Family Farmed Expo: You Ate the Whole Thing

March 14 2010 - 12:35 PM

There were a number of panel discussions at the Family Farmed Expo, on topics ranging from raising chickens in your backyard, to choosing sustainable drinks and beverages. Curious about recent trends toward head-to-tail eating, I attended a panel on using the whole animal as a way to avoid waste, promote sustainability and challenge chefs. "You Ate the Whole Thing" featured an all-star cast of local chefs and meat distributors, including Paul Kahan (Avec, Blackbird, Publican, Big Star), Rob Levitt (Mado), Greg Gunthorp (Gunthorp Farms) and Ehran Ostrreicher (E&P Meats), with discussion moderated by Mike Sula from the Chicago Reader.

Head to Tail Not a Meant to Be Trendy

The problem with eating specific cuts of meat, Gunthorp explained, is that you then must figure out what to do with the rest of the animal. "Everyone wants pork tenderloin or boneless, skinless chicken breast," said Gunthorp. "Well, on a 200 lb hog, there's maybe 3 lbs of pork tenderloin. For a 4 lb chicken, maybe 25% of that is boneless, skinless chicken breast." Farmers have to be able to utilize the whole animal because it's not a sustainable process to sell those couple pounds of tenderloin or few lbs of chicken breast. In turn, farmers have a responsibility to create products that consumers want to use, through better butchering techniques or by curing products, and to diversify their markets and not sell solely to upscale restaurants.

Levitt continued, "We don't do the whole animal thing to be trendy, we do it because it's the right thing to do." Mado is a restaurant that works with whole animals, and you can generally find items like beef tongue or pig head on the menu. "We have a few farmers that we buy beef from, and we call and ask, what do you have that nobody wants? So we wind up with tongues and we wind up with hearts, and it challenges me as a cook." When Mado first opened, guests would sometimes walk out of the restaurant after seeing offal items on the menu. But word has finally gotten out that tongues and sweetbreads can just as delicious as steaks, and consumers are responding in force. "We sold more beef heart than chicken last night. We had to 86 it. I love that!" said Levitt. "The point here is that we cook these odd bits for the sake of it. It's not the wow or shock factor."

Is the resurgence in snout-to-tail eating a fad or something that is here to stay? Levitt certainly hopes not. "My fear is that when we come out of the recession, people will go back to ordering rack of lamb or filet mignon, spending money because they can," he said. "My hope is that for the sake of what guys like us do for a living, cooks will realize that buying whole animals is the right thing to do, not just ethically, but because it challenges you as a cook, gives you so much more to work with, and is really cost effective. You just need to make the commitment to do it."

That Delicious, Secret Charcuterie Room in the Basement and Other Contraband

But there is trouble in preservation paradise! In recent months, the good inspectors from the Illinois Department of Agriculture and Chicago Health Department have been cracking down on curing and canning projects. In October, citing the lack of approval for "modified atmosphere packaging," Lula Cafe was ordered to destroy their inventory of house-canned fruits and vegetables, and employees were forced to pour bleach over preserved beets, stone fruits and roasted peppers. In December, Frontera Grill was raided by the IL Dept of Agriculture and lost a case of bacon and some headcheese. And most recently in February, the Health Department seized and bleached thousands of dollars of fruit purees from pastry chef Flora Lazar of Flora Confections. The reason? The food was prepared by chefs who did not have the proper business licenses to do so.

Kahan started off the topic with the following question: "First, is there anyone in the building from the health department? USDA? Be honest!" The audience laughed and nervously looked around. There are centuries-old methods of curing and preservation, Kahan said, but the inspectors haven't invested the time in learning about them. "When they come into a restaurant and see something they don't understand, they just destroy it. Of course, neither of us do any canning or preserving or curing," Kahan said with a wave. Making bacon and canning produce helps chefs progress, and so, it is critical that the health department move forward to learn about techniques that enable chefs to use the whole beast.

How can restaurants legally produce charcuterie and canned goods? Doing so requires that a chef, and anyone else involved in the process, become HACCP-certified (which stands for Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points). But it isn't quite that simple, as there are pages of regulations that you must adhere to from the federal government, state of Illinois and city of Chicago. To guide you through the process, restaurants generally must turn to a HACCP consultant, to the tune of around $15,000, to develop a comprehensive production plan. The process is confusing and information is scarce. Kahan said, "To go through that program, some people say you gotta pay $10,000 to the guy with the crooked nose. There's no information out there for chefs to follow to become HACCP-certified, and it's also incredibly expensive." The certification process takes up significant amounts of time as well, a minimum of 6 months, which is highly valuable in an aged curing project. "In other cities, you can work with the health inspector to set up a program for your restaurant," said Levitt. "If they have a problem, they'll come work with you." Sadly, this does not seem to be the case in Chicago. Gunthorp commented, "What they really want is to cover their ass."

Oh noes, how can we help?

Upon hearing the dire constraints on restaurant curing and canning projects, the panel was asked if there was anything we non-industry folks could do to help. Levitt mentioned the obvious option: vote with your dollar and be conscious of where you're eating and spending your money. For those looking for additional knowledge and resources, an audience member suggested looking into the Advocates for Urban Agriculture, a coalition of urban agriculture activists in Chicago.

Still, legislative progress moves at a glacial speed. Kahan noted that once he was at a city event and had the opportunity to speak with Mayor Daley, where he petitioned the mayor for a method of disposing and composting organic waste. "The mayor brought someone over, who took down my name and information and said we will call you. That was three years ago. I'm still waiting," said Kahan. As are we.