Mesh on Mass is a massive restaurant. The undulating stairs take you up from the ballroom-size dining room up to a gorgeous, expansive space. The kitchen is no exception, with a huge staff working under head chef Jessica Sciortino. The back of house staff is a small army, with people filing in and out of the walk-in all day. Hanging from one tall shelf in one corner of this big refrigerator is the career-long passion of Mesh chef George Turkette: a few carefully trussed meats tightly bound with a spindly web of cotton twine.
Duck, pig, venison are each butchered from the whole animal, seasoned to control and construct their decay. In a few months or a year, they'll be cut down, sliced and plated on one of the five hundred or so plates that go out every Friday. Turkette has been at it during a successful run at a few of Indy's most noteworthy restaurants, like Cerulean and Pizzology under Alan Sternberg and Neal Brown, respectively. Who could have guessed that it all started with the contagious passion of one Fort Wayne food truck owner.
It wasn't until he got into cooking classes with Andrew Smith of the food truck Affine that Turkette, 23, started to hone his craft. "I was working during the day and going to class at night," Turkette, "but nine times out of ten, I would stay after class and help."
Smith, for his part, gave his students the most comprehensive study course that you possibly could. "He would bring in a whole pig and break the entire thing down. Watching a whole pig get broken down was just the coolest thing. Maybe that's the cannibal in me," Turkette laughs. Duck prosciutto was Turkette's first project that he took on with Smith, trussing the breasts with the creamy white fat cap.
Turkette's comprehensive early study of the art of making a whole animal into a variety of preserved meats carried over into his restaurant jobs. "Every restaurant I've worked in, I've expanded the charcuterie program," he says.
Starting at Neal Brown's Pizzology, Turkette added a few new goods to the lineup of house-made meats like mortadella. Then, he moved to Cerulean under head chef Alan Sternberg, who gave him free rein to make the kind of charcuterie he wanted to (you should be able to get Turkette's Cerulean charcuterie for a few more months), which lead to his current gig at Mesh.
In the same way that some people garden to get away from the daily stress, Turkette likes charcuterie because it requires so much time. "With prosciutto, for example, you're not going to wait a year and be disappointed." In a previous life, Turkette was a computer science and math major before heading off to cooking school. In that way, the raw numbers game of charcuterie appeals to the science half of his brain. After all, charcuterie is merely the process of orchestrated decay, using salts and seasonings to make sure it cures to the perfect flavor and texture. "I like numbers. I've always been a nerd."
And he also likes to cure in numbers, carefully planning out the prep steps and then stringing up multiple meats in the walk-in to keep each other company. "I like to keep multiple projects going at once."
But just because he's good at it doesn't mean he's immune to the occasional failure. "I found this veal leg in the freezer, and I tried to cure it like a country ham almost, just with veal. I had never seen it done before and it just failed miserably."
So what does "failed charcuterie" look like? Well, you can't always tell. "It can look really bad or look fine, but when you smell it, it's bad," Turkette says.
And he's also not a rarity among chefs with a specialized craft that he uses in every job he works. "Most chefs, I think, have something like this," he says of his curing acumen.
Turkette let me sample some of his cures, and if you're wondering whether or not they're heavenly, well, they are. His care in organizing good flavors at the beginning of the process has a tremendous payoff at the end. One that I was most excited about was his coffee and cherry venison. It slices a dark, vampiric red shade that brightens when you hold the little discs up to the light. The acidity and bite of the coffee and fruit neutralizes some of the natural gaminess, and actually comes off as very balanced overall.
But if I had to make a recommendation, I would tell you to return to Turkette's roots and get a few slices of the duck. The richness and salt are in perfect balance, with that velvety layer of fat melting in your mouth. No matter what you taste, though, you can know that it's coming from Turkette's purest passion, which he keeps tightly bound in string, hanging from one small shelf in one corner of a very, very large kitchen.