Melissa Khoury boasts about being "fat and happy." Why wouldn't she be? How many people do you know who can break down a pig in 45 minutes?
Khoury, who turns 30 this May, studied at Johnson and Whales College of Culinary Arts in Norfolk, Virginia.
"Good ham-smoking country," she says. "Unfortunately, it's also where Smithfield is located. They're the Tyson Chicken of pork." And as far as bacon goes, eschew the slabs in stores and seek out Benton's Beacon from Monroe County Tennessee for sweet perfection of smoky, salty goodness.
The porcine recommendations don't stop, nor do we want them to – Khoury's square in the snout-to-tail, slow food movement. Her Twitter handle: @iHeartSwine. Minimal waste, maximum flavor, whether it's pig, cow, goat, fish or fowl. The unusual (to most diners) tidbits in the head and feet make beautiful flavor music, which she displayed at a recent Dinner in the Dark event at SOHO Kitchen and Bar with her jellied plate, a "tribute to meatloaf" as she calls it, though it probably doesn't resemble mom's version.
"I left Cleveland ten years ago because the food scene seemed dead," she says. At that time, she remembers being at the IX Center while Michael Symon was doing his first Food Show demonstration for the Food Network. She never imagined how dramatically the food scene would change during the decade she was away.
Khoury returned a couple of years ago for what was intended to be a six-month stay. She needed a paycheck and since she had some previous experience working for Marriott Hotels, she applied and was hired by Ellis Cooley at Amp. When Cooley departed, Khoury continued to work for Jeffrey Jarrett before settling on a post as Executive Chef at Washington Place Bistro, where you can find her nearly every day of the week.
She's also started her own business, Saucisson, which makes house-cured sausages and smoked and dried cured pork products. Her favorite cut to dry and cure: loin, and she loves using the loin to make Lonzino, a salted, air-cured salume.
"It looks similar to prosciutto, though not as red," she says. "It takes 14 days to cure and one week hanging to prepare." She also cures and smokes the tasso ham that is used in Washington Place Bistro's Eggs Benedict on their brunch menu.
While the restaurant has garnered plenty of good press and done brisk business, she knows the challenges lying ahead. They are trying to shed the white tablecloth, pricey, special occasion-only dining destination that was the basis of Baricelli Inn's business for years in favor of a more casual place where students from the nearby University feel comfortable coming in for a beer and for something to eat from their newly created Small Bites bar menu, where everything is under ten dollars. They have been getting the word out to the nearby students through social media; so far, so good – although they've only been offering their Small Bites menu for about a week.
And the Cleveland culinary community is what makes everything worth it.
"Someone needs an extra hand in the kitchen and other chefs are there for you and if they can't make it, they'll make sure they find someone who can," Khoury says. "I love concepts like Dinner in the Dark because they keep everyone networked. We joke around and have fun but it's nice to be able to count on their help too."
And they're around for friendly competition, as well. She and Michael Nowak of The Black Pig and Adam Lambert of Bar Cento have entertained the idea of a pig breakdown competition on West 25th Street in Ohio City sometime in the future. (Our money's on Melissa.) Whether that happens or not, the trio would love to see something like Corchon 555, a popular pork festival that's been wildly successful in Denver and Miami, take shape in Cleveland. The simple theme: 5 hogs, 5 wines, 5 chefs. Talk about pigging out.