Chef Irene Li
We recently spoke with Irene to find out more about the world of mobile foodservice and its differing processes from work-life in a brick-and-mortar restaurant kitchen.Read Bio
Getting to the Meat of It
You've defined your restaurant CHARCUT as a “Meat House.” Share your inspiration behind bringing meat into the spotlight.
John Jackson: When you look at the whole concept of CHARCUT, it is very meat-centric.
There's a subtle scent of fruitwood smoke and the design of our restaurant brings you into the kitchen. It's tall and open with a view, from every seat, of our meat on the custom-built rotisserie or our charcuterie. This all really brings meat to the center-of-the-plate for our concept, to our menu.
The menu concept was very much inspired by Connie, myself and the food we loved to eat. While working at St. Regis in San Francisco, we were making this meal for our staff and we brought in a whole pig. We deboned, cured and stuffed it full of pate sausage before cooking it and we really fell in love with that style of family-like, food-sharing, conversational meal while evolving simple ingredients.
Your dishes are comprised of meat that is not only sourced locally but seasonally. What is your process for sourcing the highest quality, finest cuts and most flavorful meats?
Connie DeSousa: During the time we spent in San Francisco, we were so inspired by the idea that everybody knew where their food came from and the names of their farmers, butchers and local producers. This completely inspired John and I and so we really wanted that to be a part of our restaurant concept as we built our home in Alberta.
The goal of our concept was to be focused on farm-to-table dining as well as being very meat-centric so the first thing that we did when we moved back to Calgary was spend 40 days on farms throughout the province, searching for the best quality beef, chicken, lamb and vegetables. We sourced out all different farmers, producers, building relationships with them and breaking bread with their families. We even had picnics on these farms with the families. It was really important to us because we knew that we would hopefully be sourcing from them for the entire lifetime of our restaurants and most of the farmers we're still using to this day.
Were there unique ingredients that still stand out today?
Connie DeSousa: 100%! A lot of people don't know this but the lamb that is raised in Alberta is distributed across the country because it is so mild, tender, flavorful and unlike any other lamb we've ever tasted before.
Other things that were really unique were the artichokes we found growing about thirty kilometers north of the city at Jungle Farm. The farmer growing these didn't even really know what to do with them in terms of how restauranteurs or chefs would use artichokes in their kitchens. We ended up working with them and a lot of their crops to educate on what size to grow vegetables to, how they'd be used in restaurants and how they should be cut.
Describe which flavor ingredients you will always use regardless of the cooking technique you’re using to prepare your different types of meats.
John Jackson: We look at each cut of meat very differently as some can be treated with various techniques depending on what it is. We see if it needs to be seared, smoked, slow-cooked or high-heat grilled. Each cut requires different steps to maximize the flavors.
For example, a simple skirt steak would involve a nice quick marinade and a super-high heat on the grill, cooking it to medium rare and then slicing it thin against the grain. Meanwhile, a pork shoulder can be slow-cooked with a braising or because of its fat ratio, it's a perfect muscle to be turned into sausage for charcuterie.
Do you have a favorite technique?
Connie DeSousa: My favorite thing to do in the kitchen is make sausages.
John Jackson: Anything over a solid wood fire right now. At both CHARCUT and the Rooftop Bar at Simmon’s we have a custom-built Argentinian wood fire grill that is just amazing to cook with.
What are the biggest flavor challenges you’ve experienced in experimenting with such a variety of different meats and how did you overcome them?
John Jackson: With coming to Calgary from San Francisco and opening up a restaurant over 7 years ago, we definitely had the nose-to-tail in mind but we weren't sure how it would be perceived because we hadn't lived here for so long. It was very important for us to introduce some of those off-cuts in interesting, familiar ways.
For instance, bison heart kielbasa has a familiar flavor of a traditional kielbasa sausage and a majority of the meat is like ground pork shoulder but then the feature and star of the sausages is cubes of bison heart.
Another one is our signature pig head mortadella. It's a classic Italian mortadella salami but instead of using a traditional casing, we stuff the mortadella into a deboned pig's head. The end result is incredible flavor and the skin of the head acts as the best casing in a mortadella you've ever tried.
So, what’s next for CHARCUT’s menu? Which new meats and ingredients are you most looking forward to incorporating?
Connie DeSousa: We change our menu seasonally and fall is our favorite season, especially because it fits so well with our concept. Being meat-centric, a lot of the dishes are rich and tend to be a bit heavier in the wintertime so one of the things that our diners are always looking forward to is our serving of brussels sprouts which we fry in duck fat, making it taste quite delicious. We have regulars who just can't wait for us to put them back on the menu every year and they complain often once we have to take them off.
We also just incorporated quite an extensive pasta menu so we're looking forward to adding a game Bolognese plus a braised bison that’s a house favorite. We love to experiment with new things but also bring back popular dishes that our guests really love.