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Charcuterie helps chefs build sales, buzz

A plate of cold cuts may not seem like an obvious way for a restaurant to distinguish itself. But delicatessen-style meats have broad appeal, both for customers who like to sample a variety of foods and for restaurateurs who can benefit from low labor cost if they buy the meat and low food cost if they prepare it themselves.

A good charcuterie program also can boost sales, said John Brandt-Lee, chef of Avalon, a BYOB restaurant in West Chester, Pa. A marble-topped table designated for meat and cheese platters sits in the middle of the restaurant.

“We have a reputation now for these cheeses and meats, and when you walk in the restaurant, you feel that if you don’t get some, you’re missing out,” he said.

About 80 percent of his customers order the $40 four-course prix-fixe dinner, which doesn’t include the charcuterie, but many of his guests will start with a flight of three, five or seven meats and cheeses before launching into the meal.

“That’s definitely more expensive than your traditional dessert,” said Brandt-Lee, who charges $35 for a flight of seven meats and cheeses. He said offering the charcuterie also adds to his reputation for artisanal fare and has helped build a clientele that is more interested in food.

“Before we could never sell pâtés or headcheese,” he said. “Now they’re selling tremendously.”

“Mid-week, maybe two ladies or a couple will come in and get a meat and cheese plate with some wine that they brought in,” he added. “There are always available seats during the week. It’s not as big a check as dinner, but it fills an empty seat,” he said.

Jesse Schenker, chef at Recette in New York’s West Village, also said his $24 charcuterie plate is popular with his more food-focused customers, and thus is ordered more on Monday through Wednesday, when locals visit the restaurant, than on weekends when the more trendy crowd comes in. 

The plate includes foie gras terrine and headcheese, which he makes, along with Bayonne-style ham and cacciatore salami, which he buys. He said he tries to pick cold cuts that people are familiar with.

“There are some great artisanal salamis that the average customer wouldn’t necessarily recognize or appreciate,” he said.

At The Bazaar by Jose Andres in Los Angeles, serving Spanish ham helps establish the restaurant’s identity as an Iberian food specialist, said chef Joshua Whigham.

“It has a long history in Spain, and having it adds soul to the menu,” he said.

Whigham said it’s also fun to taste your way through a selection and recommends that customers get the $34 plate of jamón Serrano, jamón Ibérico and jamón Ibérico de bellota. He calls the bellota “The Rolls Royce of ham,” made from heritage breeds of pig that spend their lives eating acorns.

“You get the burn in the throat with the acorn,” he said. Starting with the Serrano and finishing with the Ibérico de bellota helps people understand the difference.

Violetta Bitici, owner of Macelleria in New York City, said she sees her customers ordering charcuterie similarly to how they order wine — by brand or by region. 

“So we are veering away from our mixed charcuterie platters and more often featuring individual categories of cured and specialty meats paired with cheeses from their region,” she explained.

Those offerings include prosciutto from Parma in the Italian region of Emilia Romagna, speck from Alto Adige, finocchiona from Tuscany, guanciale from Lazio, and Broadbent country ham from Kentucky.

A growing number of chefs are curing their own meats.

“That’s why we’re in the business,” said Terence Feury, chef of Fork in Philadelphia. “We always challenge ourselves so we can continue to learn, and it’s good for the customer. It’s also fun to do.”

He generally offers it as an $18-platter with his choice of half a dozen meats, the most popular being Toscano salami, his cured pork shoulder or coppa, and lomo, which is cured loin.

“And occasionally we’ll run one of the charcuterie items on its own, like when the prosciutto’s ready,” he said.

He cures that ham — made from a whole pork leg — for 18 months, and when he puts it on the menu it sells out in a couple of weeks.

“We get one pig, usually every three to four months, from local organic farmers in the Lancaster [Pa.] area and turn the whole thing into charcuterie,” he said. 

Dong Choi, executive chef of Comme Ça in Los Angeles, works with his executive sous chef Eric Samaniego to make their pâtés and terrines, but when it comes to hard sausages, they buy them. Not only does the restaurant have limited resources, but “there are artisanal craftsmen that basically do it better than we can,” he said. 

“And we’re really lucky that we work with great people who are always bringing us random things, like wild boar Tuscan salami,” which he said has a bit more gamy taste than typical salami and is less finely ground so there’s more of a texture contrast between meat and fat. He slices it fairly thick so people can appreciate that contrast, and he serves it with pickled okra.

As much as Choi likes to find obscure items, he said he also keeps both prosciutto di San Daniele and prosciutto di Parma on hand, because customers like them.

Denver-based chef-restaurateur Frank Bonanno said he started to cure his own meats seven or eight years ago. 

“You couldn’t find capicola or sopressata or finocchiona. It just wasn’t here,” he said.

But now it is, so while Bonanno still serves his house-cured meats at his fine dining Italian restaurant, Luca d’Italia, he buys the meat for his high-volume Osteria Marco. 

“I can’t keep up with production for the volume at Osteria,” he said. “It’s a great way to start a meal. It’s easy, it’s shareable, it’s not heavy.” And at $16 a plate, it’s a nice boost to the check average.

He said offering the meats at the newer Osteria Marco in Larimer Square, which is touristy but also popular among locals, seems to have helped with salumi sales at Luca d’Italia, where a platter also is $16.

“We’re selling more salumi plates at Luca than we ever have before,” he said, noting that might also be due to growing popularity of deli meats in general. 

“A lot of restaurants in Denver have salumi plates on their menus,” he said. 

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected]

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