A Nose to Tail Heart to Heart
Written onMarch 01 , 2010
If I seem a little distracted, it’s most likely because I have to finish an order of cow’s tongue, warm up a duck’s heart, or explain the difference between fat-back and bacon to a curious but suspicious patron. It’s not that I don’t want to sit and talk—I’d love to have a beer with you, talk about where our ingredients come from, let you know that the rabbits really do like to be fed carrots, note the difference between Muscovy and Peking duck. It’s just that right now, there’s a couple in front of the Belgian taps who are waiting on their cheese plate. Be right back…
I think I should introduce myself. I’m that guy, fired from his first job cooking in New York City. Fired from an acclaimed restaurant and asked to come back to their kitchen only months later. I did. And quit weeks into my return with no notice because I didn’t want to make a truffle sauce. I’ve exchanged unsavory parting words with a notable chef, delivering them to him in his dining room, in front of guests, as I walked out of his restaurant to quit on New Year’s Eve. It’s not something I’m proud of—I just want you to know who you’re talking to. I’m that guy, who has cooked at greatly successful joints for such juicy and wide-ranging celebs as Uma Thurman, Jay-Z, Matthew Broderick, even the luminous cabaret star, Poppy Bulova. I’ve cooked in a few of the best-regarded restaurants in the country and at some fantastic flops, too. In a word, my career thus far has been: colorful. I am that guy, but I am not the guy.
Now I am here: Three Penny Taproom in Montpelier. We serve the best beers in the world. We have 24 on draft and a slew of bottles. Looking at the list right now, I see beers from near—Massachusetts, California, Oregon, Vermont, Maryland, New Hampshire, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New York—and far—Germany, Belgium, and Japan. We stash coveted bottles of beer to age on our reserve list the way a snob hordes grape juice, waiting for it to reach peak drinkability. But we’ll happily crack the cap off a PBR if that’s your fancy.
Yes, we also serve food here. As for that, the main quirk, the quirk that sets our menu apart, is the odds and ends of animals. What I cook is known as offal, variety or organ meats, innards. For some people, these bits qualify as dog food, compost, or even garbage, and are disposed of at home with no further thought. But a decade as a professional cook has provided me ample time to ruminate on these remnants. Now I think of these bits and pieces as underdogs; they are humble with aspirations, ready to be elevated and on par with the perceived “best” cuts of meat. They become classics like Deviled Kidney, or new sensations like Calf’s Heart with Root Beer. I advocate (with a nod to renowned chef Fergus Henderson) “eating the entire beast.” You may ask why. And I may put it in a nutshell.
The notion of eating animals does polarize people. Some say it is amoral or unethical. I say what is amoral is to raise an animal for food in unhealthy conditions, bring it depression, stress, and pain, then kill it and casually discard what isn’t prized. In nose to tail cookery, which seeks to use animals raised humanely and on a small scale, animals are a prized resource, used to the fullest and thus honored. This makes it possible to accept eating animals and to reject their suffering. It’s a partnership: we choose to be buddies with them, giving them pasture, a square meal, free hay if they like, fresh air and sunshine, and then end their life as quickly and painlessly as possible. (Dr. Kevorkian springs to mind.) In return, we get the meat we seem to need. But like any successful partnership we must honor our mate, and an important part of that honoring is bringing out the full potential of what is there. If you’re going to raise and kill, or ask someone else to raise and kill, a handsome pig, don’t you want to give that pig its full honor due? A handsome pig deserves better than to have his heart thrown in the garbage.
I buy animals from Tangletown Farm, a family farm that I know and trust. They’re 10 minutes from here, in Middlesex, and their animals are healthy, robust even, and as happy as can be. When more of an animal is eaten, fewer animals are eaten, which means they can be sourced from small farms like Tangletown, where they live well. This quality of life is not only good for the animals, it also directly translates to a quality end product. When an animal is unhealthy, it shows in the finished dish and it can only be brought to a marginal level of quality. But if one of my guys—a duck, rabbit, what have you—is well looked after, it can then be prepared with patience to yield a simple, eye-openingly good plate of food. And I can do this at an exceptional value without meat from some disgusting factory out West because right now, cow’s heart is less popular than a rib-eye steak, so it costs less to buy.
Don’t care about the animals or the price and just want good food? Fine. That’s totally fair. I also love cooking these bits and pieces because they can be delicious, and offer a lot of variety in flavor and texture. The flavors are milder than most people expect, with that iron richness common to foods like kale and spinach. Sometimes with, like, kidney or liver, the flavor is stronger and complemented with really spicy good mustard or a sauce with nice paprika. (By the way, kidney does not taste of, nor contain, urine.) As for textures, they are subject to the technique of preparation, and range from comforting—tongue is like the best bologna ever, tail like the best pot roast—to challenging—pig’s ear can still have a little crunch to it, so it goes really well with a crisp vegetable slaw. The frying of pig’s ear is the best! It becomes crunchy, salty, fatty, and sticky, and gives you that sort of sleepy, satisfied smirk.
I’ve been cooking at Three Penny since September 2009, and the response has been astonishing. To me it’s just turn-of-the-century, working-class food, but to others it’s so, like, incendiary, man. One person will come in and totally hate me for offering something other than chicken fingers. (Chickens do not have fingers.) Another person will come in and gush about how fantastic it all is, that eating these things reminds them of growing up on the farm, or the food they love in France. This checkered reaction from our patrons keeps things interesting in a way I didn’t really anticipate. Where one is really enthusiastic and shows it (winner!), another openly denigrates. A few are almost hostile. Day Two, writing the menu on the chalkboard, a shout of “GROSS!” echoed through the room. Subsequently this person was in every Friday for weeks, painfully vocal in their disapproval. The semi-rhetorical, “What, do you and your girlfriend just sit around at home all day eating guts?!” could’ve been quietly wondered and not voiced. But there is a lot to learn by the way a guest responds. There may be 10 items on the menu and only one “oddball,” but the oddball will steal the show.
Best, though, is that no matter the response, everyone thinks and talks about the menu, and that’s good. Whether you are eating or talking, it’s good to think before you open your mouth. Now, I should get back to work.
Photo by Caroline Abels