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Chefs and Diners Alike Love Whole-Animal Dinners 

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When you think of a spit-roasted lamb, you may think of Greece, but you probably won’t think “sparklers” — unless you are Greek. So it’s good there was a Greek girl among the diners at Hen of the Wood at the Grist Mill on April 21.

As chef Eric Warnstedt spit-roasted a pair of boned-out bodies outside his Waterbury restaurant, Courtney Contos, owner of Chef Contos Kitchen & Store in Shelburne, quietly told him how to make the meat suitably festive in Greek style. Warnstedt ran home and returned with sparklers. He arrived just in time to insert them before he served up the two animals from Jericho Settlers Farm, the centerpiece of a dinner called L Is for Lamb.

On the deck, the guests had already enjoyed appetizers such as Spanish-influenced pork croquetas from Pistou chef Max Mackinnon, while the animals browned on Warnstedt’s new custom-made spit. Inside, diners sipped wines from natural grapes selected by Hen of the Wood co-owner William McNeil and ate a gorgeous salad of peas, housemade ricotta and prosciutto.

But the main event was the now-sparkling spit, carried in by Mackinnon and Hen sous-chef John David Palmer like pallbearers of deliciousness.

In the kitchen, the assembled chefs sliced the lambs into thin portions atop a bean stew, parsnips and purple carrots. On the side, a plump, homemade lamb-chorizo sausage, cooked on the spit’s grill plate, lent spice to the dish.

That festive dinner won’t be the last time a whole animal (or two) turns on the restaurant’s spit, custom-made by Corbin Forge in Stowe. Nor is Hen of the Wood the only restaurant hosting such meals. A select group of Vermont chefs is making dinners focused on using nearly every part of a single animal into the hottest new gatherings.

“It’s just a fun, more casual way to have a feast,” explains Warnstedt, who has also done more formal dinners showcasing plated duck, lamb and pig. Nothing says ‘feast’ like a whole animal.”

This trend kicked off in February at Burlington’s Pistou with an event called the Sidewalk Goat Project. Co-owner Jason Zuliani has long been known in foodie circles for breaking out his spit, or souvla, which he brought back to the States after visiting relatives in Cyprus.

When Mackinnon and cookbook author Molly Stevens discussed collaborating on a special dinner, the young chef and the All About Roasting author decided the spit offered the perfect way to combine their talents.

Danville’s Vermont Chevon provided the whole goat; in the week before the dinner, Mackinnon began serving it in the form of homemade sausages. On Sunday, he butterflied the goat’s shoulders, filled them with simple, fresh ingredients, including lemon zest and parsley, and then slow-roasted them over a fire right on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant. The goat was served family style, along with brussels sprouts and salt-roasted rutabaga.

Mackinnon so enjoyed the process that he joined Warnstedt and co. on the line two months later for L Is for Lamb. That dinner won’t be his last collaboration. Mackinnon says he plans to help make spit-roasted porchetta at Hen of the Wood on May 26 for a dinner to celebrate Vermont’s first-ever Natural Wine Week. Back at Pistou, he says to expect a whole-chicken dinner soon, possibly before the end of May.

Chickens are great for feeding small groups. But last summer, Frank Pace, butcher for Guild Fine Meats, set the bar far higher — or rather, the trapeze.

That’s what Pace calls the spit he used to roast a whole steer, an implement it took Mark Shattuck of Shattuck Welding three months to construct. Pace was following his own passion for fire-roasting whole animals, but he also wanted to create a show-stopping meal for the first annual Celebrate Vermont Festival in Stowe. “When you’re cooking a whole animal, people talk about it,” Pace says.

But first, he had to figure out how to roast a whole steer evenly while keeping it identifiable as cattle. The solution? Rather than “just smoke the hell out of it,” as Pace says he did at pig roasts when he was a chef and not yet a butcher, he divided the steer into eight pieces, with each hanging quarter cut in half.

He put all the pieces on the trapeze at once, then removed them as they became ready, ribs and loins first. “Cooking a whole cow is definitely a different experience than cooking a whole pig,” Pace says. “I think it lends itself more [to that treatment]. [Beef] is a lot more forgiving. The brisket was amazing; the bone-in chucks were amazing. The dry heat was amazing for it.”

Even when he’s not feeding a hungry group an entire steer, Pace is using the skills he learned from the experience. For the Vermont Traditional Foods and Health Symposium at Shelburne Farms on June 14, Pace will cater a “grazing dinner” that includes a roasted shoulder of beef cooked in the style of the whole steer.

When he makes a single dinner from a whole animal, Pace says, he prefers to divide the meat into several different elements. For one local chef’s wedding, Pace made dumplings and sausages, as well as belly, loin and shoulder pieces, and presented them all on wood on a big, central table. “It’s more of a conversation piece, something special that people can really see,” he says.

Adam Longworth, chef at the Common Man Restaurant in Warren, took a similar tack on April 7 with his 50:1 Whey Fed Pig Dinner.

The invitation-only dinner proved to be so popular that not 50 but 56 souls attended to honor a single pig from Waitsfield-based Vermont Whey Fed Pigs.

The pig was raised at Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro and fed the whey left over from production of the farm’s famous Bayley Hazen Blue and Winnimere cheeses, among others. The first of nine courses included homemade ham and sausage served with two different chunks of Jasper Hill cheese, for a taste of two links in the food chain on a single plate.

That was just the beginning. Longworth says his meal included 23 different elements made from the pig, from bones simmered for the broth of pork-neck ramen soup to fat rendered for Asian pork buns that were filled with pork meatballs.

Longworth says diners gobbled up that dish, which he referred to as “Soup and Sandwich,” but the real hit of the night came between courses eight and nine. “We took all the skin off, and we made cracklings,” Longworth says, as if telling a dirty secret. He and his team fried the skins to bubbly crispness just before they left the kitchen.

“We served them family style in big bowls, and we heard an uproar from the dining room — people were clapping and cheering as they hit the table,” Longworth goes on. “I asked Lorien [Wroten, Longworth’s partner and co-owner] what was going on, and she was like, ‘If you go into the dining room, all you can hear is crunching.’”

There isn’t usually much call for taking apart whole pigs in Longworth’s cut-based fine-dining restaurant. But, he says, it was a refreshing change to do the dinner and support Vermont Whey Fed owner Ignacio Villa. “I really liked the concept of it. We were able to do so much,” he explains. “It’s not like we’re just trying to sell pork chops. We can get a whole pig and sell it all in one night.”

Longworth says he’ll definitely do similar dinners in the future. He’s thinking of following in Warnstedt’s or Pace’s footsteps with a lamb or a steer — just not a whole steer. Even with a half steer, “[The dinner] would have to be 100: 1/2,” he says.

Whole-animal meals may be a recent Vermont trend, but they go way back. Chef Michael Werneke of Waterbury’s Prohibition Pig is using pig-picking dinners and oyster roasts from his college days as inspiration for a June dinner that’s still in the planning stages. “We did them all the time at North Carolina State,” he recalls.

Werneke hopes he can persuade Prohibition Pig owner Chad Rich to get a spit for the new smoker that will arrive at the restaurant soon. “I’ve never done a whole-hog porchetta, seasoned it and tied it,” says the chef, describing a practice that harks back to ancient Roman times. “I think it would be a whole other level of cool to do one on a spit outdoors.”

Werneke was one of the attendees at L Is for Lamb, soaking up the smell of lamb smoke on Hen of the Wood’s deck overlooking the waterfall. Now he plans to collaborate with Mackinnon himself, perhaps on that porchetta.

A meat specialist, Werneke can comment on the whole-animal experience as both patron and cook. “There isn’t a better way to throw a party for both the people throwing it and the guests,” he says. “They’re all eating the same things as a group, and the food is kind of the focus, but at the same time, you’re meeting people you had no idea existed, and everyone is having a great time.”

A single animal bringing a bunch of people together. If that’s not connecting through food, what is?

The original print version of this article was headlined "Appetizing Anatomy."

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About The Author

Alice Levitt

Alice Levitt

Bio:
AAN award-winning food writer Alice Levitt is a fan of the exotic, the excellent and automats. She wrote for Seven Days 2007-2015.

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