Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Go North, Young Man: An American Chef Goes to Fäviken and Jamtland

On August 29th, I landed in Stockholm and caught the midnight train to Järpen. I'd come from the heat of summer in Tuscany and Rome. When I stepped off the train in Järpen, I stepped into another season. It seemed another planet. I layered on my sweaters, waited for my ride, and considered the mystery that lay ahead.

I came to Jamtland as the coda to my year-long fine-dining boot camp. As a 33-year-old man who'd long since gone to university and graduate school, who'd already had a solid career as a high school teacher, I had neither the interest, the time, nor the money to enroll in culinary school with a bunch of kids. I figured I could learn more and faster in the real world.

Off I went to Chianti to learn salumi from the great Tuscan butcher Stefano Falorni and beef butchery from his neighbor, the meat-cleaving superstar Dario Cecchini. I worked for Chef Jean Georges-Vongerichten in his hip, bustling restaurant Perry St. in Manhattan's West Village overlooking the Hudson River, and worked side-by-side with “Molto” Mario Batali at his temple of Italian cuisine, Del Posto, in New York's Meat Packing District. I secured a stage (or apprenticeship) at Noma, the Copenhagen restaurant now widely regarded as the world's best. It seemed a logical endpoint. Surely my skills were now at a level where I could be paid for my work. Surely I'd maxed out my career as a “kitchen slave.” Oh, and I was broke. But, then I heard about Fäviken Magasinet. I emailed Chef Magnus Nilsson. One more stage.

But Jamtland?

In the weeks leading up to my stage at Fäviken, I read all I could about the place and the vast, wild region around it. I read about the long history of fiercely independent farmers governing their land in a sort of democratic anarchy. I stared wistfully at glowing laptop images of sod-roofed huts of weathered, unfinished wood, of grand waterfalls, of hikers against a backdrop of unravaged forest and snowy hills. I was in love. And like any lover, I was, at first, in love with the idea of love, with my ideas of Jamtland and Fäviken, and any adult knows how fragile such love can be when it collides with reality. Was I wary? Not at all.

My first day at Fäviken turned sunny and almost warm. The lush green of the rolling meadows pressed against the white clouds on the horizon, above which loomed a sky of intense blue, one of the bluest blues I've seen. I saw the Jamtish flag across from the restaurant and immediately understood it.

I took off my shoes and took my cocker spaniel (who accompanied me throughout my journey, as she does now) and headed for the woods. For those who have never walked barefoot in the wet, northern woods, there are few feelings that compare to cool moss between your toes, cool mud on your skin, even a deep massage from sticks and stones. Once you've walked barefoot in the woods, putting on boots is like wearing ten condoms while making love. Safer, no doubt. But really...

Once I was in Jamtland, I found that what I loved most were the things that reminded me of Maine. My homesickness was becoming acute, but the similarities were undeniable regardless. The woods of pine and birch. The mossy, wet earth under the trees. The bright green meadows. The rural land, dotted with A-frame wooden houses, little villages, and farms. Cows, sheep, and horses. The cars were bigger than in Italy. The people were bigger, too. It wasn't utopia. Better, it felt like home.

What can I say about the food at Fäviken that has not already been said by some of the world's leading food writers? It is very good. As at Noma, they have a vision and they execute that vision flawlessly. The culinary vision at Fäviken happens to be a little closer to my own, which is why I decided to continue staging even after Noma. The Brummer family, which owns the vast Fäviken estate, leads regular hunting parties which provide plenty of wild meat for the restaurant, notably grouse and capercaillie, which we hung to age in the walk-in for three to four weeks. (Magnus pointed out that we were probably the only restaurant on Earth serving capercaillie on that particular night.) Foragers provide wild mushrooms like chanterelles, hedgehog, and matsutake. I picked stone-bramble berries, juniper, wood sorrel, moss for the scallop plate, and fresh garden vegetables in the hours before service. The beef is from retired mountain cows and dry aged for up to six months. Raw milk, aged butter, and alpine cheese comes from Oviken Ost. (Oh, that butter!) Only the seafood is not truly local, though Trøndelag can hardly be considered far, and the quality of the monkfish, mussels, and diver scallops is exceptional. None of this surprised me. It is why I came to Fäviken. It was a joy to work with food of such quality and integrity, and to work with such skilled chefs, Magnus as well as Sebastian Bjernalt and Johnny Fredrikson.

As in any budding romance, at a certain point, the exigencies of life were bound to cut through the mist of infatuation. Kitchen life brings its own kinds of stress and there are, sure enough, downsides to the isolation one experiences as a foreigner living alone on northern Sweden's vastest private estate, well beyond walking distance from even little Järpen, let alone Åre or Östersund. It was in my post-infatuation hangover that I was lucky enough to be introduced to Jamtland's food ambassador, the chef and writer Fia Gulliksson. Fia welcomed me into her home during a week in which Fäviken was closed (the team had gone to Belgium to put on a special dinner at the acclaimed restaurant In de Wulf). Fia quickly became a dear friend, as did her husband, Martin Alfredsson, a wonderful bluegrass musician and owner of the organic tea company Brunkullans. Almost instantly, they introduced me to a number of fascinating people, locals and expats alike, and suddenly I had a circle of friends. My romance with Jamtland entered a new phase, and I began to sense that this was a place to which I would return.

Beyond the blessing of friendship, Fia deepened my appreciation for the food culture of Jamtland. We went together to Ås to buy outstanding produce, all organic and homegrown, for the feast we would cook that evening, otherwise comprised of vegetables and herbs from her own garden and meat and fish hunted by Martin. She told me about the wonderful artisanal cheese production in the region, spurring me to visit Oviken Ost, supplier of all things dairy to Fäviken, and the more remote and idyllic, and equally masterful, Kullens Gårdsmejeri in Klövsjö.

Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Life consists with wildness. The most alive is the wildest. Not yet subdued to man, its presence refreshes him.” I hope not to draw too much attention to Jamtland. Its beauty is entirely contingent on its wildness, on the sparseness of its human population, on its isolation from the industrialized, urbanized world. Its gifts come unsolicited. I will never forget my first glimpse of the Northern Lights, as hawk owls swooped three meters overhead, scanning for lemmings. Nor sitting with friends in their hand-made sauna heated with birch wood before jumping naked through the cold waves of Storsjön and then standing in the clear, northern night before dipping again into the heat. Nor tasting the raw heart of moose, my first cloudberry, spring water right from the ground at my friends' cabin in the woods near Orrviken. Nor the austere beauty of Fäviken and of Magnus' quintessentially Jamtish cuisine. Be quiet, Jamts. Don't let the world know you're there. I'll keep the secret, too. Well, maybe I'll just tell a few friends.

Monday, October 24, 2011

My Kind of Kosher

Yesterday, I was at the engagement party of one of my best friends. He's Jewish. So is his fiancée. They aren't religious. There were delicious pork buns. A few old friends heard about my new work as a chef, and naturally started asking me about food. I'm also a teacher, so I was happy to talk. And since we're all nominally Jewish, it's not surprising that the question arose: are you kosher?

The answer is yes. And no. No, as far as almost any other Jew would be concerned. I love pork. A burger is nothing without cheese. Oysters make me really excited. Lobster, mussels, razor clams, and cuttlefish, done right, will make my day. I eat bunnies. I've tried hare, kangaroo, and bear. Bleed out a game bird? No way. Hang 'er up, guts and blood in, for a good week in a cool room. Kosher chefs, like vegetarian chefs, might make some good food, but the cuisine is like jazz with nothing but woodwinds. Sax and clarinet are great. For a while. But thank god there are still trumpets and bass and drums in the world. And get that freaking oboe off my plate.

Judaism is a funny thing. It's a dogmatic religion whose dogma is often dismissed in whole or in large part by many of the people who claim, quite ardently, to be Jews. It is the most rigidly law-based of the world's major religions but has given rise to one of the world's greatest theological traditions of interpretation, reinterpretation, and cherry-picking. It's based on a scripture that is notably harsh and oppressive, even by scriptural standards, yet Jews are widely known for their humor. At least in New York. Let's leave Israelis out of it. They're not funny at all.

So when I was asked if I keep kosher, I said, “no.” But then, “yes.” “In a way.” I made my case. If I feel any kinship with Judaism as a religion, it's because of two words: tikkun olam. “Heal the world.” I know how I understand it. If you know me, you probably know, too. I take it to be the central tenet of Judaism. Not historical Judaism. Not Judaism in its dominant forms. My Judaism. I appreciate that, as a Jew, I can say such a thing and not sound crazy.

Tikkun olam. Apply it to food. It's pretty simple. That food you're eating, it was alive once, hopefully pretty recently. How did it live? Did it suffer? Or was it free to eat in a way that befit its physiology, to live outside in the living world, to live with a healthy community of its comrades-in-species? I am not just talking about cows and chickens and pigs. I am also talking about broccoli, carrots, and potatoes. But let's say you don't hear the voices of plants, don't feel their roots and pollen spreading through your dreams. Let's be “practical.” Did the life of that cow or broccoli hurt the earth or make it better? Is there more topsoil because of her or less? More intact, biodiverse habitat or less? More atmospheric carbon or less? More groundwater or less? These are questions we can answer pretty easily. Tikkun olam. Is your food healing the world or harming it? If it heals, you're keeping kosher, my kind of kosher. If it harms, you're eating treif. And that's so not cool.

Industrial food is never kosher. I don't care what species it is. I don't care if a rabbi said something in Hebrew. I don't care if it was bled out and salted. If it was subjected to a life of unnatural suffering, if it was raised in a way that made this world a little worse, a little poorer, it ain't kosher. It is an affront to God, to spirit, to conscience... whatever you want to call it. It is an affront to the Earth, and therefore to ourselves and our children. It is a failing to manifest tikkun olam. The old kind of kosher is all about how an animal died. What about how it lived? Maybe the question never came up since no one in the ancient world could have imagined the cruel insanity of industrial food. Every Hebrew and every Roman ate nothing but grass-fed and organic food. Bunch of liberal weenies, I 'spose.

Any being who was allowed to live a decent, healthy life and was given a merciful, honorable death, a death that caused no net harm to its species, whose life was, indeed, the blessing it ought to have been for the Earth, is kosher. End of story. That such beings, whether plants, fungi, or animals, are also, invariably, more delicious, more nutrient dense, more healthy, only reaffirms that we are doing the right thing.

All the stuff about not eating pigs or shellfish, that was pretty easy for a tribe of pastoralists. Note that they didn't have to give up beef or mutton. It was the barbarians to the north who ate pigs. The barbarians by the sea who ate clams and lobster. We might say that these all too easy sacrifices for a people who already did not eat these things helped keep them mindful of their faith. Maybe it was about regimentation and social control. Maybe it was about instilling xenophobia. Who knows. I do know this. I do not live in the Middle East. I am not a pastoralist. I live in a land where pigs thrive, by a shore world famous for its lobster and other shellfish. More importantly, I live in an era of global environmental catastrophe. This catastrophe is being greatly intensified by the industrial food system. It can, in part, be mitigated through permaculture, broadly defined as any food system based on a polyculture of plants and animals, intact topsoil, no mining of water or diversion of rivers, and no input of fossil fuel or poison. I see it as a spiritual duty to be mindful of this reality every time I procure food, whether by purchase, gardening, foraging, or hunting.

And I did eat the pork buns (minus the buns). Even though the pigs were probably industrial. I do not blame my friends if they were. Most people are not yet as sensitized as they should be to these issues and it's not fair to expect a sudden mass change in consciousness from all decent people. But we should be working toward that mass change in consciousness and, crucially, also in behavior. Changing hearts and minds is all well and good, but only as a precursor to action. It's not, “think about healing the world,” or “imagine a healed world,” or “write treatises about what a healed world would theoretically look like.” Heal the damn world. Anyhow, I ate the pork. It was already there. I was hungry. It looked and tasted good. And no additional pigs were being raised or killed because I ate it rather than letting it get tossed at the end of the party.

There is room for flexibility. I draw my lines where I choose. Others will draw them a little differently. And that's OK. Just draw them. Live consciously. Find your principles and manifest them. Keep kosher and live in accordance with the law, however you understand it. It all derives from principle. How about this one? Heal the world.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Cops and Troops, Stand With the 99%

The revolution has begun. If you haven't noticed, it's time you noticed. Those in power have certainly noticed. They're worried as hell. And they should be. The movement afoot in the United States and around the world is the real deal. Take a deep breath. We may have a future.

There are a million questions we might ask. Here's one. What next? A movement of this magnitude, this resolve, this canniness, this sophistication, this selflessness, this moral fortitude will not just evaporate. But it may go in any of a number of directions, not all of which we can anticipate. But the bastards are going down. The question is how.

Cops are part of the 99%. So are troops. They are working class, hard working people who bravely risk their lives for two reasons. One is that by doing so they can earn a decent living, health care, a pension, a modicum of respect, and a chance to help their kids get a leg up. The other is because they believe they are working for good. Or they believed it. At some point. And they had reason to. But for many, that belief has eroded over time, stripped bare by political cronyism, hollow rhetoric, and the increasingly obvious greed, the insatiable, ruthless greed of the powerful. Most cops want to keep their cities and towns clean and safe, protect victims, and confront and stop criminals. Yet they see a system where they are called upon, time after time, to risk their lives defending the grandest of criminals, those who steal billions and produce nothing, who milk the public coffers to pile it atop their obscene booty, who poison our rivers, our air, our bodies, and our children's bodies to squeeze themselves another billion, who callously destroy whole communities to “cut costs” and then fly on private jets, who send our young men and women to kill or be killed, to be twisted and broken by the carnage of war, to be poisoned with depleted uranium in the name of a democracy we all know to be a farce.

Troops are part of the 99%. Like the cops. They enlisted because their neighborhoods, their towns, their whole cities have been turned into post-industrial wastelands with real unemployment often over 50%, just to fatten the wallets of the rich. They enlisted because if they're black and poor and undereducated, they have a one in two chance of winding up in shackles like so many of their ancestors. They enlisted because their options are so few and so poor. And yet, they enlisted because they love this country, what it was, what it should have been, or what it might yet be. They want to protect the Constitution, defend democracy, protect, at all costs, the American people and our collective dream against the tyranny of fascists. Yet they know damn well that they're sent to fight and kill and suffer and die because it makes a few people rich, the people who call the shots, the people who dare to call their unbridled greed “American interests.” They know that Goldman can count on giant bailouts and Halliburton on extortionist contracts but that they, themselves, will be lucky to get half the treatment they need at a financially crippled VA hospital. They see what the US brings to Iraq, to Afghanistan, to wherever they're sent to fight, kill, suffer, and die, and that it has nothing to do with democracy, the Constitution, or freedom from fascism.

Fascism. It's a word with a meaning. We aren't supposed to know the meaning. We're supposed to think it means “bad guys,” “Nazis,” “the other.” It has a meaning. The man who coined the term and created the first fascist movement, Benito Mussolini, made it clear as day. “Fascism should, more properly, be called corporatism, for it is the complete merging of state and corporate power.” I love America. I love this land and its people. I love Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, and Gillian Welch. I love Tecumseh, Henry David Thoreau, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Mother Jones. I love our great poets, our great painters. I love barbeque, Kentucky bourbon, and California wine. I love America. But our political and economic elite have created the most fascist system the world has ever seen. It is ruining our lives, it is ruining everything decent in our society, and it is ruining the very Earth itself. I do not hate America. I love it. Therefore, I hate American fascism and I hate the fascists who have the audacity to call themselves the “real Americans.” So should you. So should the cops and troops who risk their lives trying to make this world a little better.

Cops, troops, stand with your sisters and brothers, stand with the 99% who have seen and felt enough of American fascism to know that it's time for it to go. Lay down your guns, or, better still, use them to protect the people, not the fascists. We owe them nothing. Stand with the brave people of your country and help them build a better society, one where the Constitution can live once more, where democracy can flourish throughout the land as it flourishes now in Liberty Park and in the dozens of other protest communities across this nation and around the globe. Don't block the way into the Stock Exchange and NASDAQ, Goldman and Citibank, lead the charge! This is your country. These are your people.

We stand at a decisive moment in history. This can be a velvet revolution. This can be a bloodless coup to restore the honesty and dignity of the America we all long for, the America we now strive to realize. Or this can be a bloodbath, and could even be in vain. Much depends on the cops and the troops. I do not believe, cannot believe, they want to beat, gas, bomb, or shoot their countrymen to defend the world's grandest criminals. Now is the time to realize, they don't have to. When the chain of command becomes corrupt at the top, the brave and the good people in uniform must determine, difficult though it is, to honor their allegiance to a deeper, more unshakeable authority. To many, this is God. To all, it is conscience.

The revolution has begun. Or maybe it's a counter-revolution, striving not to destroy but to restore. We do not know just where it will lead, what heroes and villains will manifest, what names and dates will be etched onto the memory of a generation's collective consciousness, perhaps onto those of generations yet to come. But this is our history. It lives in our hands, in our minds, in our hearts. Brothers and sisters in uniform, use your power for good as you've always meant to do. Stand with the people, help us bring down the bastards, and help us all make this world not just a little bit better but, in this rare historical moment, so rich in possibility, a lot better. We need it. We can do it. It's up to us. We are the 99%. So are you.

Friday, October 7, 2011

On Mourning Steve Jobs

It is sad that Steve Jobs died at 56. For me, it's sad mostly because pancreatic cancer was almost non-existent before industrialism. It is now increasingly common, and could strike any of us. It is sad for me because I have lost two loved ones to cancer in the past year, including my 28 year old cousin. I feel for those who loved Steve Jobs (those who actually knew him). But the histrionic displays of grief by those who never knew him seem wrong.

I took note yesterday, in transit from Oslo to Milan to Florence, of great numbers of people from different countries sharing music and videos and laughing together over their iPads and iPhones, while I read and wrote on my Air. It was poignant. I understand why we felt connected to Jobs and share a rare sense of community in his passing. Our hunger for community and shared grieving is immense, and found a rare outlet here. But our real wounds are quite different than the loss of a CEO. Our real grief, still deeply suppressed, is for losses far more personal and profound.

Steve Jobs was CEO of a corporation that produces vast amounts of toxic waste. He cancelled that corporation's philanthropy program in 1997 and refused to assent to Bill Gates' request that he join in pledging a good chunk of his billions to philanthropy. Many of the assembly line workers who assemble Apple's "wonderful" gadgets (which no one truly needs) are paid slave wages and develop cancers caused by the workplace carcinogens to which they are so recklessly exposed. In an era of planetary mass extinction, of unprecedented toxification of the total environment, of burgeoning fascism at home and abroad, in a world where half of humanity lives in desperate poverty while a select few (like Jobs) live securely on their backs, the maudlin outpouring of grief for this CEO is actually more than a little deranged. This is not to speak badly of a dead man. He was imperfect, as are we all. This is to urge us to consider what we really value, where our allegiances truly lie.

So, what about the 200 or so species that went extinct yesterday (200 more the day before, 200 more today, etc.)? What of the entire cultures and languages that continue to be extinguished by the onslaught of industrial capitalism? What of the brave social justice and environmental activists killed, imprisoned, and tortured daily around the globe? Or the many more killed for the crime of their poverty? Jobs didn't exactly cause this mess, but his company, despite its clean, wholesome image, has done far more to intensify it than mitigate it. Just as the Republican party channels our righteous anger (at the injustice of our culture) toward scapegoats, this outpouring of grief over Jobs is, at best, misdirected, a projection of other, deeper wounds that need to be brought to light, grieved over, and healed. At worst, it reveals our dedicated allegiance to consumerism at a historical and planetary moment when that can only be understood as treason against the world's poor and the community of life.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A Tale of Two Butchers

Tuscany, particularly the Chianti region bordered roughly by Florence to the north and Siena to the south, is a place, like so many others, rich in paradox.

On the one hand, it is the cradle of the Renaissance, the home of fashion houses like Ferragamo, Gucci, and Roberto Cavalli, world renowned among epicures for wine and olive oil, a romantic mystery for historians who puzzle over the still obscure Etruscan culture that flourished in the time of Homer. It is celebrated almost ad nauseum for its beauty: the undulent hills, the slender cypresses, the grand villas, the quaint medieval villages, the Apollonian grace of its olive groves, vineyards, and sunflowers, the air fragrant with rosemary, sage, wormwood, mint, and wild fennel, and, above all, the ethereal golden light of its late afternoons.

On the other hand, it is a provincial place where young men blast techno from their tiny Fiats, driving like they were in the Mille Miglia, or just sick of living. Its ballyhooed cuisine is mostly simple grilled or boiled meat. It is a land of stark class divides between the extremely rich (often foreigners) and an overwhelmingly Communist working class struggling against a collapsed Italian economy, all overrun in warm months by every sort of tourist. Its network of winding, tiny, ancient roads can easily turn into an adventure in the Dionysian: vertical dirt roads barely passable by mule, vast forests of chestnut, oak, wolves, pheasant, and wild boar, the occasional shrine to the Holy Mother, a desperate and futile bulwark against a land teeming with far older, more unruly spirits.

It also happens to be home to the world's two most famous butchers, Dario Cecchini and Stefano Bencistá Falorni. Tuscans love meat with a passion. Cooking “sulla braccia,” over fresh, glowing coals, usually in the hearth of some ancient home, evokes the reverence of ritual. Stefano's village of Greve has six independent butchers, in addition to a butcher counter in the Coop (the supermarket) that would put most artisanal markets in the US to shame. Tiny Panzano has two independent butchers, plus another in their Coop. They all know what they are doing. So what sets Dario and Stefano apart?

In the English speaking world, Dario's fame far exceeds that of Stefano or any other butcher, thanks in large part to his ardent, eloquent, and heartfelt admirers, including Bill Buford, Faith Willinger, and Jaime Oliver. Stefano, while lacking such influential advocates in the English speaking world, is, like Dario, a regular on Italian television, and perhaps better known for his salumi than any other butcher in a nation obsessed with salumi, a nation where, moreover, Tuscany is widely considered, at best, a middling region for salumi.

Dario and Stefano are about the same age, on the long side of "middle age," both basking in the golden light of late afternoon, as one might say after too much Chianti and Tuscan sun. Both run butcher shops of which they are the eighth generation inheritors, both dating to the early 1700's. Both of those shops are living homes of the old Tuscan culture, the one that predates highways and industrialization, that was there before the Renaissance, that feels a closer kinship to the Etruscans than to Rome, that is, seemingly, as old as the hills. At both stores, the men and women who work there banter playfully with local regulars and each other, in varying degrees of the local contadino accent. Both Stefano and Dario are large men with large hands in a place where most of the locals are quite small, giving credence to old wisdom about the virtues of meat. Both live in the villages of their births, Stefano in Greve, Dario in Panzano, neighboring villages on the Chiantigiana. Both are fierce defenders of an artisanal Tuscan food tradition both more widely known and celebrated than ever before and perhaps more genuinely threatened. Both are the overwhelmingly dominant personas in their towns, in which people often say, in typical half-derisive awe, that there will soon be statues of them in the main squares (in Stefano's case, he would either join or replace Giovanni da Verrazzano). The similarities, as though there weren't enough, end there.

Oh yes, there is one more commonality, of interest only to me. I worked as a stagista, or unpaid apprentice, for both of them.

Dario is nearly always laughing, beaming, hugging his dear friends (including those he just met), singing, reciting poetry, expounding on the dignity of the artisan and the crime of industrial food, handing out free homemade wine and lardo, holding court in his little shop like a mad and benevolent king, which is, in effect very much what he is to little Panzano. More than king, even, he is almost a patron saint, famous locally for taking in, looking after, and often employing the cast-offs, the troubled, the addicts, the people most in need of help and acceptance, and those typically least likely to get it. On occasion, he bursts with anger, often rooted in indignation at those who question his choice to source beef from Spain (it is pasture raised on a family farm, unlike nearly all Tuscan chianine, the local heirloom bovines, now living miserably on grain in CAFOs), who ask more than once for a Bistecca Fiorentina (thereby ignoring the rest of the animal, and the fact that the Fiorentine all go to his restaurant Officina della Bistecca, where they can certainly get some), who ask for their porchetta sliced thinly (it dries out), and so forth. He always wears red. People often leave his store believing he is a giant, not only because his massive head, hands, and shoulders tower over them as he stands on a not-so-obviously higher level behind the meat case, making him seem a full two meters (that's 6'9" for my fellow Americans... by the way, he's actually about six feet, or 183cm for my non-American friends). Dario is very big, but not too big for Panzano. Herein, perhaps, is the key to his appeal: grand champion of the small.

Stefano, dressed in white like the many other butchers who work for him (his butcher shop is much larger than Dario's and offers a much wider array of fresh and, especially, cured meats), is often seen as aloof. I have known him for virtually all of my thirty-three years and volunteered the autumn of 2010 to work for him, in exchange for his knowledge, which he shared with some initial hesitation but ultimately with great generosity. I think he likes me, though I can never be sure. If I enter the store for the first time in months or years, he may or may not greet me. The greeting may be a smile and nod. If I stand around long enough, he will, maybe, at some point, come over and speak to me with great intensity for a few minutes. Then he will walk away. When I leave, he almost never says goodbye. Stefano inspires more fear than Dario. He is usually quiet, but when he decides to speak up, his booming voice, grand gesticulations, and enormous presence easily dominate almost any situation. His Tuscan accent is so thick that I still usually struggle to understand him, though I've managed to forge close friendships with people speaking only Italian.

Stefano works with all kinds of meat, but mostly pork. He is most famous for his salumi, or cured meat, including salami, prosciutto, lardo, pancetta, capocollo, guanciale, etc. Dario works with no poultry, no rabbit or lamb, the occasional mammalian game, and a steady influx of pork, but mostly beef. His #1 catchphrase is "To beef or not to beef!" (Other catchphrases include, "Senza furia e senza paura," meaning "No rush and no fear" and "Viva la ciccia!" meaning "Long live [the Tuscan dialect word for] meat!") He makes almost no salumi, only guanciale. Both are, for any doubters, truly past masters. I have now seen a lot of career butchers, most of them raised in the proud tradition of Tuscany. Dario and Stefano both combine precision, grace, and speed to a degree I have seen in no one else, with the possible exception of "Maestro" Orlando, the seventy-two year old master butcher who does most of the day-to-day butchering for Dario (after all, Dario's daily duties also include running a busy shop, running three restaurants, and managing the demands of an international foodie media that can't get enough of him).

Where Stefano is proudly “all business,” Dario routinely denies that his business is a business. Both are preturnaturally hard workers, often up before dawn, often working well into the night, often working seven days a week, often doing physically tough and obviously dangerous work, and rarely taking a vacation, which can only be at the instigation of loved ones. Stefano has built, through hard work, talent, and business savvy, a small empire of pork and wine. That empire is already blurring the lines between the artisanal and the industrial. If there is a spiritual or ethical component to Stefano's work, it is manifest only in the quality of his products. Dario has built his little empire of beef and, well, more beef, through hard work, talent, and an unrelenting commitment to honoring the animals, honoring the artisan's dignity and way of life, and resurrecting the dying or lost traditions of Chianti. His empire has little room to grow. It is reaching the upper limits allowed by its fierce artisanality.

On my last day with Stefano, I'm pretty sure I did not see him. Finally, a few days later, after several attempts, I found him in the store, where he gathered some nice products for me as a thank you. I'm not sure he said much of anything. But it was touching. On my last night with Dario, working dinner service at his restaurant above the shop, Officina della Bistecca (Workshop of the Steak), I stepped outside for a breath of air, when I noticed Dario singing in his booming baritone. Then I noticed he was singing to me. I think it was an Italian version of Auld Lang Syne. It's foggy because he quickly threw his (massive) arms around me, catching me a bit off guard. He held me, in Dario fashion, longer than I might have expected, had I expected to be hugged in the first place. Then he pulled back, holding my arms, beaming from ear to ear, and told me that from now on, this was my home, and that whenever I come back, I should always feel that I am home.

I do not know if they are friends, though I am pleased to have found the photo above. I never asked either what he thinks about the other. I do not want to know. I'm afraid that either might color my view of the other in ways I'd rather avoid. I'm afraid of revealing my divided loyalties, if that is not too absurd a notion to express. I figured that by now I would know, but I don't. So be it.

What else is there to say? Actually, a lot. Too much. About the Apollonian order of white-clad butchers, scores of hanging prosciutti, and queued customers in Antica Macelleria Falorni. About the Dionysian spectacle of roaring disco music, fast flowing wine, endless plates of free porchetta bites with pepper jelly, lardo crostini, and fettunte (bread with Dario's very good estate olive oil), booming voices, laughter, and New York City subway-at-rush-hour type crowds in Antica Macelleria Cecchini. About my friends and colleagues, young and old, who populate these fraternal twin temples of meat, for I certainly spent more time with them, and learned at least as much from them as I did from their employers. But I'll leave it at this.

Grazie, Stefano!
Grazie, Dario!

Grazie, Chianti!
E viva la ciccia!