KANSAS CITY — Sausage plays a popular role at high-end restaurants throughout the U.S. Not only is it occasionally featured on the center of the plate, but more often it is used as a flavor ingredient or component of both appetizers and entrées. Sausage is used to provide textural contrast and interest to the other ingredients on plates and menus.
While very few high-end restaurants purchase sausage from outside vendors, there is a glaring sales opportunity for sausage processors who understand restaurant operators’ culinary needs and are able to address their challenges.
Hitting on the trends
Many food trends begin at restaurants and trickle down through the food chain to retail shoppers. This is how my own business began more than 30 years ago when I began selling authentic Louisiana-style andouille sausage to a few of my chef friends who wanted to reproduce the very popular Louisiana dishes they were reading about in the national press. Andouille started appearing in dishes such as gumbo and jambalaya, and more creative dishes such as stuffed fish and sauces for fish and poultry.
At the time, andouille was mostly produced in Louisiana in state-inspected processing plants, which were prohibited to sell out of state. My andouille was made locally in San Francisco in a U.S. Dept. of Agriculture-inspected facility, so I could legally sell it anywhere. At that time, many food service customers were making their fresh sausage in house, but few had the facility or wherewithal to cold smoke, which is an essential step in the production of authentic andouille. Soon, I was selling to many of the high-end restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area. Many of these restaurants received a lot of media attention, and often the andouille was mentioned as well.
Furthermore, as more diners learned about and enjoyed the andouille they ate, they often asked where it could be purchased. So as I began to sell it to retailers, I already had an enthusiastic audience, especially when we offered tastes to shoppers. Eventually andouille became a recognized flavor nationally, and today it is found in many grocery stores and is produced by many companies around the country.
Food trends that begin at a restaurant and trickle down to become well known don’t always begin as a sausage flavor. Buffalo chicken wings, which originated at the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, N.Y., was a chicken wing preparation served with blue cheese dressing. Several sausage companies have adapted this flavor profile (hot peppers, vinegar and spices) to produce Buffalo-style flavored sausage. Some companies, such as Bilinski’s in Cohoes, N.Y., have even added blue cheese to the blend. Several years ago my former company, Aidells Sausage, introduced a Buffalo-style sausage as well, but it was not enthusiastically accepted and was terminated. I don’t believe the Buffalo-style sausage will find a market with high-end restaurant chefs.
Some ingredients that have gained traction at high-end restaurants have a Korean origin. Black garlic and Korean chili paste (Gochujang) have worked their way into some house-produced sausages in the last year. Peruvian herbs, called Black Mint (Huchatay), have a uniquely sharp and fruity flavor and could also find their way into sausage.
Chefs and sausage
Many high-end restaurants produce their own sausage and don’t buy from vendors. A reason for that is economics, considering the restaurants often have trim or underused cuts that need to find a home to contribute to profits and not end up in the trash. This is particularly important if the restaurant is purchasing expensive meats like heirloom pork, game meats and expensive poultry like duck, quail and squab.
Another reason chefs make their own sausages is that many have become very interested in charcuterie and have a passion to learn about sausage making. The result is a desire to experiment and produce their own sausage as a fun activity, providing these would-be sausage makers with pride and a sense of joy as well as bragging fodder when chefs gather with other chefs. Finally, the idea of house-made sausage fits well with the current trend of farm to table that many high-end restaurants endorse and practice.
My biggest challenge 33 years ago when selling my sausage to chefs was the chefs who made their own sausage. But there was a paradox to house-made sausage that occasionally provided me with an opportunity. Sometimes these house-made sausages became so popular that instead of just making 10-30 lbs a week with trim or under-used cuts, the demand had grown to hundreds of lbs a week.
The chefs often found that the time required to produce these took away from more critical cooking duties so that the task of making sausage was turned over to less-skilled workers such as a prep cook or even a dishwasher. Sometimes that individual lacked the culinary experience needed to make adjustments to the recipe, such as the amount of fat or adjusting the flavor of fresh herbs when it varied from batch to batch.
The result was that quality and consistency suffered. Sometimes restaurants turned their sausage production over to me or simply replaced their house-made products with one of mine realizing that in the long run it was cheaper and more efficient. When MacArthur Park, a high-volume San Francisco restaurant, could no longer keep up with the demand for its popular whiskey fennel sausage, it turned the production over to me. In return, the restaurant received a consistent, quality product, and I added a new flavor to my offerings. Processors and distributors may not convince every restaurant to stop making their own sausage, but they could end up with a sale if they are confident they can sell them a replacement that meets their high-quality needs.
What chefs want
Many high-end restaurants are looking for ingredients that are special. Many are committed to buying heirloom breeds of pork and will even buy whole animals if that is what is needed to get what they want. Chefs may also be looking for game meats such as wild boar, elk, or venison and expensive meats such as rabbit, quail, duck or squab. Often expensive ingredients such as foie gras, truffles, porcini mushrooms or morels are used in house-made sausage.
Restaurants that may not even be Italian are often looking for artisan quality Italian meats (salumi) comparable to what is offered in Italy. Some even incorporate high-quality cured meats such as pancetta, lardo, coppa and prosciutto into their own fresh sausage recipes.
A few companies have responded to the growing need for artisanal Italian meats. Nduja Artisan of Chicago provides a very authentic Calabrian Nduja (a soft spreadable cured sausage) from a family recipe that is purchased by Boulevard Restaurant in San Francisco.
Salumaria Bielese in New York produces a full line of Italian sausages and makes custom sausages from recipes provided by various well-known New York restaurants. La Quercia in Norwalk, Iowa, best known for its superb prosciutto, also makes some Italian sausages. Framani in Berkeley, Calif., provides cooked sausage and cured Italian meats used at some Bay Area restaurants. D’Artagnan in Union, N.J., sells game sausage and others made with rabbit, duck or wild mushrooms suitable for high-end restaurants and French restaurants. Fabrique Delice in the Bay Area provides French-style sausages such as Boudin Noir, Boudin Blanc and Toulouse.
Sausage on the boulevard
Boulevard Restaurant in San Francisco has been a top-rated restaurant for its 22 years of operation. It received a James Beard award for best restaurant in the country in 2012. Since chef/owner Nancy Oakes is also my wife and one of my first customers, sausage has always been an essential element of her cuisine. The andouille that she purchased from me long ago played a vital role in her food, but she has always produced house-made sausages as well.
Because the Boulevard sells 70 to 80 Berkshire pork rib racks a week, it always has a lot of great trim, which finds its way into sausage, according to Dana Younkin, Boulevard’s chef du cuisine. There are several young chefs in the kitchen who are anxious to learn from Boulevard’s long-standing sausage-making tradition and have taken on the task of sausage making. Since the amounts are relatively small, these chefs make the sausage themselves, and it is not relegated to prep cooks.
Philosophically, making its own sausage fits well into the Boulevard’s farm-to-table concepts. Over the years the sausage often incorporates local foraged ingredients such as porcinis, morels, wild herbs and local greens.
Ms. Younkin said Boulevard is currently producing a Mexican-inspired green chorizo and a quail sausage made from the legs and stuffed into boneless roasted quail. The green chorizo is made with fresh cilantro, parsley, ground pecans, pumpkin seeds, hazel nuts and fresh green chilis. It is not stuffed into casings, but instead placed into a vacuum-sealed bag and cooked in a 140° F water bath (called sous vide, many restaurants use this method to gently cook proteins and vegetables). Once cooked, the sausage is diced and used in an appetizer dish with roasted octopus, pumpkin seeds and Huitlacoche (a corn fungus). While I wouldn't categorize this dish as “Mexican,” it does have a distinct Southwest profile.
The sausage stuffed quail is made with the legs and thighs, fat from diced foie gras and fresh herbs. It is stuffed directly into the quail cavity.
Nduja is a spreadable soft Calabrian salami used in Calabria as a flavor component for pastas, sauces and other dishes, and is popular at Boulevard as well. The kitchen attempted to make its own version, which was satisfactory, but it now buys from Nduja Artisan in Chicago because it is superior and does not take up valuable space needed to age. It has been used in many dishes including risotto, steamed mussels, vegetables, scallops, beans and even bread.
Ms. Younkin, like many other creative chefs of her generation, is always looking for new and exciting ingredients to inspire new dishes and ideas. When asked what it would take to get her to buy other sausages that meet her criteria, she said she would be open to trying different meats in her recipes such as heirloom pork breeds like Red Wattle, American Guinea or Mule Foot as well as game meats such as wild boar, elk or rabbit.
Bruce Aidells founded Aidells Sausage Co. in 1983. He left the company in 2002 and is a food writer for consumer publications and the author of 12 cookbooks.