“Is everybody getting their hands on some meat?” Chris Johnson asks the wine- and beer-sipping participants huddled into Union Kitchen’s frenetic cold prep area for his debut charcuterie -making class.
The Cured DC founder is currently operating out of Union Kitchen’s communal “food incubator” while establishing a toehold in the local dining scene (Glen’s Garden Market, Mockingbird Hill and the Rappahannock Oyster Bar all serve his stuff). Johnson caught the charcuterie bug while honing his geopolitical skills at the London School of Economics.
“I was studying gang violence in Latin America,” he said of heady topics that used to cloud his gray matter. But as he ate his way across Europe, picking at meat-filled plates in Spain, Germany and Italy, his dreams quickly turned to a future filled with seasoned meats.
That vision has culminated in a budding artisanal food operation and now a forthcoming series of DIY courses designed to bring curious locals into the charcuterie fold.
The Meat of the Matter
Johnson’s business is cured sausages (Spanish chorizo, Italian salami, signature ginger-spiked), specialty meats (coppa, bresaola, lomo) and assorted prosciuttos (pork, duck, lamb). The decision-challenged can indulge a little of each by signing up for the “salami CSA,” which provides a rotating stock of Cured DC favorites for pickup at Union Kitchen on a quarterly basis.
Johnson said he gets his pigs, mostly Old Spots with the occasional Berkshire mixed in, from Truck Patch Farms in New Windsor, Md. Owner Bryan Kerney specializes in pasture-raised swine, typically focusing on four specific breeds: Poland China (the most popular), Old Spots (the second biggest seller), Mangalitsa (a hearty Hungarian line) and Duroc (a domestic workhorse).
Johnson selected an Old Spot for the Oct. 3 class, presenting the attendees with roughly half of the originally 198 lb. animal to thoroughly examine and enjoy.
“I would have preferred to have the head and everything on it,” Johnson noted, but he and his primary apprentice, James Brosch, had already partially prepped the beast in order to make headcheese sandwiches for students to munch on as they went along.
Sixteen people signed up for the inaugural charcuterie class, which was co-sponsored by the Northern Virginia-based Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture (the Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s activist arm) and billed as its debut master course — a program the food-obsessed group expects to continue cultivating by showcasing its stable of very capable chefs.
“Some people are gonna grind. Some people are gonna mix. And some people are gonna eat and drink,” Johnson informed the wide-eyed onlookers as he divvied them into groups and unleashed them on the split-apart swine.
The assembled groups had roughly a 3:2 ratio of men to women, with participants ranging from 20-something ladies eager to get their hands dirty to silver-haired gents normally not seen without a full drink in hand.
There were no full sleeves or even very many visible tattoos in this bunch, so confidence is low there were any aspiring “Top Chef” contestants on hand.
The majority appeared to be hypnotized by the actual butchering process, hanging on Johnson’s every word — “The thing is, meat tells you where to cut,” he counseled while slipping his blade along the natural boundaries between bone, tendon, muscle and fat — and fixating on each knife stroke as he walked them through the ins and outs of efficiently carving a carcass.
Plenty of folks were busy snapping pictures with their smartphones or iPads, while others dutifully jotted down each pearl of wisdom in dog-eared notebooks. Others seemed content to just mingle, treating the occasion more like a casual dinner party than an epicurean stepping-stone.
Christina King, a graduate of L’Academie de Cuisine’s 20-week culinary arts program, said she’s dabbled in home curing (mostly bacon and prosciutto), but has long been waiting for someone to introduce her to the salting arts.
“Curing is a whole other realm that very few people teach in layman’s terms,” she said of the dearth of easy-to-grasp instruction.
Capitol Hill resident Doug Edgecomb said his wife, an Arcadia Center member, brought the class to his attention. And even though he said they don’t necessarily seek out charcuterie when dining out, the pair was enthused about becoming better-informed eaters.
“We’re just pretty interested in food,” Edgecomb said.
One female attendee said she’d stockpiled a number of course credits by getting in early during one of Arcadia’s Kickstarter campaigns. She was originally hoping to burn some off by finding a cheesemaking course, but said the charcuterie tutorial was too good to miss.
“I figured, when else am I going to get the chance to do this?” the novice sausage maker said.
To wit, the entire crowd became transfixed, once again, when Johnson began pressing the meticulously spiced grind into the oil spritzed hog intestine, and voila, actual sausage took shape.
Sharing the Spoils
Johnson said participants would receive sampler Cured DC products, including the handcrafted salamis they helped produce and some other choice selections (such as lomo and duck prosciutto), as soon as the curing process was complete in about four to six weeks.
Overall, he said was pleased with the initial turnout and the scope of the material covered.
“I like this format a lot. It’s not a full-on butchering class, but they get a good idea of what they’re cutting up and where it’s going because they see it down the line,” Johnson said.
He predicted future classes would mimic the same format, though he does expect to move the operation in the next few weeks to the custom-designed dedicated kitchen he’s been building above the Union Kitchen facilities.
Johnson suggested he’s open to tackling the likes of everything from the basics of house-made bacon to temperamental delicacies such as bresaola and lomo in the future.
“We’ll start mixing it up,” Johnson said of the carnivorous curriculum.
He projected that the next session would likely take place in early December, with the same $90 fee and two-hour-plus commitment.
After that, Johnson hopes to schedule additional courses — including a proper butchery class, covering everything from properly deboning a chicken to breaking down an entire hog (estimated cost: $125 per person) — on a regular basis.
Cured DC: 917-855-2767; www.cureddc.com. Union Kitchen: 1110 Congress St. NE; www.unionkitchendc.com