By Scott Mechura EBS Food Columnist
I believe in continuing my education. Sometimes that means reading a book, other times it may involve driving to Missoula for a two-day class on wine. Or it can mean flying across the country to cut up a pig.
Buck’s owner Chuck Schommer and I recently attended a charcuterie class in Dallas, Texas. You may have heard the word charcuterie before, but don’t necessarily know what it means, while some of you may be well educated in the technique. Charcuterie is the craft of curing, preserving, and fermenting meats, and usually involves pork.
Attendees were present from all over the country, including several Texas chefs from Dallas and Fort Worth, a few from Austin, one from Seattle, Wash., and one from Kalispell.
In addition, an old friend and my former food and beverage director, Ryan Tawwater – a more talented and passionate cook than many chefs I know – caught wind that Chuck and I were attending this class and enrolled last minute, driving down from Tulsa, Okla.
The art of charcuterie involves utilizing as much of the animal as possible, and Chef Brian Polcyn, our class instructor, is a master of this. Not only did he butcher a 150-pound pig in meticulous fashion but it seemed the more he cut, the more options materialized on his cutting board. To be precise, in just two short days we produced 23 pork dishes from that single pig.
As chef Polcyn pointed out, the U.S. Department of Agriculture breaks a pig down into five major cuts to maximize volume. Traditionally, chefs break them down into eight major cuts to maximize profitability.
I had never dissected an animal in such detail. In fact, there were many nuances in this process that I felt like I should know as a chef, but did not.
For example, one of the key factors in an animal’s tenderness is the stress it was exposed to before being killed. That’s why an experienced, conscientious rancher won’t slaughter livestock immediately before, during, or after a thunderstorm.
As Chef Polcyn pointed out, the visible presence of capillaries close to the skin in the hindquarter indicated a stressful final moment for our pig.
From there we raced the clock working on a legion of preparations: from hunter’s sausage to andouille; from a poached roll made from parts of the head to maple bacon; from spicy tasso ham to spuma.
The class ended on the second day with a recap lecture from Chef Polcyn, in which he discussed the formulas that would propel our charcuterie skills forward. And being an Italian chef from Detroit, he told more than a few hilarious stories as well.
I can only hope to have the same childlike enthusiasm with my newfound knowledge as Chef Polcyn has after a lifetime of his craft.
We ended the final day with lunch consisting of our many preparations. Of all the wonderful meat creations we accomplished, and in typical chef fashion, it was the simple, peasant spuma – a rendered then whipped pork fat with onions and garlic to be spread on bread – that hooked the chefs’ attention like a cartoon character floating toward a freshly baked pie in the window.
I am fortunate to be at the helm of a restaurant that promotes the growth of its team members. It’s not a common enough trait in today’s workforce.
Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the Executive Chef at Buck’s T-4 Lodge in Big Sky