Butcher & the Burger's Chef Al goes half hog
01/18/2012 10:00 PM
In the basement of Butcher & the Burger, half a hog lays atop a stainless steel cooler. Chef Al Sternweiler shouts “Make a hole!” and a group of 15 follows him through the crowded narrow kitchen and downstairs.
This is the first hog butchery class offered by the burger counter, a new addition to Armitage Avenue that boasts ten different patties to put between their buns. Burger consumption dominates in the dining room thoughtfully constructed with new and rescued materials. A small butcher case off to the side displays ground beef by the pound, but that’s just a hint at what else this shop offers. They’ll special order anything — from a suckling pig to a whole goat — and prepare as instructed. Now, they’re going one step further and teaching some basic skills so meat lovers can take home larger cuts and carve them up themselves.
According to Chef Al, anyone can learn to butcher with “a sharp knife, a dry hand and a little bit of knowledge.” As for his learning experience he says, “I was field-dressing my own rabbits at age 7.” Sternweiler is best known in the area as longtime executive chef at Harvest on Huron in River North. He later transformed it into Allen’s New American Cafe, which closed in 2007.
The 79 lbs. of meat on the table before him today represent half a hog — a crossbreed of Duroc and Hampshire — that was born last summer at Cedar Valley Sustainable Farms in Ottawa, Ill. Off to the side, the head sits in one of two stainless steel trays waiting to collect the cuts and scraps.
The first step: “Get it into smaller portions.” For this class, Chef Al relies primarily on tools found in the common kitchen — his Forschner knife cost under $40. He starts by cutting underneath the spine to release the tenderloin, “the most prized piece of the pig.”
For Chef Al, it was the crown roast — the cut of meat known as prime rib on a cow — that he was most excited about. “If you are a pork fan, this is it,” he says, holding up the pork roast with ribs still attached.
The easier cuts are made at the joints, cut at the hip to release the country ham. But at one point Chef Al does get out the hacksaw when he cuts the hog in half at the bottom rib.
As he whittled down the hog, the stainless steel bins filled with the prime and subprime cuts: loin, shoulder, shanks, and of course, bacon. Little goes to waste. “Kidney fat is a sausage maker’s dream,” Chef Al says as he trims a piece.
As for cooking the cuts, Chef Al says there is no need to get it well done. “Get a nice medium rare and let it rest on your cutting board,” he instructs. As it rests, heat moves from the outside to the inside raising the interior temperature. Relying on carryover cooking is safe with a good cut of meat. Chef Al makes his plug, “Buy from a reputable butcher.”
As for that leftover head? “Boil it and make head cheese,” the chef says.
Back upstairs, the class concluded with a tasting of an Ossabaw hog. Chef Al and his Butcher & the Burger business partner Josh Woodward have been raising them on a farm in Barrington. It’s an unusual breed of feral, black hog bred from years of isolation on an island off the coast of Georgia. The pork it produces is highly marbleized with a rich, slightly gamey flavor.
Woodward says you can expect to see Ossabaw on the menu in the spring. You can also catch Chef Al carving one up at the March 19 butchery class.