Hog, Whole: 'Nose To Tail' Food Movement Comes To Proof
I’m sitting outside the kitchen at Proof on Main during the lull between breakfast and lunch, waiting for visiting Chef Ashley Christensen to take a break from prep. I have no idea what she looks like -- but I’ve known what her macaroni and cheese looks like for months.
Christensen is the mind behind seven restaurant concepts in Raleigh, North Carolina. Her passionate focus on local ingredients prepared with astounding technique won her the 2014 James Beard Award for “Best Chef: Southeast.”
Plus, her Poole’s Diner mac and cheese is something of an Instagram legend.
On Thursday, she and Proof executive chef Mike Wajda are teaming up to prepare the restaurant’s 8th Annual “The Hog and The Barrel Dinner.” The meal will feature Mulefoot and Hereford hogs from Woodland Farm, which is owned by 21c Museum Hotel founders Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson.
It’s a five course meal celebrating the whole hog -- “nose to tail,” if you will -- which Christensen says speaks to how the food climate has changed in the South over the last decade.
“Someone might have gone in a restaurant and said ‘I want the ribeye steak,’” she says. “Where now they want to see all the interesting things chefs are doing with the other parts of that animal.”
In her recent cookbook “Poole’s: Recipes and Stories from a Modern Diner,” Christensen asks: "Do these ingredients share a season and are they local?" A commitment to reducing food waste and major concentration on seasonality may seem like more hype phrases that feed into the “New Southern Cuisine” movement. But both Wajda and Christensen have personal stories that cause them to prioritize knowing how food gets to their restaurant tables, making the pair ideal collaborators.
Wajda was born in northeast Ohio and then traveled all over; most recently he worked with Chef Michael Mina in San Francisco. He says being on the West Coast made him miss the Midwest and its distinct seasons.
“You know, you miss longing for a tomato, as crazy as it sounds,” Wajda says. “I wanted to be close to my family but also get in tune with food from the ground again.”
Meanwhile, Christensen was raised in North Carolina by parents who taught her a love of food. She writes of them in her cookbook: “In that kitchen, where they cooked and danced, my emotional education in food was born.”
Both say as food has become more of a hot topic over the last 10 years, customers expect more from the experiences chefs provide -- especially in how they use proteins, which pushes chefs like Christensen and Wajda to explore different preparations. For example, the menu Thursday includes a head cheese terrine and a blood sausage and blue gouda cannelloni.
“All these odd bits that people don’t use -- the thing is, they’re delicious,” Wajda says.
And, Wajda says, they ensure that the entire animal is used instead of letting food go to waste. Essentially, this evening's whole hog preparation has implications beyond one meal.
Christensen also says events like this, where chefs from different backgrounds come together, isn’t just good for the diners.
“But as chefs, we have this incredible opportunity where we work together and we then get the benefits of all the stories of all the chefs we work with have grown up on,” she says.