An Impromptu Lunch with Chef and Author Jeffrey Weiss
As many of my readers know, I’ve spent a great deal of time in recent history learning the art of charcuterie. And Chef Jeffrey Weiss is the American master of Spanish dry curing. I’ve been hell-bent on learning the alchemy that is the slowest of slow foods – dry curing is not ‘Cooking 101’. There’s a true combination of art and science to be learned whilst transforming raw meat into a delectable morsels with otherworldly flavors that don’t kill someone by pure accident. It’s not akin to eating random mushrooms you find in the woods but you get the idea.
And, as with anything, there are many experiments and lessons learned along any journey towards enlightenment. Take, for instance, the pancetta I’d attempted to cure earlier this year. I’ve successfully made pancetta for several years and I followed the same process every time. However, this one time, after the cured belly had achieved the right weight loss and I’d spent the required amount of time in anticipation; I was surprised when I cut open my beloved salumi only to find something that must have resembled the inside of Chernobyl. Into the bin and start again…this is the life of the aspiring ‘salumist’.
Charcuteria – The Soul of Spain
Along the journey I’ve taken inspiration and guidance from several renowned Chefs and authors such as Michael Ruhlman, Brian Polcyn, Paul Bertolli, Taylor Boetticher and the father/son team of Marianski’s. I’ve read their books and all have been invaluable in my learning process. Yet I realized earlier this year that most everything that had been written about making charcuterie and salumi has focused on French, Italian and northern European preparations. Nothing meaningful had been written about Spanish charcuterie until Jeffrey Weiss released Charcuteria: The Soul of Spain earlier in 2014.
Fortunately for me, Chef Weiss was in Seattle this past November and I’d been offered the opportunity to meet him. I jumped at the opportunity and started poring through my volume of Charcuteria in preparation for our discussion. I soon realized was three things:
- This wasn’t just a cookbook but it was an in-depth history of Spanish food
- There was a gang load of information about Spanish curing methods that I had no clue about
- That we have very little exposure to traditionally cured Spanish meats in this country
I was about to be enlightened…
How did you get into cooking?
I grew up in the Bay Area and my mentor is a guy named Steve Chan. Steve was with Lion & Compass in Sunnyvale at that time and it was during the first tech boom where all the Japanese businessmen would come in. They had a ticker tape at the table and all that. I was really lucky to go to Mission College in Sunnyvale down the street. I knocked on back door and he said ‘no suit eh? And decided to let me in.
I just did this Big Sur food and wine event at Post Ranch Inn in Monterey – it’s like the 11th or 12th top rated hotel in the world in Big Sur above the clouds. I was making paella looking out over the ocean and Steve came out. Now I’ve made a thousand times more paella than Steve. And I remember the one day when he said, “I’ve forgotten more than you’ll ever know in this business.” Anyway, he told me how to change a couple of things in what I was doing and the paella was indeed better. After that he helped wash dishes for me. It was very cool. Steve’s great like that.
So how did you become interested in charcuterie and how did it speak to you as a Chef?
When Ruhlman’s book ‘Charcuterie’ came out it really influenced me – and we should be very grateful for it. Steve had told me to become more well-rounded and I started talking to him about charcuterie. I started with pancetta and it was the ‘gateway drug’. Then started to make sausage through trial and error.
Where did you go after working with Steve?
After that, I finished at Mission college and went off to Cornell where I worked in the hotel and made sausage. There was a Swiss chef and he was all about it. Part of my Ivy League education included being in a back room making sausage for the hotel.
It was while I was at Cornell that I went to cook for Jose Andres. I was cleaning artichokes one day and there he was. The staff told me one day that Jose wanted me to come to his house to cook with him and I was blown away. He’s a very engaging and personable guy.
Now that is simply awesome. Good friends in high places eh?
I had one semester left at Cornell and had learned about this scholarship to go to cook in Spain. It was months later that I found out Jose had picked up the phone and called the Spanish government to put in a good word for me. I was one of only 2 Americans to win the award to go there.
What was the experience like living and cooking in Spain?
One of my goals was to learn about Matanza and Iberico pigs. I needed to learn tradition behind all the food they make. I spent six months with Adolfo Munoz. They are my ‘familia manchega’.
How did you come up with the idea to write a book on Spanish Charcuteria?
When I came back to the States I worked for April Bloomfeld in NY. Over nights I’d do butchery and charcuterie. Guys there had never heard of Spanish charcuteria. When I was researching the book I found one document from the Franco era. It was a propaganda doc to promote travel and tourism in Spain and was written in older Castellano Spanish. There was really nothing else written on the subject to speak of.
So why focus on Spanish vs French or Italian charcuterie and salumi?
I’ve always been cooking in the Spanish realm. My sister has lived there for 20 years and I fell in love with the place. It has a unique food culture which I had never seen before. People have passion for their food and will have arguments about who has best tortilla.
Once I started the cooking thing I realized I wanted to do Spanish cooking. I also realized that the soul of Spanish cooking is based on charcuterie. I came at Spain through the avenue of charcuterie – not the other way around. Also, the fact that there was not a lot of information on the subject out there made me want to learn more.
How did you come to open Jeninni and what’s the place about?
Well, I wrote the book and then found out about Thamin (Saleh) opening the restaurant in Pacific Grove. Jeninni is the name of the town he’s from in Palestine. I went and visited the place and thought that it could be something in the near future. Three months after opening the James Beard people came in and now we’re one year in – here we go!
Thamin is a very savvy somm – he knows a lot about value wines as well and reps can’t get anything by him. There’s a huge emphasis on the southern Med; Moorish food – which I love, and a variety from Sardinia, Corsica and Greece. There’s also a number of items on the menu from the book. People come in for wine and have heard about the food from Monterey which is very cool now. Plus people are coming in because of the book which is awesome.
What should Americans be trying from a cured perspective that they may not know about?
Guys like Armandino Batali and Paul Bertolli laid the groundwork – just like Ruhlman and Polcyn with their books. What I’d love to see our food system foster is helping people show more interest and care about where the food comes from – and how the animals have lived and what they’ve eaten. In Iberico these people raise the animals like pets. They know if they are generally happy, what they eat, what their names are, etc. They aren’t fed antibiotics and hormones. The USDA is scared of this. Much of what we’ve eaten during the last century is not very good for us.
I would hope we’d all be a bit more cautious about where our food comes from and how it’s being raised as well as how it’s going to affect us down the line.
When you look for pork, what qualities do you emphasize?
The first questions to purveyors are: what’s the breed, what was it eating, how was it living, did it get hormones and/or antibiotics? I always ask animal welfare questions first. When was it killed? How many miles was it brought in?
I was fortunate at Cornell that Temple Grandin came in to speak on animal welfare. It helped me understand the process and the link between the quality of the meat and how the animal was treated in the several days leading up to harvest. How did it live and how did it die? You can tell immediately when looking at pork if the animal was stressed in any way. When I worked in Spain, the care that these people take in raising their animal is incredible. This whole mentality is amazing.
What breeds do you work with when Iberico is unavailable?
If I had my choice, it would be Ossabaw Island out of Georgia. Hernando de Soto proliferated these pigs and they’re the closest thing to Iberico. Getting those out here is hard though and I’m happy using Berkshires and Red Wattles.
I’m hoping to work with Fogline Farms to bring some of their pigs in. Go to farmers market every dayand get inspired. The pork at Fogline is similar in myoglobin to the Iberico pigs which makes a huge difference.
What cookbooks are on your shelf?
In love with Sean Brock’s new ‘Heritage’ book. When I drove out from Annapolis I was helping a buddy open his place and I went to see Allan Benton in Tennessee – his bacon is amazing. I was fortunate to go to Shawn Brock’s Husk and then through Austin, Texas and did the whole Franklin BBQ thing. I love old cookbooks and am a huge fan of Jane Grigson’s book. Also those old school books from the Time Life Series for offal and charcuterie – the terrine’s book is so cool.
What’s your favorite cured meat prep?
Morcilla Achorizado – basically they make a morcilla-chorizo hybrid and, oh my God – it’s so good. I went to Spain for a month with some guys to learn Spanish – two Americans, a German, a Swiss guy and some Danish kids. We were staying in a place that was the last stop on the bus from Madrid. We’d hang out, go to class and then take the first thing smoking back to Madrid. We’d spend all weekend there and there and hung out at this place with a bartender named Manolo. They have this at that bar. It’s by far and away one of the best morcilla you’ve ever had. And you can barely get it in Spain let alone here.
I’ve tried to make this several times in the restaurant and of all the recipes in the book it’s one of the most difficult things to pull off. It’s a unique recipe and not an exact duplicate of the one I learned in Spain. If you talk to 10 different families you’ll get 10 different recipes.
What do you serve friends for dinner at your home?
I don’t cook at home. I’m at the restaurant 5 or 6 days a week and my fridge at home only has condiments in it.
Honest to God – if it’s not being cooked by me I’ll appreciate the hell out of whatever it is. That said, one thing you shouldn’t cook – and I’m kinda high context as I’ve done a lot of Spanish food – is Spanish food.
If I had to learn 3 things from your book what would they be?
- Fresh chorizo and fresh buttifara. It’s the blast off point for dry curing. Learn the fundamentals of fresh sausage and then move forward.
- Terrines are awesome. Jean Luc Figueres in Barcelona (who just passed away) showed me how to do his family’s pate de campagne. One day he asked if I wanted him to work and said; “I’ll make lunch”. So he grabs the liver, some jowls and then grinds it all up and made the terrine. It was awesome. Terrines are cool and have served me so well in my career.
- I also love the pickles chapter – I incorporated the idea of caramelizing sugar before you make the pickling liquid which makes for a much better pickle. Pickled garlic is almost like a candied garlic.
Bang Bang Italian-Italian Lunch
After Jeff and I met in a downtown hotel in Seattle to talk Charcuteria, curing techniques and food in general I figured we’d be done. Not so – what ensued was an impromptu 3-hour bang-bang lunch that included stops at Mike Easton’s pasta mecca Il Corvo for papardelle with Bolognese and a glass of red and then on to Armandino Batali’s legendary Salumi for Porchetta and Meatball sandwiches. Life is good.
If you haven’t had a chance to check out Charcuteria: The Soul of Spain yet I highly recommend it. Whether you are just getting into curing meat, or are an experienced practitioner; you will learn many new things in this book. It’s both an enjoyable read on history and traditions in Spanish cooking and animal husbandry as well as Weiss’ informative insight and eponymous collection of recipes that cannot be found elsewhere. Grab a copy and enjoy spending the next several months and years mastering some new technique.
*Photos courtesy of Jeffrey Weiss and Nathan Rawlinson