It's been 10 years since Brian Polcyn and Michael Ruhlman published the groundbreaking book "Charcuterie." For a book that almost never saw the light of day, it has managed to completely change the landscape of the American dining scene. A decade ago, charcuterie boards didn't appear on every other menu as they do today. We all owe chef Polcyn a debt of gratitude for righting that wrong. Scene recently sat down with Polcyn in his Detroit-area restaurant Forest Grill.
How did this book come to be?
I've been making and teaching charcuterie for 30 years. I was told I needed to produce a written lab manual for my students at Schoolcraft College. I was bitching about the process to [Michael] Ruhlman, who I've known since I was in his book "Soul of a Chef." He said why don't we write a book?
A charcuterie manual for chefs everywhere. Genius!
We were turned down by so many publishers. Finally, we were offered a small advance from one to write it — and we had to split it! But it was a topic that both of us were passionate about, and I had already done a lot of the work for school, so we had a good start.
Cookbooks in general are modest sellers. I'm guessing one on charcuterie was expected to be even more so.
Our publisher told us to expect sales in the range of 12 to 18,000 copies, which is typical for a cookbook. We'd be lucky to hit 20,000, especially because this is such a narrow subject. When it came out, it started out slow. But in the second year it really began to take off. We're now at something like 160,000 copies — and we're still in print.
Of all the topics you could have focused on, why charcuterie?
My mission with the book was never to make money; I wanted to make sure that charcuterie and salumi didn't die in American cooking. That was really, really important to me. These are the fundamentals that I saw lacking in American cooking. I saw this generation of young American chefs behind me who weren't trained in things the way my generation was. They had lost something.
Why are charcuterie skills useful for every chef to have in his or her toolbox?
To me, charcuterie has always been the most beautiful part of the kitchen. This is soul food. It's the kind of food chefs just love: bacon, confit, smoked sausage, head cheese... It also just makes good financial sense. You buy a whole pig, break it down yourself and utilize the whole thing, including the under-utilized cuts of meat. Of course, you have to be able to sell that kind of stuff at your restaurant.
And now, every other restaurant seems to sell housemade charcuterie.
The popularity and quality of charcuterie at restaurants over the last five or so years has grown by leaps and bounds. I really knew something huge was happening when Manny on "Modern Family" made a charcuterie platter. I said, 'Man, we have arrived on Main Street!'"
A whole book on charcuterie wasn't enough? You had to go back and write "Salumi?"
We expanded the chapter on dry-cured foods from the first book into a whole other book; it was the section we received the most questions about. One third of the second book is on butchery, because you can't just go to the grocery store and buy certain cuts. It's filled with line drawings to show technique. There's solid muscle curing, ground muscle sausage, and applications for using the ingredients on modern American menus.
Are these books a form of paying it forward for you?
I've always served the one-percenters. Twenty five years ago, at my restaurant in Pontiac, Red Poling, the president of Ford, Roger Smith, the president of GM, and Lee Iacocca, the president of Chrysler, were all in my dining room on the same night. I didn't think that was cool; I think good food should be accessible to everyone. That's why I've been teaching, writing books, and working to launch a national charcuterie brand.
How has the American culinary scene changed during your 30 years in the biz?
I am so happy to be a chef in America, where diners are so much more educated about food than they were 20 years ago. Even 15 years ago people didn't know what radicchio was. Now, everybody wants pea shoots. I've been practicing farm-to-table cooking for 37 years. It's nothing new to me. But this younger generation goes wild for a ripe tomato.
Any words of advice for would-be "Charcuterie" purchasers?
This is not easy cooking; if you want to cook Rachael Ray-style food, give this book to someone else.