Mike Phillips hopes his handmade salami cures local food woes


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."

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.

Both salami production and ham making (a process in which the haunches are massaged with salt at their exposed end, covered with a mixture of rice flour and lard, then cured and aged for several years) are highly tactile, sensory endeavors. As with bread making, a recipe will only go so far. The best way to make salami, Phillips says, is to gain a sense of what salami is supposed to look, feel, and smell like at various stages, and adjust the variables accordingly. Since he started making salami about a year and a half ago, Phillips has been getting feedback from Francois Vecchio, a European-born consultant for San Francisco-based Columbus Salame, by occasionally mailing samples of his salami to Vecchio's home.

Misshapen, mold-speckled artisan salami may be the homeliest of deli meats, but its complex flavor far outshines the commercial products sold in most supermarkets, which are typically made from precooked ingredients and will often include acidulants, food additives that mimic the sharp taste of natural fermentation. Many of these mass-produced meats will have characteristics of summer sausage, not true artisan salami, as the latter is never cooked. "The American palate has been bastardized to think American salami is okay," Vecchio laments.

Traditionally made salami's characteristic texture and intense, piquant taste are the result of a finicky, unforgiving fermentation process that involves precisely balancing temperature and humidity to cultivate bacteria that will cure the meat. (The curing and drying processes tend to concentrate the meat's flavors, akin to what roasting can do to foods.) The USDA's daunting, expensive certification process for salami wholesalers—an independent lab replicates the producer's process and then inoculates the product with various pathogens to prove they will not survive in the salami—is likely a major reason there are so few American dry-cured salami makers.

To stuff the salami, Phillips produces a small plastic container of pork intestines and begins to untangle the pale, stringy clumps. The salami-stuffing machine looks a bit like a tabletop butter churner, except that turning its geared crank pushes down the lid of a metal cylinder instead of rotating a paddle. The resulting force squirts the salami paste out of a plastic tube affixed to the canister and into the translucent casing, which Phillips slips over the shaft in a procedure that—there's no way around it—resembles a safe-sex demonstration. The machine's brand name, Dick, printed on the canister in capital letters, seems particularly ironic.

Throughout the salami-making process, Phillips is occasionally interrupted by a local farmer dropping off ingredients: the duck guy, the pork guy, and the salad-greens guy appear in quick succession. These deliveries not only restock kitchens with raw materials but spread restaurant-industry news and gossip: Eddie Hayes's Northeast Social should be opening soon. Jason Schellin over at Muffuletta is looking for buckwheat flour. Already a rumor may be spreading about some woman in an enormous down coat standing in the Craftsman cooler, watching Mike Phillips cut fat and scribbling in a notebook. For many of these purveyors, business has been a little slow, making value-added products like salami even more important to local food producers hoping to expand their markets.

The kitchen phone rings and Phillips, continuing to stuff salami, reaches to answer it. All the while he cranks the paste into its casing and pricks air pockets with a sharp, three-pronged tool. Responding to the caller's inquiry, he characteristically understates his situation, saying, "I'm in a little bit of a thing." When a salami is ready to be tied, he pinches the end, slits its casing, and ties a butterfly knot so the string won't slip. In another hour or so, Phillips will have about 15 foot-long salamis.

From there, Phillips will hang the salami in an insulated case for several days, regulating the humidity and temperature by opening and closing the door and adding buckets of ice to counteract the heat produced by the fermentation process. After about a quarter of the salami's weight has been lost from evaporation, the meats will be moved to another case to dry for several weeks. For Phillips, this second case is like his Ark of the Covenant. Opening it with the utmost reverence, he reveals the fruits of his labor: a stash of what looks like giant hunks of beef jerky and mold-covered, string-trussed sausages. In a matter of time, these will make for excellent charcuterie. Delicate pink-white strips of cured pork cheek and copa will be piled like ribbon candy alongside slices of crimson salami, whose complex, musky flavor and signature tang make Phillips's long, patient effort seem unquestionably worthwhile.