A massive, pale carcass is sprawled out across clear plastic packaging and a sanitized stainless steel table. The tattooed man on the opposite side from me has a black handled, shimmering knife in one hand and his other hand inside the body, tearing away chunks of thick, white fat. On the table beside the body is a clean, stainless steel hacksaw; that’ll come in handy once he gets to the butchering of this beast.
“This is a Duroc Mangalitsa hybrid from Gunthorp Farms,” says Alan Sternberg, head chef at downtown’s Cerulean. The pig on the table is the fourth animal Sternberg is eviscerating for a new addition to his menu; he has aptly entitled this new series the Whole Beast program.
The idea behind the Whole Beast program is one of simplicity: Sternberg purchases a large portion of one animal — a whole lamb, half of a pig, half of a cow — he butchers it in his kitchen and then proceeds to use every bit of the animal in a special part of his menu. Once it is gone he orders another animal. It’s rarely being done anywhere else in the city, but one conversation with Alan (Indiana’s only chef nominated for a national James Beard Award
) will prove to you that it should be — it should be happening everywhere.
As he sets into the next step, removing the head with that hacksaw, he begins explaining what led him to start this program. “This is something I haven’t done very often and something I truly wanted to get to know a lot better. So part of this entire experience is the education for me and the challenge of, ‘How am I going to use this entire thing?’; ‘How am I going to butcher it?’; What am I going to teach my staff as we’re learning together?’; ‘If we make a mistake how do we salvage it?’; These are all in my head with this project, and it’s exciting.”
He is nearly through the neck bone, the sawing looks more difficult than you might expect. You can tell, in a way, he is enjoying this; not in some weird, bloodthirsty way, but as a kid learning something for the first time — or Peter Parker testing his new spidey sense. He explains it as he saws away, “Being able to take an animal, break it down, and know that it will be on the menu tonight has been a surprisingly rewarding experience for me. I really didn’t think it would be as rewarding as it has been.”
“This will be on the menu tonight?” I ask, incredulously.
“Yeah,” he says nonchalantly as he finishes cutting the head off with a hacksaw. “Wow,” is the only response I can muster up as he picks the head up and puts it in a food bin.
See more about Cerulean and their menu here
Next he moves onto the back half of the pig, “This has been such a learning experience; it’s taught me a lot about the different parts of different animals, like this right here is the sirloin,” Alan says, patting his hand on a large area just in front of what a layman would call the back thigh (ham in the pork world). “I knew that, but I didn’t really understand it all, like between this bone and this bone is a divider between two different cuts of meat.”
He takes his knife to a seemingly invisible line between the ham and the loin; the knife glides through the skin with ease. While he’s slicing, I ask him what else led him to this program. He responds as he swaps the knife for the hacksaw again, “Part of it definitely was my personal exploration of the whole thing, another big part was it helps the farmers when they can sell a whole animal. This,” he says, pointing to what is left of the pig on the table, “makes sure they don’t have to sit on any ground meat for a long period of time and they just get paid.” It also can lead toward a popularizing of usually unused parts. Consider pork belly, a decade ago you would have been hard-pressed to find it on an American menu and now it is a much sought after cut of pork, because it’s so damn good.
The Whole Beast also allows him to be a bit more creative with his culinary creations. He has multiple cuts to work with throughout the week, and he is likely to change the menu the night of. “I’m a wait and see kinda guy. I try not to be too planned in life, I find it restrictive. I don’t think I’m a very creative person, so when creativity hits me it’s not planned, it just kind of comes.” You can tell he is reeling around ideas in his mind: “I’ll get a ham here, T-bone from here, belly from here, loin chops here, a ton of lardo from this.” He gets excited. "This is honestly the most fat I’ve pulled out of one of these guys.” He places a massive slice of bone-white material on the table, just one of many fat layers on this beast of a pig. “Greg [Gunthorp] likes to raise gigantic animals,” he says, laughing at the fat.
While he is using this to help farmers — which in the end is his true goal — another crucial aspect is educating people. “Letting people know that where their food comes from is important and why our state and its food culture is the way it is is another aspect of this,” he says as he is making his way through the pork loins. He already set the ham to the side, saying it will cure for about 40 days, get smoked and then age for about 9 months. He already has another ham in that process.
He gives a synopsis of Indiana’s history: “That is one thing I found most interesting throughout this entire process. Our state was settled on rivers so that we could easily get to and from New England because the settlers here owed the people there money. Then the railways came in and so nearly everything we were growing, from the time the state was settled, was being sent back East and it really kind of screwed our state’s food culture up for a long time. I mean, it wasn’t until the 70s when our farmers finally actually started seeing profits.”
His next beast coming in will pay homage to this history. “Next week we will be getting a Poland China, the original pig bred in Indiana, which kind of helped settle it … I want to educate people on the historical influences on food in Indiana. My goal is always to increase education and increase good practices. In the next 20 years I really want to see more small farms, I want to see us stop subsidizing such big farms who aren’t taking care and aren’t good stewards of the land.”
This is something Alan emphasizes over and over again, being a “good steward of the land.” It is a term one sees often when looking at forward-thinking people who work and advocate to save our Earth and in turn make a brighter future for our children. In fact, a common Native American proverb, quoted often by proponents of this idea, reads, “We do not inherit the Earth from our Ancestors, we borrow it from our Children.”
This is the heart of the Whole Beast program, “I feel like if we support these small farmers and the people that are good stewards of the land, we can make farming a legitimate, profitable livelihood again and then we in turn will be provided with more quality food. We will be able to bring food to food deserts and feed and employ people right here. In a nutshell that’s our big picture with this program,” he says, laughing at the grandiose scale of the goal. He then admits, “It’s big steps from here, but this is the start and that’s where we’re heading.”
“It’s become cliché to say you’re a farm-to-table restaurant,” he says, now that the entire pig has been cut into its constituent parts and put away. His wife Audra — who has been watching the entire process with their 8-year-old daughter coming in and out of the kitchen — adds, “it’s become pretty much expected.” It has become expected. It should be expected. It’s a good place for our food industry to be. It is a step in the right direction and with chefs like Alan leading the way toward keeping this expectation and pushing it to the next level, I think we and our children have a brighter food future ahead of us. Hopefully we will give this Earth we borrowed from our children back to them in a better condition than we found it.