Charcuterie's First Couple
The Fatted Calf Charcuterie store, in the new Oxbow Public Market a stone's throw from downtown Napa, is bright and airy. In the glass-fronted display case are cured meats and salumi--prosciutto, soppressata, and mortadella, among many others. There are pork chops, hams, duck confit, crocks of rillettes and pâté, and salads of beans and vegetables. It's a far cry from the farmers market stalls that Taylor Boetticher and Toponia Miller, cofounders and spouses, have been running for the past five years.
Charcuterie is the French word for cured meats, a process that evolved as a way to preserve meat before refrigeration. "It's a dying trade," Boetticher says. "Not too many people know how to do this." Charcuterie had been part of the curriculum at the Culinary Institute of America, where the pair met as students, but only as a 10-day course. "It was a bunch of jellied things laid out on mirrors," recalls Boetticher. "It didn't look like something you would want to eat."
It's only through a serendipitous accident that Miller and Boetticher ever ended up in this business. In 1999, Boetticher applied for what he thought would be a sous chef job at Café Rouge. The opening for which the Berkeley restaurant and butcher shop was actually hiring was in charcuterie. He took it anyway, while Miller worked as a chef at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art café.
Two years into his job at Café Rouge, the pair married and honeymooned in Europe. Once there, they extended the trip in order to spend a few months apprenticing in Tuscany with Dario Cecchini, the Dante-quoting butcher made famous in Bill Buford's best-seller, Heat. By that point, charcuterie had become a serious interest. "I like it because you're using the whole animal," explains Boetticher. "Once you take all the steaks, there's a lot left over. To be respectful, you need to use the whole thing."
Getting into the grind
In 2003, with just $6,000 and their own experience, Miller and Boetticher started the Fatted Calf. They rented commercial kitchen space, which they shared with a catering company, in the then-overlooked Dogpatch neighborhood of San Francisco. They had a tiny meat grinder and a third-hand sausage stuffer, and they bought other supplies as they went along.
The plan was to sell at the Saturday farmers market in Berkeley, where they could leverage their reputation with Café Rouge customers. The Fatted Calf was the first company in the area to focus exclusively on handmade artisanal salumi and sell it direct to customers. "We didn't start doing this thinking that, in a couple of years, this will be huge," says Boetticher. "It was more dumb luck. But no one else was doing it, and we thought it would go over decently. I knew from Café Rouge that people who like this stuff will search it out."
Search it out they did. The young company soon branched out to the Ferry Plaza market in San Francisco, developing a following of regulars who snapped up their crocks of rillettes, duck confit, and salumi products. The crepinettes (seasoned meat patties wrapped in lacy caul fat and studded, on any given week, with Picholine olives, morel mushrooms, or pinenuts and currants) developed a near cult following. Each week, products would sell out before the market was over. Through an e-mail list, the couple sent out weekly newsletters, with charming mini-essays written by Miller, listing their specials and letting smart shoppers place advance orders.
Selling directly to market customers allowed the pair to get feedback on products--especially helpful in the early days as they refined their recipes. That customer connection has been one of the more rewarding parts of growing the business. They particularly love "turning people on to foods they've never tried or never thought they would like," says Miller. Fatted Calf products, specifically the bacon, have corrupted more than a few vegetarians.
By 2005, it was time to hire employees. Miller and Boetticher both agree that the hardest part of scaling up is the fact that they can no longer be personally involved in every stage of the process. "For the first two years, every clove of garlic was chopped either by Toponia or myself," Boetticher says. "But we've been really lucky. We have a really good staff." Still, it's been an adjustment. "I'm hardly ever in the kitchen any more," he says sadly. "I'm upstairs crunching numbers."
Hiring for charcuterie is different than hiring for a restaurant, where the pace of work is fast and furious. Some of the Fatted Calf products take up to four days to make. "When we do something new, we show everyone how it works. We want to give people a sense of ownership," explains Boetticher.
Being part of the community of market vendors also connected them to producers and farmers. "We use a lot more produce than people think," Boetticher says--shallots from Dirty Girl Farm, spinach from Star Route, chard from Mariquita. "We try to incorporate seasonal things like mushrooms, nuts, chestnuts, chard."
Of prime concern, of course, has been sourcing the meat. From the start Miller and Boetticher wanted naturally and humanely raised meat, with no antibiotics or hormones, organic if possible. "We want to buy from people who are raising animals outside, humanely, and supporting breed diversity," says Boetticher. "We've used Liberty Duck [raised by Sonoma County Poultry] from the beginning, because they are the best product around." When they first opened, they used Niman Ranch, then "practically the only game in town," for almost everything else. As other meat companies emerged, the Fatted Calf has added suppliers and now buys from Northern California ranchers Marin Sun Farms, Prather Ranch, and Soul Food Farm, as well as from Heritage Foods USA (a national outlet for rare breeds raised on small, family farms) and others.
"It's really about community," Boetticher says. "That's a word that gets bandied about a lot, but when it comes to supporting small farmers and businesses, it's important."
Many of those early market connections are now featured on the shelves of the new Fatted Calf store--Rancho Gordo beans, cider and vinegar from The Apple Farm, brown rice from Massa Organics. "It's great to be able to put all our friends up there," says Boetticher.
Getting seasoned Opening the Oxbow retail store represented a big leap for the small company, but one for which they had long been preparing. For several years Fatted Calf had been on the waiting list for space in the Ferry Building, though they would still have needed a commercial kitchen elsewhere to make their products. When the developer behind the Ferry Building started planning a similar food market in the Oxbow District of Napa, just next door to Copia, Fatted Calf signed on as one of the tenants. It meant moving their home north, but they'd be able to have their kitchen and store in the same place.
The idea of being in on the ground floor of such a project was exciting. It also meant getting involved in the building process, an experience as frustrating as it was rewarding. "We were working with so many people--architects, the city, and the Army Corps of Engineers," recalls Boetticher. (The Oxbow Market is built on the floodplain of the Napa River.) "At certain times it felt like pulling teeth. But overall, it was good."
The company has now grown to 19 employees, including Chuck Traugott, a friend and fellow Café Rouge alumnus who came on board in 2007 to help open the Napa store. The new store and staff have allowed Boetticher and Miller to expand their range of products, no longer confining them to what might fit in their farmers market coolers. They're also enjoying an unexpected benefit of the move to Napa: increased business from the wine industry. The Fatted Calf now supplies charcuterie platters to a number of wineries, tapping into a different group of customers.
"I still pinch myself every time I walk in the door," Boetticher says. "It's so great to see this thing really take shape after all the struggle and heartache. I can even go away for a few hours, and when I come back, it's still running!"
The learning curve of overseeing a larger business--now with loan payments, employees, and followers--has been steep, the pair admits. "I've had to become much more organized," Boetticher laughs. "We're doing more events"--they had booths at August's Outside Lands rock concert and Slow Food Nation--"which means weeks of planning. You've got to keep on top of the store and the markets and keep some semblance of a private life." When I ask, Boetticher admits he's just had his first day off in five weeks.
Miller agrees that trying to balance home life and work life is challenging. "The two can become very intertwined," she says. "It's important to have boundaries. On the plus side, I have a business partner I really trust and a husband whofully understands how consuming work can be."
In the past couple of years, handmade charcuterie has become a hot item, and Fatted Calf now has a lot of company on the scene. In 2006, chef Paul Bertolli started Fra' Mani, using recipes he had developed at Oakland's Oliveto restaurant. The most recent local entry into the field is Boccalone, the salumi company started by chef Chris Costentino and Mark Pastore of Incanto. Many more Bay Area restaurants are making their own charcuterie in house.
Boetticher doesn't mind the competition. "What we're doing is so different," he says. "There's room for us all." The Fatted Calf's name has spread beyond the Bay Area, with mentions in the New York Times and Saveur Magazine, which included it in the editors' annual list of their 100 favorite food items and trends. Russ Parsons of the Los Angeles Times has called Boetticher and Miller "charcuterie stars."
"They're the best when it comes to artisanal charcuterie," says Sher Rogat, whose nearly two-year-old restaurant Piccino serves Fatted Calf salumi exclusively. "There are others out there, but no one compares. They still have small enough production that you can taste the artisan hand; you can taste the personality. They have an incredible work ethic and it shows in their product; they love what they're doing."
Georgeanne Brennan, the cookbook author and authority on French cooking, has spent time with the duo cooking in the Fatted Calf kitchen. "The thing about Taylor and Toponia is that what they're doing is so classically French, but they still have their Italian side as well. Part of their appeal is that, while they use traditional methods, they also improvise," she explains. "They do such a great job of sourcing fresh ingredients. It shows in the product...they're quite dedicated to doing things right."
That dedication hasn't flagged as the business has grown. "It would be a lot harder if people weren't responding to what we're doing," Boetticher says. "Toponia and I are cooks at heart--we like to be able to feed people. Sometimes when I'm loading up the truck on a Friday, I think about all the people who are going to eat this product, handmade by someone who cared about what they were doing. That's pretty rewarding."
Tara Austen Weaver is a former vegetarian who's been mightily corrupted by Fatted Calf crepinettes. Her first book, The Butcher & The Vegetarian: One Woman's Romp through a World of Men, Meat, and Moral Crisis, will be published next fall by Rodale. She also writes the food blog Tea & Cookies (www.teaandcookies.blogspot.com).
This content was published in the October/November 2008 Edible San Francisco Magazine. © 2008 Edible San Francisco.