This is an article I originally wrote for Living Intown magazine, December, 2016. You can read the magazine online.
On any given morning, you can find Jeff Jones in The Cave, the curing and smoking room of The Spotted Trotter, the boutique charcuterie and meat house located in Kirkwood.
Starting with a check of temperature and humidity, Jones begins inspecting the meats. He examines a trove of slow-curing salami, hams, coppa, and other unique meats for readiness.
“It’s fascinating to watch them progress,” says Jones, master sausage maker at The Spotted Trotter. “I’ve been here for four years and at this point you can use all your senses to tell when each one is done.”
Since its founding in 2010, The Spotted Trotter’s meats have been featured at restaurants across the South, adding Chef Kevin Ouzts’ blend of charcuterie to Atlanta’s collective palate. A native of Atlanta, Ouzts inherited a love for smoking and preserving meats from his father. He perfected his culinary style at Restaurant Eugene and honed his charcuterie skills at The Fatted Calf in Napa, California. Recently, Ouzts opened a second Spotted Trotter location alongside his restaurant, The Cockentrice, at Krog Street Market in Historic Old Fourth Ward.
As an evangelist for slow food and the art of charcuterie, Ouzts has amassed a pool of artisans who manage his kitchens and help actualize his vision including Jones, production manager Steve Sharp and sous chef Holland Keels.
Charcuterie (pronounced “char-koo-ter-ree”) dates back to the first century A.D. as a means to prevent meats from spoiling. It got its name in 15th century France when preserving pork was refined as a culinary technique.
“The process of charcuterie is a broad spectrum of things,” says Sharp. “But charcuterie in general is curing with salt. This was used as a preservation method throughout time and has turned into an expanded spectrum of what you see now. There’s tons of different stuff like salami and cured muscles.”
Sharp developed his love of food and cooking time at his grandmother’s farm in Rome, Ga. He attended Johnson and Wales and held several executive chef positions in Atlanta before he met Ouzts and signed on as his production manager.
Sharp finds that all of the Spotted Trotter’s artisans [I’d like a different synonym if we can think of one] have a different approach to their craft.
“It all depends on the individual,” says Sharp. “Everyone who works here has had their own journey to where they are now. And as you do it on an everyday basis, you learn more and more. Not everyone who works here has been a chef or gone to school.”
Jones was not traditionally trained as a chef: he held kitchen jobs at various Atlanta eateries, including working as the caterer of The Masquerade, and was a long time patron at the Spotted Trotter before Ouzts hired him. He finds learning the craft to be an ongoing process.
“I’m still getting up to speed,” Jones says. “There’s so much to learn. There’s a whole world of different preparations and different meats, so there’s always something new.”
Each culture has its own unique recipes and techniques to cure regional meats, whether jerkies, summer sausages or more. Traditionally, charcuterie was relegated strictly to pork, but today’s approach includes beef, lamb, poultry and seafood.
When Jones makes salami, he grinds choice cuts of meat, fat, herbs and spices and then stuffs them into a membrane. He adds a lactose-based starter culture to the membrane that over time blooms mold allowing the meat to properly ferment. Curing times varies from each product. Items like bacon and some sausages can take as little as two weeks, while salami and coppa, a cured subprime pork shoulder muscle, can take nearly two months.
Like Ouzts and Sharp, Keels has long been interested in preserving food. Keels originally earned a degree in visual arts from the Cincinnati Institute of Art, but has been cooking since he was 16 years old. After moving to Atlanta, Keel landed a position at Midtown Tavern and worked his way to executive chef, where he began developing charcuterie for its menu.
Creativity is just as important as technique. When time permits, Keel says the kitchen enjoys experimenting with new recipes and ideas.
“New products are just a creative influence of what we do, seeing what we have in-house that we can create,” says Keel, who began working as the Spotted Trotter’s sous chef in 2014. “Sometimes it comes from people asking for something new or someone telling us a description of what they would like to see.”
Beyond the craft of mastering the cut or refining the recipe, timing is an integral part of the charcuterie process, with patience being the key ingredient while waiting for meats to ferment.
Jones admits that between stocking the store’s weekly inventory, fulfilling wholesale orders for local restaurants and experimenting with new ideas, the job gives him plenty to do besides think about what’s curing in the Cave.
“It’s about focusing on the process without being antsy,” Jones says. “The only time I get impatient is when it’s something I’ve never done.”
Cured meats like salami, snap sticks, and summer sausages require no refrigeration, making them ideal for holiday shipping or stocking stuffers.