Chef Frank Bonanno would ace David Letterman’s “Know Your Cuts of Meat” contest blindfolded, with one hand tied behind his back. He’d win by touch alone. That’s how well he claims to know his meat. He’s a chef and restaurant owner (a 2009 James Beard “Best Restaurateur” semi-finalist) who’d also put butchery near the top of his accomplishments.
“When I break down a pig, I see prosciutto in the back legs, sopressata in the front legs, capicola in the neck, and in the head and feet, coppa di testa (aka: head cheese),” says the Denver-based chef who makes his own salumi and cheeses. According to him, it’s so easy to utilize a whole pig.” He passionately advocates whole animal utilization and writes one of the best blogs around on the topic devoting entire posts to subjects like: “What Do You Do With A Cow’s Head, Anyway?” Answer: pâté de tête, the French version of coppa di testa.
Bonanno’s take on the know-exactly-where-your-food-came-from trend is not for the squeamish. “My chefs and I go to auctions and buy live animals. We take them out and gas ‘em, then use a .22 caliber.” He’s lucky, he says, to have hired chefs who are also hunters. “We butcher them and use them for staff meals at our restaurants.”
He’s not recommending that people buy animals at auction, get fresh ammo and pull out their band saws. Butchery isn’t for the weekend warrior. Rather, he is suggesting that understanding how your meat gets to your table, how an animal is raised, who raised it, where it’s killed and how it’s cut lets people fully appreciate their food.
His restaurants are about enjoying and extolling the delights of snout-to-tail eating: the Crispy Veal Sweetbreads or the Pan-Roasted Ostrich Loin at Denver’s Mizuna; Slow-Roasted Suckling Pig at Osteria Marco; Roasted Bone Marrow at Bones, and Porchetta at Luca D’Italia - a de-boned pig that he fills with homemade sausage and cooks sous vide - vacuum-sealed and placed in a temperature-controlled water bath for forty-eight hours. After it’s done, he removes it from the package and deep-fries it before serving.
When Bonanno wanted to do something special for a television segment with Chef Anthony Bourdain he got a little lamb. “Bourdain admires chefs who raise the bar, and disdains ‘talent’ that lowers it,’” and Bonanno wanted to raise it. His two young sons saw the lamb and petted it, and then his younger son turned to his older son and said, “I think that’s Daddy’s dinner.” “He understood that that was what the lamb was for,” says Bonanno proudly. “Not enough kids know where their meat comes from, much less other food.” He’s even considering teaching a kids’ butchery class. Knowing and showing how sausage is made, literally and figuratively, matters to him because he says that butcher shops, the places where we used to learn about meat, are fast becoming things of the past.
If you have a mother or grandmother of a certain age you’d remember Mom coming home from the butcher shop with a variety cuts for dinner. In those days, butchers broke down their animals, offered a lot of cuts and told Mom how to cook them. Consumers then had a lot more choices than consumers today. More importantly, says Bonanno, the lack of butcher shops (mostly found now only in larger cities) is turning butchery into a dying art form. Even among chefs.
“Kids come into my restaurants from culinary school and we give ‘em chickens and they can’t even break down chickens. They don’t know anything. And that’s after a $30,000 culinary education,” he says. Back when Bonanno was at the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) students spent a lot of time breaking down whole animals from cows to capons.
Knowing precisely where, why and how to cut challenges a chef’s artistry. Wasting nothing gets the creativity flowing, and figuring out how to prepare all those parts forces chefs to use every technique in their arsenal: searing, braising, roasting, boiling, frying, pan-roasting, sautéing, brining, curing.
These days people buy pre-packed, plastic-wrapped, bright red, case-ready meats that are shipped directly from processors to supermarkets. As a result, people know only a few basic cuts: filet, rib eye, strip steak, ribs, brisket, sirloin. But for every filet there are tasty cuts that many people have never even heard of like flat-tips, inside tenderloin, hanger steaks and steamship round.
“If you have an old Julia Childs or Silver Palate cookbook,” Bonanno says, “I bet there are ten cuts of beef in those books that are no longer available to people without access to a butcher.” The meat’s still there, it’s just ground up for burgers, he says. The unusual cuts go to restaurants. “Great for chefs,” says Bonanno. Not so much for home cooks.
Bonanno earned an accounting degree, working his with through college with a string of restaurant jobs. After school he stayed in restaurants, going to culinary school in his early 30s. He’s so obsessed with food that even after he became an executive chef, Bonanno arranged externships with Thomas Keller’s French Laundry and New York City’s Gramercy Tavern.
Bonanno isn’t trying to convert people who like their meat pre-packaged and their food fast. “For me, I want to buy that cow, know it has no steroids, know the farmers that raised it and killed it, and who butchered it. It’s a necessity and priority.” He’s suggests trying his way and understanding the origin of the meals you cook and eat. “If you see, firsthand, how a life becomes food, you will be better for that experience,” he says.