“Everyone enjoy that?” Black Pig Chef Michael Nowak emerges from the kitchen rosy-cheeked, his tweed hat slightly askew.
He doesn’t have to ask: everyone in the packed dining room has unceremoniously hoovered the dish Chef Nowak coyly branded as “schnitzel” for the night’s tasting menu, the second plate in a 5-course snout-to-tail pork dinner.
“That was the head and the feet,” Chef Nowak announces with a shit-eating grin, well aware that he’s subverted the timeworn properties of a beloved comfort food. Nowak’s whimsical take on pork schnitzel eschews the standard bland pounded loin for a hodgepodge of offal, the collagen in the trotters and head meat yielding a rich, meltingly moist “cutlet” cloaked in a judicious layer of breadcrumbs, then fried and served with a chunky celery root remoulade and burnt lemon wedge.
Nowak’s schnitzel adaptation was one of five dishes sourced from same hog at last night’s dinner, the first installment in HooftyMatch’s CLE Meats series, which seeks to solidify and celebrate the nexus between food enthusiasts, Cleveland chefs, and local heritage meat suppliers.
HooftyMatch, a startup aggregation tool and online marketplace that connects consumers to local meat sources, was one of ten local tech companies to receive a $25,000 seed-stage investment last November by Cleveland venture capital firm and business accelerator LaunchHouse. Their goal, explains the company’s co-founder Jonathan Yale, is “to be kind of an Etsy for local foods,” streamlining the farm-to-table concept and rendering it digitally accessible to consumers.
The company will also sponsor recurring CLE Meats dinners, spotlighting a unique chef/meat pairing, or “challenge,” each month, encouraging selected local chefs to designate which animal they want and who they want to source it. Chef Nowak seemed like an obvious candidate for the CLE Meats series debut — his menu, inspired by French country cooking, has exalted local pork since the restaurant’s inception, Nowak’s passion for the protein foregrounded fairly unambiguously by the restaurant’s name.
“He was like, ‘So…merry Christmas to me?’,” quips Yale’s partner, HooftyMatch co-founder Phillip Williams, recounting Nowak’s reaction when HooftyMatch approached him about preparing the first CLE Meats dinner. Nowak requested a hog from Tea Hills, a family-owned farm in Loudonville that specializes in pastured heritage breeds.
“When they asked who I wanted to use, I knew immediately,” says Nowak of his favored supplier.
Thus began a weeklong odyssey of carving, prepping, curing, rendering, stock-making, processing, roasting, frying, and braising that transformed Nowak's 186-pound Tea Hills pig into a five-course meal for 56 diners.
Along with the schnitzel, Nowak prepared country pâté—a coarse medley of bacon and pork meat—accompanied by Black Pig’s house-made pickles, crisp pork rinds, local radish medallions, and mustard. Nowak’s pork sausage—studded with foie gras, natch—crowned a bed of firm Puy lentils, a side of pickled Ohio apple matchsticks accenting the earthy platter in a cheeky play on the classic pork-and-apple pairing.
Nowak’s signature cassoulet was the meal’s centerpiece, well worth the four days of soaking, resting, and flavor-building Nowak dedicated to his rendition of the French peasant stew, which aggregates a whopping six varieties of pork meat — sausage, hambones, and bacon ends in the stock, trembling cubes of smoked belly and slabs of loin atop the stew, and chunks of braised shoulder meat nestled in the broth among fat, creamy Tarbais beans. To finish, a chocolate truffle pairing — one flecked with bacon, the other with black truffles—topped a loose ganache “dirt” in a self-aware nod to the animal’s rustic terroir and truffle-hunting legacy.
When asked how much of the Tea Hills pig he used, Nowak shrugs cavalierly. “I have maybe three to four pounds of grind left,” he replies. “We used the whole damn pig.” As last night’s guests can attest, it was damn delicious.