A professional chef could often be labelled as a wanderer or a traveler, or just someone with a resume as long as their arm. They tend to work in a lot of different places, sometimes for a few months, maybe for a few years. But once a chef, always a chef, right? Today on Island Artisans, I talked about a chef who has decided to change his focus to perhaps a less-frenzied lifestyle.
I first met Cory Pelan when he was the chef at La Piola restaurant in Victoria, a place where you could get a very good Italian meal with housemade pasta and a dedication to local ingredients. When his contract to run that restaurant was about to end, he was thinking about moving to or starting another restaurant, just like most chefs would. Then he had second thoughts: “I kind of had an epiphany with a pig one afternoon. I was in the kitchen, working with a whole carcass, breaking it down and eventually making maybe 15 or 20 different products with it and thinking that this was the happiest I’d been in my working life, so that’s when I thought I could do something like this full-time.”
So, from being a full-time chef, he has turned himself into a full-time salumi-maker or salumist. Salumi is the Italian word for cured meat, and many of Cory’s products in his new career are rooted in Italian tradition. These products are now for sale at The Whole Beast Artisan Salumeria on Oak Bay Avenue, sharing a new space with the Village Butcher, so you have a great place for both cured and fresh meats under the same roof. I went in for the first time a couple of weeks ago and a place like this is heaven on earth for a cured meat enthusiast like me, starting with the aromas of smoked and cured meat, and the gleaming counters full of a multitude of different products, most of which originate from that magical animal, the pig.
Curing meat is not a skill you just pick up overnight, but that’s where his chef background came through, always searching for the best ingredients to serve your customers: “So instead of just ordering my sausages and cured meats from distributors and getting a product that I wasn’t really satisfied with, something that either didn’t have enough fat or wasn’t the right texture or flavour, I started trying to make it myself. First I started with fresh sausages, and then I got more into cured and fermented products, and those products became part of the menu wherever I was cooking.”
When I visited Cory he had just taken some wonderful brisket out of the smoker, and I was really like a kid in a candy store there, there are different kinds of bacon, spicy cappicollo, guanciale, lardo, pork belly confit, coppa, pancetta and more,and a whole line of fresh sausages.
An unexpected find for me at the shop were all these different preserves that you serve with these products. Honey candy cane beets, pickled broccoli, mixed Italian style pickles, pickled peppers, even his own pickled ginger, which is so superior to anything else you can buy in a jar.
It’s all been wonderful, but a decidedly different pace than what he has been used to in his chef career. Mind you, the pace is still pretty busy as the demand for his products has kept Cory and his staff working away to keep the shelves stocked. But I did ask him if he misses his former restaurant life: “Uh, sometimes. And I know at some point I’ll probably go back into it, and there’s even an opportunity to get into a small food service establishment right here with this business. But I don’t miss the long hours or the tiny profit margins in the restaurant business, and thinking of that keeps me in check.”
So, you can’t really take the chef out of a chef once they have the bug. Cory and I talked for quite a bit longer about the kind of products he’s making there, how he sources local meats in his products and how his business partner Jeff Pinch brings a northern European specialty to The Whole Beast to complement Cory’s mainly Italian preferences…y’know I even saw some Chinese-style pork belly hanging there the other day. Next week I’ll put our entire conversation on the blog for you to listen to, but to keep you busy in the meantime you can always log onto Facebook and ‘like’ The Whole Beast Artisan Salumeria page!