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The Meatstress Gallery
“The Meatstress” chef Larissa Popa at Eastern Market
Michelle and Chris Gerard

Primal Instinct: Meet Detroit’s Nose to Tail Butchers

Seven chefs behind some of the Motor City’s meatiest dishes

With the Motor City being (mostly) a town that loves its meat and potatoes, it’s no surprise that many local chefs go whole hog. “I think the interest in butchery [and] charcuterie will continue to grow because it is the soul of cooking. Great food begins with this particular subject,” says chef Brian Polcyn, a longtime culinary advocate for seasonal foods and local farming.

As local and seasonal vegetables and herbs have a standard among Detroit restaurants, chefs have also begun to tap into the region’s local meat supply — often sold in the form of a whole animal.

Chef Matt Romine is the owner of Farm Field Table, a full-service butcher shop in Ferndale that caters to restaurants that want to provide the whole animal experience but either don’t have the space or the skill set for butchering. “We choose to promote the whole animal because that is best for the farmer, for the respect of the product, for eating new dishes,” he says, “and [because it] preserves skills such as whole animal butchery that could easily disappear in the next few generations due to modern industrial processing.”

Whether they’ve been doing butchery since they were a kid or still honing their craft, meet some of Detroit’s chefs who embrace nose to tail cooking and whole animal butchery.

Courtesy of Grey Ghost

Joe Giacomino and John Vermiglio, Chefs at Grey Ghost

Culinary chops: Joe Giacomino attended culinary school at the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago, then worked in various Chicago area restaurants, including Table Fifty-Two, Quince, and A10 Hyde Park. John Vermiglio graduated from Johnson & Wales University, in Providence, R.I., with a B.S. in culinary arts. He’s also worked at several Chicago hot spots, including Charlie Trotters to Go, Table Fifty-Two, Graham Elliot Bistro, and Folkart Restaurant Management, where he was culinary director.

Giacomino got his first state of butchery as a boy breaking down deer into steaks and roasts. Since then he has sought to be the butcher wherever he went because “that was always a coveted position reserved for the most trusted members of the team,” he says.

On inspiration: The former butcher shop that Grey Ghost now calls home “inspired us to create the concept and carry on the tradition of the space,” Vermiglio says. “Ye Olde Butcher Shoppe had an untimely demise, so it’s a privilege to continue their mission, and pay homage to the craft of butchery with our menu creations.”

Favorite cuts of meat/signature dish: Giacomino’s favorite cut at the moment is the 60-day New York Strip on Grey Ghost’s menu. Vermiglio is a fan of organ meats as well as cheeks, tails, flat iron steaks, and ribs. The fried housemade bologna has become one of the Ghost’s most popular dishes. “We were just having some fun after an inspiring eating session, and heated debate, over the best filling for jalapeño poppers.”

The Meatstress Gallery Michelle and Chris Gerard

Larissa Popa, The Meatstress

Culinary chops: Popa initially went to school to be a pharmacist, but switched gears and went to Schoolcraft College to study culinary arts. Later, Popa traveled to the south of France to learn about butchery and charcuterie. When she’s not working as sous chef at Schoolcraft College, Popa teaches classes about butchery and charcuterie and hosts pop-ups.

On inspiration: “Traditions from my homeland, well-raised food, keeping family farms in business, and me aspiring to be a voice for farmers, animals and past traditions.”

Favorite cuts of meat/signature dish: Popa loves the “coppa” or neck muscle from a pork shoulder. “I simply cure my coppa with salt, rub it with crushed black pepper, and hang it,” she explains.

Brian Polcyn, Chef and Author

Courtesy of Brian Polcyn

Culinary chops: Polcyn’s resume includes some of Detroit’s most legendary restaurants, such as the Golden Mushroom and Forest Grill. With food journalist Michael Ruhlman, he co-wrote Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing, which was nominated for a James Beard Foundation Book Award in 2006, the same year he was nominated for James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef in the Midwest. While he doesn’t work in restaurant kitchens any more, he’s still heavily involved in the food world, teaching and writing books. Polcyn is a full time instructor at Schoolcraft College. He’s currently working on another book with Ruhlman called Pate, Terrines and Rillettes, which is slated to drop this fall.

On inspiration: “Inspiration comes from within,” Polcyn says. “People call chefs artists; I disagree. Nature is the true artist. Nature inspires me.”

Favorite cuts/signature dish: It’s hard for him to pick just one, “but if backed into a corner I would say the coppa or neck muscle is my favorite,” Polcyn says. “It’s the best muscle on the pig, and not only is it great for dry curing but also [for] roasting and schnitzel.”

Matt Romine, Owner of Farm Field Table

Courtesy of Matt Romine

Culinary chops: In the Romine household, during the fall and late winter, rabbit and deer hunting were weekly occurrences for Matt Romine growing up. He didn’t go to culinary school and instead learned everything through “thousands of hours of reading, many failed experiments, working with classically trained chefs, and caring deeply about what I’m doing.” He staged, with his twin, Mike, at the famed Restaurant Noma in Copenhagen. The pair opened The Mulefoot Gastropub in their hometown of Imlay City, and Matt Romine recently opened Farm Field Table in Ferndale. While he doesn’t physically cook at The Mulefoot much these days, he’s still involved with the quality of the products. He also aims to offer unique proteins at Farm Field Table that you may not find at most places. Think interesting proteins such as squab, goat, and yak.

On inspiration: “I'm inspired to ‘hack the system’ and find a better way of bringing local products to the table. Currently the system is piss poor. I have to drive some of my products 100-plus miles to serve it in our restaurant that is 10 miles from the farm. More so, the legalities of slaughter put unnecessary costs and hurdles in the way.”

Favorite cuts of meat/signature dishes: Romine finds “the tough cuts that require long slow cooking I find most satisfying: short ribs, tongue, brisket, shank, head, cheek, tail etc.” As for signature dishes, recently “I’m all about the rabbit marsala. It’s a simple braise with really hard roasted mushrooms, rosemary, and marsala added only in the final minutes of cooking. Finished with good butter of course.”

Courtesy of Sarah Welch

Sarah Welch, Chef at Republic and Parks & Rec

Culinary chops: After earning a degree from MSU in restaurant management, 2015 Detroit Chef of the Year Sarah Welch attended the French Culinary Institute in New York. She began learning about butchery when she went to work for Brian Polcyn and David Gilbert at Forest Grill. Now, executive chef at Republic Tavern and Parks & Rec. She’s also involved with Pigstock in Traverse City where she leads volunteers who help teach butchery. Welch says she would “would not consider myself a ‘butcher’ but I am comfortable butchering almost everything I've come across (our staff has even butchered an alpaca in-house).

“... To master [butchery] requires serious time apprenticing with professionals, something I have yet to have the time to do. I think I have a long way to go in order to become what you'd call a ‘butcher.’”

On inspiration: “I work with food that is in season so, regardless of my want to be creative — seasonality and availability demand it. Everyday I come in to find out that something we expected to come through our door, did not — be that due to season, or other outstanding reasons (like that one time all the fish at the aquaponics farm died). In these moments I am inspired and, more so, I am forced to find inspiration in what we do have.”

Favorite cuts of meat/signature dish: “Right now my favorite meat dish on the menu is our ‘pork steak,’” she says. “We take a whole cut of shoulder and debone it. Then we rub that, sous vide it 24 hours, and cut it into steaks that are buttery soft. Those steaks get seared and they are phenomenal. That dish changes the way people see pork shoulder — it’s not just a stew or sausage cut. Its potential is limitless.”

Marvin Shaouni

Kate Williams, Chef at Lady of the House

Culinary chops: Kate Williams went to Michigan State for food science before taking off for New York to study at the French Culinary Institute. She worked at restaurants around the Big Apple for a while, then moved to Chicago before coming back home to Michigan. For her, nose to tail cooking and whole animal preservation and utilization is important as a chef because it honors the animal. “The animal didn't give its life for us to just eat prime rib,” she says. “It demands creativity to serve the unfamiliar.”

Williams was executive chef at Republic and Rodin. Her newest restaurant, Lady of the House, will open in the former St. Cece’s space this year.

On inspiration: “Care taken every step of way. Whether that be farmers or cooks or artists. Telling the stories of people through food or your craft.”

Favorite cuts of meat/signature dish: “I think I'm too restless to have just one signature dish,” Williams says. “...The first thought that came to mind though was this lamb neck steak with sun chokes and mint dish.” Also at Lady of the House, is planning a pork fat candle dish.

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