If you ask someone what their favorite cut of meat is, you’re likely to get standard answers: “ribs,” “sirloin,” or “leg.” However, with the rising popularity of a new dinner format in the city, New Yorkers’ answers to that question may soon change.
Behold, the whole animal feast. More and more, restaurants across the city are serving up the entire beast—in most cases, whole hog—to large groups of diners looking for more than your standard porterhouse for two. The Breslin offers their three-course whole roast suckling pig feast for $75 per person at the Chef’s Table. Maialino serves up whole pig in a variety of preparations with side dishes for $165 per person. At DBGB Kitchen & Bar, the Whole Hog meal, which includes sides and dessert, is $495 for up to eight people.
The format may differ, but the idea is the same: Groups of diners pay a large sum to be wowed by a unique take on dinner. “Feasting is fun,” says Christian Pappanicholas, the owner of Belgian restaurant Resto. “I think in this city full of diners and great restaurants, people have a want and need to go out and dig into whole animals.”
Since 2008, Resto has been serving “large format feasts” of a whole pig, lamb, goat, or other animal in a bespoke menu to groups of up to 18 people, and Pappanicholas has observed a shift from requests numbering one or so every month initially to the current rate of three or four a week.
With the exposure to different eating cultures fueld by today’s foodie media, communal and out of the ordinary dining is increasingly sought after as an experience. “Diners want to feel like they’re investing in something more social, rather than just going to eat, then saying ‘we’re outta here,’” says Matthew Ridgway, the owner and chef at Pennsylvania-based charcuterie PorcSalt. See: events such as Meatopia and the Breslin Butcher’s Ball, where dining enthusiasts gather to feast with meat-centric figures such as April Bloomfield and Pat LaFrieda for up to $150.
Chefs and restaurants also have their own incentives. Economically, restaurants benefit greatly from such events, considering that the aforementioned prices do not include the cost of wine pairings. Purchasing and breaking down the whole animal on premises also makes fiscal sense, as the price per pound of a whole carcass is significantly lower because it circumvents processing costs.
However, the sense of challenge and culinary expression may also influence chefs’ choice to incorporate entire carcasses. “Being able to cook a whole animal, I think it proves to ourselves and to each other that we’re not just here to make a fancy plate of meat. We know what to do with a whole animal,” says Heather Carlucci, the co-organizer of Pig Mountain, an event held this past August, in which 10 chefs each prepared a whole hog. Featuring Anthony Sasso of Casa Mono, Lee Anne Wong of Top Chef fame, and Ridgway, among others, the event attracted about a thousand attendees to the obscure town of Narrowsburg, New York. At Resto, the same creativity required to personalize menus for each feast inspires other dishes with obscure animal ingredients, such as the beef heart Milanese on their regular dinner menu.
Chefs are also increasingly taking their culinary cues from abroad. Hong Kong style whole suckling pig and Greek spit-roasted lamb are just a few examples of international dishes that have served as inspiration for whole-animal feasts. “Chefs now are much more well-travelled than, say, ten years ago,” Ridgway explains. “Chefs are not only in France, they’re in Brazil, they’re in Colombia, they’re in China, they’re in Vietnam, and so now, you’re seeing chefs my age and younger bring that expertise back.”
Ridgway points to pork belly for evidence: although it is now a popular ingredient (think Momofuku pork bun), it couldn’t be sold 10 to 15 years ago. He cites this as an example of how greater cultural exposure on the part of both chef and diner has been amplified by online exchange to rapidly produce new culinary trends.
This renewed hankering for previously unused—and, frankly, scoffed-at—parts of an animal also goes hand in hand with a greater awareness of animal treatment and preparation. “There’s a new appreciation for the crafts that are behind the scenes of the chef, the butcher and the farmer,” says Carlucci. This emphasis on knowledge has elevated the profession of butchery, as seen from the respect garnered by Pat LaFrieda and an influx of independent butcher shops around the city. Even tourists visit the butcher shop Marlow & Daughters in Williamsburg.
“Nose to tail,” a term coined by British chef Fergus Henderson, has joined the ranks of buzzwords such as “sustainable” and “farm to table” in a culture that puts chefs and their priorities at the fore. Anthony Bourdain observing an entire community take a pig from slaughter to finished product on his show No Reservations is but one of many examples in popular media in which an animal to be eaten is treated with utmost respect—and, increasingly, diners are paying for that kind of recognition. “People are starting to be more aware, and they’re starting to want to pay more money for food and get that kind of value out of it,” says Ridgway.
Perhaps it all boils down to a statement from T.J. Burnham, the head butcher at Marlow & Daughters: “you can do something with everything.” To achieve that end—and to satisfy an ever more adventurous New York dining crowd—more and more restaurants are stepping up to the plate.