In what will be a regular feature, we hear from some of our producers ‘in their own words’ – Over to Rob Levitt of Publican Quality Meats
I started in this business washing dishes. I was a musician with bills to pay and got a job in a deli/grocery as a dishwasher and eventually a prep cook. That led me away from music and deep into cooking. After a few years in kitchens, I was accepted to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. I did very well in all my classes- except charcuterie. I scraped by with a C… My plan was to pursue a career in fine dining, first in New York City, and eventually back in Chicago.
One Christmas, my mother-in-law gave me a copy of Paul Bertolli’s Cooking by Hand and it changed everything. I was a Sous chef at a busy downtown Italian restaurant, and quickly began making sausages, pancetta and anything else I could try my hand at, and eventually, the chef I worked for gifted me a hog from a small family farm and said I could make whatever I wanted with it. That was it- I was hooked on butchery and charcuterie. Eventually, my wife and I opened a small, farm-driven restaurant called Mado. We were the first in Chicago to regularly butcher whole animals, and among the first with a charcuterie program. That led to leaving the kitchen to open a whole animal butcher shop. The Butcher & Larder was different from other shops and really focused on quality over quantity. It was a platform to educate our community on other cuts of meat besides the usual supermarket cuts and to showcase all the things we could do with a whole animal’s worth of meat. We eventually moved into a party and a bigger space that allowed me to focus on curing. We were able to dial in formulas for salami, coppa, bresaola, and on and on. Eventually, my goals fell out of alignment with our partners, and I left.
I was having coffee with the legendary Paul Kahan one morning, telling him of my woes with Butcher & Larder, and asking his advice. He called me a few days later to tell me he needed someone at Publican Quality Meats, his much-lauded butcher shop, and I jumped at the chance. Since then, I have been able to showcase my skills as a chef, a butcher and a charcutier, making everything from cured meats to mortadella to deli meats for our sandwich menu to my current passion, pâté en crôute. We’ve done special dinners featuring several courses of composed charcuterie dishes, showcasing the uniqueness of, for example, a heritage breed, pasture raised culatello from a very small farm in nearby Michigan and serving it with a mostarda made from lacto-fermented local apricots, some cultured butter and bread from our bakery. Or telling the story of the months of research that went into refining and perfecting our mortadella and featuring it on a bruschetta with pistachios and saba. During the holidays, we sell literally hundreds of pounds of cured meats and cooked charcuterie, both in composed, ready to eat platters or sliced to order from our cases for guests to enjoy at home. We work all year to prepare for the holiday season, salting and hanging the large hams and other whole muscles and large format salami so they are ready in time. And we make sure the cases are stocked all year long with coppa, Lonza, bresaola and salami, as that is has become our biggest attraction.
My hope is that we can expand our production to be able to have cured meats in the menu at all the company’s restaurants and to be able to offer items for sale to ship all over the world via our website. Maybe even to open satellite locations that specialize in charcuterie, deli meats and sausages, but always prioritizing the quality of the product going into these items. I hope to be able to educate as well, teaching more classes and focusing my efforts on working with people who really care about the craft and the sourcing and doing things the right way.