, you agreed that all of the animals of the earth were for man, to be respected, and for sustenance. We thank you Lord for the cleansing fire, which transforms the bounties of the earth into the feast of your table. We thank you father for yesterday. We thank you for our fathers and mothers. Our grandfathers and grandmothers and generations past who taught us to be thankful and passed on the traditions of our culture. We thank you for today, and your faithfulness and the promise of your continued provision for man.”
For tickets and further information, click here.