A full side of pork, feet hanging over the edge, fills the prep table in the kitchen of Chinched restaurant on a quiet Tuesday afternoon. Executive chef and co-owner Shaun Hussey hones his butcher’s knife and leans in to deftly remove the loin. He and his crew will break down the entire side, making use of every bit. Much of the animal is destined, eventually, for the deli cabinet, where a variety of artistically crafted sausages, duck confit, pastrami, mortadella and bologna await the charcuterie platter.
Shaun refers to his bologna as “fancy Newfoundland bologna.” And mortadella, he says, is just fancy Italian bologna.
In Italy, making mortadella has always been serious business. Historically, the proper method for making it was overseen by a guild of charcutiers, and the penalty for making mortadella without the consent of the guild was to be stretched on the rack - tortured, in other words. Keep in mind this was the 1700s, and our sense of appropriate punishment has changed significantly. The process of making mortadella, however, hasn’t. Making a proper mortadella is still a difficult task that requires skill and practice. It also happens to be the same method used in making bologna.
“Seasoned properly and made with the right ingredients,” Shaun says, “…it’s a piece of artwork.”
Making bologna correctly - using quality ingredients, making it by hand and putting care into creating a quality product - is similar to the way mortadella was made a few hundred years ago. And that’s the way Shaun makes all his charcuterie, including bologna.
Before the Bates Hill location, with its deli counter that was the reason for the move, the restaurant was on Queen Street, both in downtown St. John’s. Before Chinched, Shaun and Michelle LeBlanc, his wife and Chinched co-owner, were on Fogo Island. Before that, he spent eight years working at restaurants on the mainland. This is where Shaun’s journey into charcuterie begins, sometime between 2005 and 2007 - he’s not sure of the exact year.
He and the chef he was working with, who he credits as being a mentor, got curious about cured meats, and started making and hanging salamis. They also started warning coworkers not to eat it. “Nothing we ever made we were confident enough to eat because we didn’t really know. It was more of a trial and error. It was the very beginning of experiments for us,” Shaun says.
Why make food with no intention of serving or eating it? Because it’s all part of the process. This experimental phase allowed Shaun to observe how meat dries and what happens through the various stages. And because they were working with uncooked, dried meat, with its potential for bacterial contamination, their hesitancy in consuming it was understandable. When they moved to working with cooked meats, bacteria was no longer a concern. The first edible charcuterie he made was a country style pâté, “and that’s something that I’ve kept in my repertoire ever since,” he says.
Old ways of doing things, of making food, has long interested Shaun, inspiring his forays into traditional methods of preserving food and the way it’s done in various cultures. From the centuries-old traditions of Italian charcutiers to the methods of salting and cellaring used by Newfoundlanders, there is a common sinew of method, knowledge and technique connecting the cultures and ages across the Atlantic.
Through the centuries, those Italian meats made their way to Newfoundland plates, transforming along the way from mortadella to bologna. On Fogo Island, the old-timers told Shaun that when they were young bologna was considered a good meal. The bologna of the old-timers’ youth: that’s what Shaun wanted to recreate in his effort to make bologna beautiful again.
But there’s more to it than a love of food and an interest in traditional methods. He is a chef, yes, but he’s also an entrepreneur and business owner looking to get more people in the door.
Given the popularity of all things bologna here (looking at you, Maple Leaf bologna stick mascot), he figured bologna would be a good, buzzworthy item at the deli counter. And with an active Instagram presence, of course there is a hashtag: #MakeBolognaBeautifulAgain.
Pork is Shaun’s meat of choice. It’s what most of the deli meats are made from, it’s in the illustrated butcher cuts framed on the wall, and it features heavily on the menu, including the ever-popular pigs ears appetizer. So it makes sense that Shaun has sought out Leamington Farms, in Point Leamington, NL, to supply him with fresh pork. Admittedly, not all the pork comes from Leamington Farms - Chinched simply doesn’t have the space to process all the pork they need, so they order in shoulders from off-island suppliers in addition to the full sides of pork like the one on that prep table.
At first, the pigs from Leamington Farm were lean, because that was the current market trend. Shaun wanted big pigs, porkers with a good bit of fat on them, ones that had been given time to grow, age and develop. Fat, he says, stores flavour, which is affected by diet. It stands to reason, then, that a fat pig is a flavourful pig. So Shaun requested porkier porkers. The folks at Leamington Farms provided, and Shaun is now able to offer a farm-to-fork experience to diners while having the piece of mind of knowing exactly where his main ingredient is coming from and how it’s fed, grown and processed.
Before moving the restaurant and creating the deli space, Shaun tested the local demand for his crafted charcuterie by setting up a table at the St. John’s Farmers Market. He prepared several coolers worth of product, including a variety of sausages. On his first day he was completely sold out within 25 minutes. It continued like this for several weeks, eventually slowing as people stocked up their freezers. There was, evidently, a demand for quality prepared meats.
Fast forward a few years, and now people are visiting the Bates Hill deli for their fix of locally prepared meats - including bologna, which, despite its poor reputation, has a pedigreed history and, when made with care and quality ingredients, is worthy of respect.
“This is an advanced piece of charcuterie that’s being made here,” says Shaun, “and as fancy as mortadella.”
-by Tobias Romaniuk