If I’d just gotten a reservation at Charleston chef Sean Brock’s famed Husk, it would have been enough. But I didn’t get into this business for “enough,” I got into it for things like fried pig’s heart and cheddar bologna and lengthy peeks into fridges of duck prosciutto and homemade Slim Jims the circumference of a silver dollar. So I wrangled a tour, led by Husk’s longtime general manager (and resident “everything” expert) Dan Latimer and brought full-circle by sous-chef and charcutier Justin Cherry, during my weekend at the recent Charleston Wine & Food Festival.
Latimer showed me the contents of Husk’s many curing fridges and closets housing aging meats and sausages, which are scattered throughout the vast property. There’s a wood burner that converts shells from a local pecan farmer into powerfully fragrant smoke (“even better than wood”) and a dedicated charcuterie facility out back (I’m assuming that’s what that area is called) where we found chef Cherry hanging out with some of that supreme pig heart bologna. I had so many questions for him.
Tell me about the bologna. Were you coerced? How did pig heart make its way in?
Kinda! They always wanted bologna here — [chef de cuisine] Travis [Grimes] and Sean — and I love bologna too, so I decided to make it. Our bologna uses Benton’s bacon fat as the emulsifier, which gives it that smoky taste. The heart works great because it’s very much like beef, bologna mostly being beef and/or pork, we decided to go with pig heart.
Can you tell me about the role of charcuterie in Husk’s menu?
We started out slow with the charcuterie and didn’t really develop it until the following year. Travis, the chef de cuisine, made me feel like I could do anything with it. The heritage hogs here are really great, and we’ve gotten into a lot of different types.
Is it possible to successfully make charcuterie with a limited amount of prep space?
No. We didn’t have dedicated space at the beginning, which was why it was slow at first. After the first six months we realized we needed more — it just wasn’t working out. We needed extra fridges for aging, so we installed a few upstairs, then expanded our space out here.
Where did you learn to butcher?
I really wanted to learn how to butcher well, so I spent some time with Dario Cecchini in Tuscany. He’s the best in the world, so I studied for three months, then came back and two months later Husk opened. I’d been in contact with Sean before that, focusing on the animals themselves and the craft of charcuterie, so it all came together.
How would you explain the concept of charcuterie to someone who thinks moldy old hams hanging from a ceiling are gross?
It’s more looking at the craft from the viewpoint of the time and work that goes into it. If you can appreciate the craftsmanship, then the taste will come along with it.
And if you can’t, more ham for us. What are the odds that a home cook who loves Slim Jims could recreate them in his kitchen without poisoning everyone?
Pretty good. You don’t need a lot of weird ingredients to make those. If you have a grinder, a mixer and a fridge, you could pull it off.
Which country you’ve traveled to has the best cured and smoked meats? Sounds like it’s Italy if you studied with the great Dario Cecchini.
It’s actually Slovakia. My wife’s Slovak, so I’ve been there a few times and undeniably they have the best smoked and cured meats. They have one that we’ve done here, a dry-cured smoked sausage with a Slovak cheese in it. I don’t remember the name and it’s definitely something I can’t pronounce. They had 35 types of dried meat and sausage in just a little local grocery store.
Do you have a certain favorite part of the pig for a certain preparation?
I would say the neck for coppa. I love doing the coppa. It incorporates the fat and the meat perfectly. There’s not another part of the pig that’s as good for that.
What’s the most enjoyable aspect of making charcuterie?
Harvesting. You’re waiting three or four months for something to finish curing and have no idea what’s going on inside there. You think, “Should I cut it open?” But our rule of thumb at Husk is that if you think it’s ready, wait 30 more days. That’s a good rule of thumb in general.
What is your spirit salami? That’s the same thing as a spirit animal, but salami.
I’m going to go with summer sausage. We had a wood burner when I was a kid and used to get the Hickory Farms summer sausage and grill it on top. My dad would be really pissed ’cause it would leave grease stains all over the top of it. Yeah, summer sausage.
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