Cooking in the Slow Lane
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.
“Usually the longer the cut, the longer it takes,” he says. The hanging meat is stored in a special humidity-controlled condenser in a walk-in.
At The Obstinate Daughter, the cured meats take less time—typically six months for whole muscle cuts like spala (which takes one to one and a half years), coppa and lonza (four months), and two to three months for salami and pepperoni.
“It takes a lot of patience and care, and is a labor of love,” Larson explains, “but it’s something I am excited about, and is what both restaurants stand for.”
It’s also about economics, he adds. “When you’re paying for a whole hog, you can’t make all your money on the primal cuts. For any cook, it’s deeply satisfying to get a whole animal and use every ounce of it.”
Restaurants should also use these long, slow preparations as a marketing tactic to help bring in more money, says menu maven Nancy Kruse, president of The Kruse Company in Atlanta. “Restaurants are leaving money on the table if they don’t communicate their kitchen efforts on the menu. It’s a primary way of adding value, it can constitute a point of differentiation, and it adds immensely to the culinary credibility of the operation,” she says.
Fermentation and Fire
Marc Sheehan, chef/owner of Loyal Nine in East Cambridge, Massachusetts, makes his own vinegars, which take two to three months.
He places liquids—including hard cider, mead, or Champagne—in a Mason jar and inoculates them with a mother (which is either left over from a previous batch or can be made from silt that sits at the bottom of a bottle of unpasteurized, unfiltered raw apple vinegar).
He covers the jars with a few layers of cheesecloth so oxygen can get in, and leaves them at between 75 and 85 degrees (the best temperature for the mother to grow) for four to eight weeks.
“You’ll see a disk rise to the top that looks like a big mushroom,” Sheehan says. “That’s the mother, and it means it’s converting the alcohol to acid. Once that’s floating up there, you’re in a good place. You need to make sure the mother doesn’t fall, and make sure you have no insect growth, and taste it. Then we strain it, filter it, and reserve the mother to make the next batch.”
After completing the process, the vinegars age for an additional month on a shelf in the prep kitchen.
At Saison in San Francisco, Chef/owner Joshua Skenes spends three days preparing the beets for the restaurant’s signature Fire in the Sky dish.
He places the beets on a rack—3 or 4 feet above the fire that is constantly burning in his restaurant—and leaves them there for three days, rotating them every now and again. Chef Skenes, a student of the fire-and-smoke cooking method, prepares many ingredients for his dishes this way, usually over almond wood, because he believes it simply tastes better.
“The beets get a nice smoky flavor, and the sugars intensify naturally,” he says. “Then we put them into our aging room, which has a low temperature, good air circulation, and high humidity. The beets stay there for the night, and the flavor matures and relaxes and gets better. Then we rehydrate them in beet juice so they plump up again. The end result is sweet, earthy, smoky, and has a rich meat-like texture.”
The beets are used as the centerpiece of the Fire in the Sky dish, which also features bone marrow, cultured beet stems, wild berries, and pickled roast peppers.
Additionally, Chef Skenes uses the fire to roast ducks. He hangs these for 30 days to age, “and when we see the oils and fats almost come out, they’re ready.” He then leaves the ducks at room temperature for four to six hours, after which he hangs them near the fire where there’s no heat, just some residual warmth.
The next step is important: He roasts whole ducks a few inches over the embers of the fire for about a minute, then takes them off and hangs them up, away from the heat, for about 20 minutes. “We repeat the process eight to a dozen times,” he says. “Residual heat is one of the most important cooking elements and is often overlooked.” The technique results in duck that has “moist flesh with perfectly cooked, crisp skin.”
There’s always some bone-in pig shoulders curing in the walk-in at Tryst in Arlington, Massachusetts, which co-owner and chef Paul Turano uses for his signature dish, Pig Under a Brick.
He cures the shoulder with spices, herbs, and salt for two days, slow cooks it in pork or duck fat overnight at about 200 degrees, and then removes the skin and all the fat attached to it. The next step is shredding and seasoning the meat, adding a little fat, then replacing the meat on the skin and leaving it overnight with a brick on top of it.
“To serve, we cut it into big pieces, sear it lightly on the skin so it gets crispy, and then cook it through in the oven and flip it over, so it’s served skin side up,” Turano says.
This is all done for the end result, “a soft, textured meat with a lot of flavor,” the chef explains. “A shoulder needs a long time to cook; if you speed it up the result won’t be the same—either the texture or the flavor.”
For Turano, it’s about offering something people would never make at home. “When we put something on a plate, I’m proud of it and I know guests will think it’s awesome.”
Communicating the effort and techniques behind the dishes enhances that appreciation. “There’s a hidden psychological lift when the diner understands the time, care, and love that was incorporated into food,” says restaurant consultant Spiegel.
That applies to ingredients as well as center-of-the-plate entrées. For instance, the seaweed stock at Saison in San Francisco takes up to five years to make, but it’s worth the investment because Chef Skenes uses this as a base for many of his more delicate seafood dishes.
Once a diver has harvested the seaweed, it’s dried on the beach then put into a wooden shed for three to five days to allow the moisture to distribute. After that, it’s hung in a wooden shack on the coast of Mendocino to cure, exposing it to the sea air and salt for one to five years.
After the extensive seaside curing, it’s delivered to Skenes, who heats it to 320 degrees for one hour. “It’s very subtle, and has a very round taste,” he says. “You can taste the texture of the seaweed.”
Loyal Nine’s Sheehan makes his own sea salt. He collects seawater, filters it three or four times through coffee filters or white cloth aprons, and then reduces it as slowly as he can in the dehydrator or over the pilot light at night.
“Once we get a salty sludge, we transfer it to a pan and put it in the oven over the pilot for two to three days. Then we flake it up and put it in an airtight container,” he says.
The slowness is essential, he explains. “We could do this in a day at a ripping boil, but that’s not what we’re looking for. This salt is finer-grained and has consistent crystals.”
He describes how the house-made salt perfectly finishes certain dishes, like the live scallop served attached to its shell. “We dress it with a simple vinaigrette and don’t season it with anything except the sea salt, so it’s providing texture and flavor, and tying the story together because the scallop and salt come from the same water.”
The process is also one he enjoys. “It’s nice to have a project to check on every night—to see it’s how you wanted or it’s going through an interesting transition. It’s an evolution you get to partake of,” he concludes. “You’re maintaining something that almost has a life of its own, and it’s very exciting.”