Nathan Hobart at Cure: Reviving the art of the neighborhood butcher
The salumi board at Cure features meat cured in-house with accompaniments.
Nate Hobart, 20, is among the youngest cooks in town. He not only is second in command at Cure, but under the guidance of chef Justin Severino he is becoming an artisan butcher and char-cutier.
The salumi board includes terrine, duck speck, baseola, salami, chorizo and lardo.
Chef Justin Severino examines a lamb sausage that has been curing in a temperature-controlled room at Cure.
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It is 10 a.m. at Cure, chef-owner Justin Severino's meat mecca in Lawrenceville. Sous chef Nathan Hobart stands in front of a butcher board chopping bacon.
Dressed in a chef's apron and a maroon T-shirt emblazoned with the Cure logo, the 6-foot-5 cook seems nearly two-dimensional, all arms and legs. He swims in his jeans.
As he chops cured pork belly, his movements are skilled and economical.
This morning's arrival and assemblage of ingredients is part of Mr. Hobart's daily preparation routine for evening service.
He's only 20, yet he has already worked his way up the line in a restaurant kitchen before he can legally drink alcohol.
Mr. Hobart is not only second in command at Cure: Under the guidance of Mr. Severino, he is becoming one of a handful of artisan butchers and charcutiers, the guys who turn meat cuts -- particularly those from a pig -- into pates, sausages, confits and rillettes.
While his peers decide what to do with their lives, Mr. Hobart has been working in kitchens for nearly four years. A graduate of the now-closed Cordon Bleu of Pittsburgh, he met Mr. Severino when he interviewed as a cook at Elements, Downtown, where Mr. Severino was executive chef. The latter left Elements in July 2011 and opened Cure in January 2012. Elements closed this summer.
"History has showed me that underexperienced, overly passionate people are very open to teaching," said Mr. Severino, 34. Mr. Hobart fit the bill.
Mr. Severino said his goal is to teach staff everything he has learned from experience that has included his own shop, Severino's Community Butcher in Santa Cruz, Calif., and Manresa, a starred Michelin restaurant south of San Francisco.
It turns out, Mr. Hobart has been the best employee Mr. Severino has trained.
"Nate kind of stands out," he said.
Butchering and curing are making a comeback in restaurants as people are more conscientious of where their meat comes from and how it is raised. Butchering also connects people to cultural traditions. Neighborhood butchers often provide better cuts of meat and decrease reliance on agribusiness.
This renaissance has translated to butchering competitions around the country and collaborative dinners that pay homage to the pig. It has led to meat-focused festivals such as Cochon 555, the 10-city tour in which five chefs in each city butcher and serve a whole pig. Their efforts are judged by industry heavy-hitters, who determine the country's winning chef at Aspen Food and Wine Festival in Colorado.
Mr. Severino is a pioneer of butcher revivalism in Pittsburgh, though the craft hadn't died out here to the degree it had in other cities. Parma Sausage, for example, has been providing sausage and cured meat in the Strip District since 1954.
Though he may not have forseen his learning charcuterie, Mr. Hobart knew he would someday work in kitchens, having grown up in a food-focused family in upstate New York. Each night, they sat down to dinner with dishes inspired by the family's garden.
He practiced cooking on his older and younger brother. "I made their lunches for as long as I can remember," he said.
It's ironic that he spends his days and nights in a restaurant. "We never went out to dinner," he said.
Back in the kitchen at Cure, Mr. Hobart takes a break from chopping bacon to visit the meat curing room. He heads out the door and down an alley behind the building where basement stairs lead to a stone-walled room with a tiny meat closet in the back.
Inside, racks display dozens of hanging meats: round hams, the dry Italian salami called soppressata as well as braseola, cured beef made from top round among them. The room smells savory, earthy and delicious.
A humidifier in the back of the closet keeps humidity between 50 and 60 percent in a room that remains at 55 degrees year-round. This temperature-controlled room is essential to the safe handling of meat. A restaurant also must be vigilant in maintaining a sanitized prep area and in following curing procedures that include plenty of salt and seasonings as well as nitrates to prevent bacterial growth.
Most of the charcuterie at Cure comes from heritage pigs that Mr. Severino butchers for a crowd at the restaurant once a month. He started this practice the first month he opened Cure for 20 guests who prepaid for the event. "I needed a way to pay for the pig," he said.
Mr. Severino can typically butcher a pig in less than an hour, but it takes longer during these presentations as he explains each cut and its use.
After the demo, Mr. Hobart whips lardo, one of 14 offerings on the restaurant's salumi board, listed on the menu as a "snack" for $27.
Lardo starts with leaf fat that forms around the kidneys and heart, the quality of which illuminates the health of the pig. "Really good quality stuff smears like butter," Mr. Severino said.
Lardo is cured overnight with salt and sugar in the meat room. Then it's rinsed and placed on a sheet pan in the oven -- with thyme, oregano, sage, peppercorns and lots of garlic -- on low heat for 10 to 12 hours. As it liquefies, Mr. Hobart clarifies the fat, as one would a broth. Then it's taken out of the oven to cool. Mr. Hobart adds room temperature butter to lardo and whips them in a mixer. The result is a creamy, white, glistening spread that's served on toasted baguette.
"It doesn't get much better than that," said Mr. Severino of the whipped lardo he has taught his protege to make.
With so much time and ambition in front of Mr. Hobart, here's betting that it does.
First Published December 23, 2012 12:00 am