Chef Phillip Lopez took the local food scene by storm when he and partner Maximilian Ortiz opened Root up in 2011 and immediately changed the landscape of what it meant to eat in New Orleans. From the whimsical fois gras cotton candy to the cohiba smoked scallops served in the cigar's box, Lopez has proven he not only has the imagination to come up with exciting dishes, but also the technical chops in spades to pull them off.
From the get-go, Lopez has committed to making sausages and charcuterie in-house and serve them alongside unusual housemade pickles and mustards. His attention to tradition paired with the desire to push the boundaries of what charcuterie can be certainly earns him a spot in the New Orleans Charcuterie Hall of Fame, if such a place actually existed.
So, what's on the board?
We have all kinds of cool stuff. The "face" bacon incorporates the whole face of the pig - we cure it in salt and sugar for 7-8 hours, form it into a roulade, let it air dry for another 7-8 hours, and then it's cold smoked for 8 hours.
The rosemary cured guanciale is flavored with rosemary and chile peppers. The Kalimoxto cured mojama is fish, packed in salt, which draws out the impurities. With nduja, all the pork we use comes from Chappapeela Farms, and it's half Berkshire and half Duroc - it's a beautiful fat to meat ratio. The meat is ground quite a few times, then seasoned with garlic and Calabrian chile. We use a bacteria to help it ferment, so it stays soft through the process. We pack it in casing to ferment for two weeks, then it's cold smoked, but we have to be careful to not let it get too smoky. We have a nice chicken liver pate, which is a puree of chicken livers with a little bit of duck, mixed with nutmeg, orange, moscato, and pink salt. We cook it like creme brulee, this beautiful parfait in a water bath till it barely sets. Then we add the gelee on top, because that prevents the parfait from oxidizing. The fennel cured spalla is prepared with a boneless shoulder of pork, and is seasoned with fennel pollen and roasted fennel seeds. It cures 2-3 weeks, and then is air dried. Our hogshead cheese is very a traditional style, though we've been experimenting with a new preparation. It takes twice as long, but the flavor is in your face. When we first opened up, we would take the pigs heads, out it right in a pot with spices and aromatics and cook it all day into the next day. The problem is, especially if you're not there, is it might boil, which you definitely do not want. So now we take the heads, saw them in half and then into quarters, and place the individual quarters into vacuum bags and then cook it sous vide. This way, it will never come to a boil, and you can control the process much better. Then we flavor with onions, leeks, de-seeded jalepenos, and the traditional parsley and tarragon, and its finished with cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg. We pack the meat into a mold and let that set. Some people will use pork shoulder or something to get more meat in there, but I think hogshead cheese should be all hog's head. The Szechuan beef tendon is a Chinese technique. We pack the tendons in salt and then stew them until they become super gelatinous. We tie them together and as it cools, it hardens into this log of gelatinous goodness. We use siracha to flavor.
Our board comes with housemade pickles, which are always seasonal - whatever's fresh, what's coming out of the ground that day. Right now we have watermelon pickles, radishes, green bean, pineapple, our bread and butter pickles. Right now we have a bunch of cucuzza, which is like an Italian gourd, a cross between a zucchini and squash. It grows really long, and we have a lot of it, so I'm thinking we'll be making marmalade and preserves from it as well as pickles. We also have a flatbread, a lavash, along with homemade mustard. Right now, we're using up the end of the season blueberries to make a smoked blueberry mustard, that's amazing. Our peach mustard is pretty freaking good. We'll be using muscadines soon. Oh, we also have a caraway apple mustard.
What's your favorite meat on board?
I gotta say the face bacon. By far, it's my favorite. It was a crazy idea I had before coming to Root, and I started experimenting with the face. I spent a long time defining this technique. And we utilize the the face bacon in different ways. Of course, it's on the board, but when we were serving marrow bones, we would make a face bacon jam to go with it. And we always have scraps leftover from slicing, so I asked the bartender for ideas. We came up with this - well, we would render the fat from the face bacon and add it to Bulleit bourbon and sous vide it for 24 hours. Then we'd freeze it, so the fat could be easily separated. Take the fat off, and we have face bacon bourbon! Voila, face bacon manhattan. It's a little smokey and it's pretty freaking awesome. The demand for it is so high that we're making like five bottles of it a week.
How did you learn to make charcuterie?
A lot of it was self taught. Lot of trial and error. Working in a kitchen, you become accustomed to working with meat, and there's a sense that everything has to be utilized. You take the old traditional ideas from Germany, Italy, and France. In my travels, I saw all these ideas that have been around for centuries. And then I would play with new techniques around them. We do a lot of research - the traditional techniques took a tremendous amount of time, and we wanted to figure out how to speed up the process without sacrificing the quality. So a lot of our new ideas came from there, like using the vacuum bags to break down the muscles that would take mother nature a lot of time to do.
What would you suggest pairing with this charcuterie board drink wise - beside the face bacon manhattan?
I like to drink something with bitterness and a bit of smokey essence like whiskey or rye based cocktails. I tend to stay away from wine with charcuterie, mostly because it makes me sleepy, I wait till later in the meal for wine. But I like to start with charcuterie and cocktails. I want something that's robust and powerful, with a little smoke to it, a little bit of bitterness, and a whole lot of alcohol.
Who else in town is honoring charcuterie and sausage traditions?
Quite a few people, actually. Cochon and Cochon Butcher are great at what they do. Cleaver and Company, too. There are pockets of places that may not have a lot of charcuterie, but the few things they do, they do very well. Isaac Toups, Alex [Harrell] at Sylvain. At Square Root, we're looking to move away from the traditional pork and beef based charcuterie. It's becoming a normal occurrence here, there's great charcuterie all over town. Even outside of the city, in the smaller parishes, charcuterie and preservation has been a way of life for years. Breaking down the animal, using everything.
My influences primarily come from Spain and Italy, but I like to use Latin American flavors, or African flavors like Ethiopian. We like to look at the map and think, what are they doing there, what spices are they using? And we just go from there.