Mike Phillips hopes his handmade salami cures local food woes

Pork shoulders are bought directly from Fischer Farms and Hidden Stream Farms

If Mike Phillips, chef at the Craftsman restaurant in Minneapolis, ever realizes his dream, he will likely spend long hours in the same cold, dark conditions he finds himself in today. Clad in a stocking cap and cyclist's sweatshirt, Phillips stands in the restaurant's cramped walk-in cooler, surrounded by gallons of rBGH-free half-and-half and trays of uncooked shoestring potatoes. As he cuts up several pounds of dense, white porcine fat, Phillips explains that when making salami it's essential that the fat stays cold. If it starts to melt, the molecules will coat the bits of ground meat, preventing them from drying properly, and the salami will be considered "smeared." Phillips uses his sleeve to wipe a small drip from his nose. "I've learned the hard way," he admits.

Much like craft beer and artisan cheese, interest in specialty preserved meats has boomed as diners pursue high-quality foodstuffs with more challenging flavor profiles. Several Twin Cities restaurants and butcher shops, including the Craftsman, recently have been reviving European charcuterie traditions, making ham, confit, terrine, and other (mostly) pork products that were developed to preserve meat before the advent of refrigeration. While producing sausage and pâté has become somewhat common, Phillips is among the few to tackle traditional, Italian-style salami, the most nuanced of dry-cured charcuterie. Salami's famously difficult process inspired one salumiere to dub it the "pinnacle of the art of meat."

Phillips has a slight build like a jockey's, a quiet voice, and, unlike many of his kitchen-dwelling brethren, no visible tattoos. On the day I watched him make salami, he appeared to be holding up his pants with a belt fashioned out of plastic wrap. In contrast to some of the hard-drinking, egotistical, foul-mouthed chefs portrayed in books and television programs, Phillips's leadership style seems to be one of immutable calm, even in moments of frustration. For example, I once watched him struggle to hack through the neck of a lamb carcass while conducting a butchering demonstration, and instead of cursing the beast or throwing down his cleaver, he stepped away from the table for a moment, refocused his energy, and cut clean through the bone with his next blow. Phillips has demonstrated his commitment to scratch cooking since he and his wife, Michelle Nordhougen, opened the late Chet's Taverna, a tiny St. Paul restaurant committed to organic and regional ingredients, in the late 1990s. At Chet's, Phillips went so far as to make his own couscous, an arduous process of spraying semolina with water, rolling the tiny bits with your fingertips, and sifting out the finished product. Making couscous is a bit like grinding your own flour or churning your own butter, in that most people wouldn't find it worth all the effort. When I asked Phillips about his tendency to "go deep" by taking on such detailed, time-consuming endeavors, he paused, then remarked, "It's the only way to go."

Location Info

Map

The Craftsman Restaurant

4300 E. Lake St.
Minneapolis, MN 55406

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Seward/ Longfellow/ Minnehaha

After establishing relationships with local farmers for Chet's, Phillips became interested in making Italian charcuterie. "I started to hook up with good pork producers, and I thought, 'We've got this great product, why can't we be making hams?'" So Phillips started curing whole pig legs—from hip to hoof—by hanging them from his basement ceiling. (He has been known to combine his interests in cycling and charcuterie by riding his bike trainer amid the dangling appendages.)

Most of the United States' noteworthy salami producers—including Seattle's Batali, New York's Salumeria Biellese, the Bay Area's Boccalone and Fra'Mani—are on the coasts, and the Midwest's main artisan-style cured-meat producer, La Quercia, just outside Des Moines, Iowa, doesn't make salami (it's focused on prosciutto, ham, and the like). But with so many quality hog farmers in the area, Phillips believes that cured pork products could one day become a significant part of the region's food identity. That idea, along with the growing local-foods market, has helped inspire Phillips to become the Midwest's first artisan salami maker, despite the challenges.

Phillips sets the diced fat on the kitchen counter, alongside a tray of cubed pork that's buried in ice. (He buys whole pork shoulders from Fischer Farms or Hidden Stream Farms to make salami, fresh sausage, and copa, a cured meat made from the hog's neck. It typically takes him a few hours to lean out the portion he'll use for salami, trimming away the cartilage and fat.) Phillips pulls out a battered electric drill and screws a cast-metal grinder to the top of the butcher block. Alternating handfuls, he grinds the meat and fat together to create what looks like a pile of red-and-white speckled worms. Over time, Phillips says, the repeated cranking has given him a painful case of "sausage elbow."

When the meat and fat have been ground, Phillips weighs out salt, red pepper, black pepper, garlic, dextrose (a simple sugar), nitrate (which will dissipate by the time the salami is ready to eat), and a powdered culture mixed with water that smells a little like sour milk. Like yogurt or bread, a salami culture can be made by "backslopping," or saving a starter from a previous batch, but most makers prefer commercial cultures. Phillips mixes the "paste" with both hands to spread the culture throughout the meat. He makes a patty in the palm of his hand and tips his palm upside down. The patty sticks: It's ready.

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