In late April, our California distributor Farm Wines held their annual L.A tasting at Salt's Cure.
This tiny restaurant, owned by Zachary Walters and Chris Phelps, has the simple goal of "proudly sourcing ingredients grown & raised in california, all of which are carefully butchered & crafted in house".
And while working exclusively with local ingredients is nothing new, particularly in California, these guys take everything to the next level, specifically with the meat. Every piece of meat served at Salt's Cure is sourced from a farm the guys know and trust, but more significant is their dedication to only ordering whole animals, which they butcher themselves in house to assure quality and minimize waste. I'd actually met Zak (owner/butcher) and Zach (butcher) late one night at Terroir in SF, and was super excited to find out that we'd actually be eating there after the tasting! It did not disappoint; no one could believe how good everything was, and it's certainly one of the most memorable meals I've ever had. So, you know the drill: I asked Zak if he'd be down to talk about the restaurant, and he and Chris hit me back up with the answers to my questions.
Tell us about yourselves and how you got to where you are.
Chris Phelps: I like golf, walking on the beach at night (which I don't do often) and making out with my girl on ferris wheels. I am a chef because I love food. I also want the best. If I'm going to put a big hunk of fatty meat in my body, I want it to be amazing. If I get drunk, I would prefer it to be from really nice wine.
Zachary Walters: We got here with mostly hard work and follow through. It was hard to open and a bit scary at times, but we made it happen with some simple optimism. That has transcended into the operation and philosophy as well. We are confident in our abilities to serve the food we offer.
Tell us about Salt's Cure: how long its been open, your philosophy, how you guys operate, etc...
CP:We want the freshest high quality ingredients to make straight forward food. How do we do that? By finding amazing farms in California. I didn't know how high the quality was going to be until we tried that first pork chop. That was pretty much the real beginning. We ate it and were like "we gotta find this baby a home!" Meaning: "We have to find an outlet for this product. It can't be hidden from the world."
That set the bar pretty high for the other meats. It makes it harder to have a lot of options, but when things are tasting like they do, we don't feel that we need them. It will be nice when we can find an affordable new specimen, though.
ZW: Opened on Aug. 14th 2010. Our first commitment to Salt's Cure was to respect what we are serving. The farmers are taking their time and money to raise animals in a much different fashion from a lot of their contemporaries in California so we are trying to enhance that effort with as little to no manipulation at all.
It it a challenge finding farmers who will sell you whole animals?
CP: A lot of the farms we deal with do have pre cut meats. They don't have a lot of any specific cut though. You could do this without the in-house butcher but you would still have to use many different cuts. You couldn't get pork chops every day. Getting the whole animal is a challenge, but we have fun with it and the farmers prefer it. They don't want to have a bunch of heads in their freezer.
Did you do all the field work with the farms prior or after you guys had already been in business? Or was the very idea of opening the restaurant to highlight these products?
ZW: Both. We researched first and have found new ranches since opening. But the idea was to be competitive with California ingredients. So, in a nutshell, we are showcasing the ranches.
What's the in-house butchering process like?
CP: So, we get about 10 animals at a time (6 pigs, 3 goats, 1 veal and 1 steer) and go through them piece by piece. We leave them in whole pieces for as long as we can so they can age nicely. We start with the parts that don't age as well (flanks, necks, heads, offal) and go from there. We had to establish a schedule for the fabrication to minimize waste. For pork, bellies go on cure every wednesday, so the bacon will be fresh for the following weekend brunch. So, 3 halves of a pig have to get processed every week. We get chops for dinner, hams for lunch, some of it goes in the air drying chamber and scraps and shoulder for sausage. We've got it moving very well now. Zach is more experienced now and is able to try new things after the "schedule" is complete. He's made a great bologna that we've added to the cycle. Also, pepperoni could be showing up more often.
ZW: In house butchers are seen or at least were seen, but not at this rate. The whole animal movement will continue to spread... it is the only logical way to know you are serving the highest quality meat. It cannot work for some locations, but the effort can be there and we are seeing a lot of this in a bunch of new places. Zach (butcher) is young and getting an education that a lot of American born cooks will never get. But, here we are all in house butchers...to a certain degree we have to be...there is a lot to be done!
Chris, you mentioned "straight-forward food". The menu is minimalist and only indicates what animal and cut of meat you're getting. As chefs and business owners, what brought you to this very bare bones approach of doing one thing incredibly well, as opposed to complex, multi-layered dishes. Does all the butchering limit the ability to get "creative"? Does one need to get creative when you have such delicious meat?
CP: Absolutely the meat can stand on its own. When we first opened, the pork chop didn't even come with the little apple. Just salted and grilled. The apple is just to lighten it up a bit. A little cider vinegar helps cut the fat and the wine does the rest.
The butchering doesn't directly limit the creativity. It just takes up so much time and using the parts properly is the primary goal. We add on a few new dishes each cycle of animals we go through. Zach is being creative by trying new air dried products, zak and I pick a cut of meat from each animal we feel may have been lacking last time. And of course the season has a lot to do with it.
The bare bones thing is really for the diners. First, they don't have to read much, they just go straight to the main idea. Second, it's understated so when they get the food it's like oh fuck. And lastly, being able to taste each ingredient ... Having a few elements that have a purpose together is well understood by even novice diners. If we put a nice bbq sauce on the pork chop, it would lose some of the gamey, animal flavors that make it so special.
Most restaurants with a local-only focus still permit themselves to feature an international wine list. You only serve California wine, and I hear you guys have a strong opinion on this. Care to share? I'll also point out that the wines you serve all adhere to the same criteria as the food (i.e local, fresh, not spoofy, pure expression of terroir, etc...)
CP: The wine list is an idea that everything tastes better if you have it where it's from. If the pigs grew on this land, and the grapes grew on this land, they should go together pretty well. It's a whole California experience. I would love to drink a glass of Mourvedre that came from grapes fertilized by the goat (ancestor of the goat) that I'm eating with it. That's very hard to do here, but we're close.
ZW: Wine...yes...California only...where was America 30 years ago in the cheese world and where is it now? Where is America in the wine world now and where will it be in 30 years? We have to start somewhere and why not? As with Chris' response, it should work better, we are not there and could never get there, but we have met a lot of very skilled and enthusiastic wine makers wanting the transition. All they need are the people willing to support them.
What are you particularly into drinking these days?
CP: I'm into drinking see through red wines that are light to medium bodied with an earthy funk to them. A little oxidation is nice too.
ZW: Anything from the Loire.
7494 santa monica blvd.
west hollywood, ca 90046
lunch weekdays 11 am – 3 pm
brunch sat & sun 11 am – 3 pm
dinner 5:30 pm – 10:30 pm