The world’s eating habits have changed drastically. Historically, people used “the whole beast” but with refrigeration and the supermarket, came deboned, skinned, pre-cut, packaged meat. And that means we’ve lost touch with ingredients that were historic mainstays.
Offal (or “variety meat,” as some chefs call it) is anything that is not the skeletal muscle of the animal: intestine, tongue, liver, heart, brain, cheek, feet or ears, to name a few. There are a handful of Halifax chefs cooking with offal because it is a more sustainable way of eating meat, and offers unique flavours and textures.
In Halifax, offal is not hard to find on menus. Places like Stillwell, Agricola Street Brasserie, Field Guide and Ratinaud French Cuisine, are offering variety meats as the star ingredients and diners are learning to like them. Frédéric Tandy, owner and chef at Ratinaud French Cuisine, understands the hesitancy. “It’s a cultural thing more than anything else,” he says.
Ratinaud French Cuisine regularly sells foie gras, foie gras mousse and blood sausage, plus sometimes headcheese. Although the business is selling more foie gras than ever before, and the blood sausage sometimes sells out twice a week, it has been trial and error to make the right-sized batch as to not waste any. Tandy says his customers are open to trying new things, but it takes more effort to make it a habit.
At Stillwell, Chef Graeme Ruppel is the master of his domain. It’s a small kitchen with a small staff. and the owners have given him freedom to present whatever he pleases to accompany the many local craft beers on tap. He works with variety meats because they provide a new way of experiencing an animal through flavour and texture. “If you enjoy the act of cooking you’re given much more opportunity to express yourself and create something new out of it,” he says.
Inspiration for new menu items comes from a combination of doodling, sipping beer and brainstorming. Ruppel says he’s a voracious reader, and will pull from other chefs’ work, such as Chris Cosentino of Food Network fame, or Britain’s Fergus Henderson.
Ruppel’s creations include buffalo-wing style fried duck livers in blue cheese cream, smoked beef cheek and headcheese slipped into a burger. “We live in a ridiculously privileged time in history,” he says, adding that the volume and variety of food available can’t last. In his opinion, the nose-to-tail movement is the smart answer to becoming more sustainable, but not compromising the enjoyment of food.
Ruppel thinks it’s easy to prepare certain variety meats at home, such as sautéing chicken livers to add protein to a salad or using beef tongue for sandwich meat. And such meats are often half the price of traditional cuts, he adds.
At his North End restaurant, co-owner and chef Ludovic Eveno of Agricola Street Brasserie is serving variety meats to offer customers a chance to try new smells, textures and flavours, he says. Diners are becoming more curious, and will ask question about what they are eating, and how it is prepared, he adds, which creates a good introduction to variety meats.
“Continuation of tradition and craftsmanship is important to cooking,” Eveno says. To buy meats that have been butchered, and cut their airtight package open with scissors, just to season it and throw it in a pan is not being a good chef, says Eveno, because you become disengaged with the product. Appreciating the whole animal is a way of reconnecting with food.
When Eveno arrived in Cape Breton from France 11 years ago he could not find a pig’s head, but now butchers like Getaway Farms, are selling variety meats, such as beef heart, beef tongue, beef liver, pork kidneys and chicken livers. (But the staff at Getaway Farms suggests calling in advance to reserve these pieces. Having a good relationship with your butcher is the best way to get your hands on some of these elusive cuts, says Eveno.)
Field Guide chef and co-owner Dan Vorstermans was a vegan not long ago. A year spent in France reacquainted him with animal protein and dairy. Now his only dietary restriction is trying to “focus on eating locally and sustainably.”
The menu in Field Guide is exclusively made up of Nova Scotian products, and that includes the meat. Vorsterman’s inspirational process for cooking starts with what ingredients are locally available and affordable. If that happens to be fresh fish, he’ll take it from there. If it happens to be beef heart, he’ll make tartare.
It’s not all as heavy-handed as beef tartare on Field Guide’s menu. Vorstermans does a donair that uses ground lamb liver mixed with the ground muscle of lamb and pork. You would be none-the-wiser if you weren’t informed of it. It’s easier to introduce offal to people if it’s mixed into a dish but they aren’t trying to trick people into eating it. “You’re probably already eating it in hotdogs and sausages,” he says.
Dishes Made With Unconventional Cuts in Halifax
•Charcuterie board, including headcheese and/or pig’s ear at Agricola Street Brasserie
•Beef cheek at Stillwell Bar
•Rare beef and tripe pho with rice noodle at Star Anise Vietnamese Noodle Restaurant
•Boudin Noir (blood sausage) at Ratinaud French Cuisine
•Donair Steamed Buns at Field Guide
•Mousse de foie gras de canard at Bistro Le Coq
•Schezuan-style pigs ear at Happy Garden
(Based on availability of ingredients.)