Chef Jamie Bissonnette loves offal. He went through three pigs’ heads a week at his old Boston restaurant, Eastern Standard, to make his head cheese terrine. He slipped braised sweetbreads into a salad, and served a crispy pig’s ear with a pork chop.
But because the restaurant’s near Fenway Park, on baseball days Red Sox fans came “because they couldn’t get into [pizza chain] Bertucci’s,” Bissonnette says with a shrug. So the pig’s ear, for example, wasn’t exactly mentioned on the menu. “If they say, ‘What’s this?’ and we tell them, 90 percent of the time they just say, ‘Wow. That was good,’” says Bissonnette. “The other 10 percent freak out.”
While the gastro-elite of some big cities have embraced London chef Fergus Henderson’s “nose to tail” philosophy—where not a bit of the animal goes to waste—chefs elsewhere have gone into stealth mode.
It’s not that Bostonians have never tasted obscure innards; they swooned a decade ago when Chef Lydia Shire served crispy brains, sweetbreads, and other scary animal parts at now-defunct Biba. But that was all part of the game. People went to Biba to be shocked. More and more chefs are interested in the challenge and ecological sense of using all parts of the animal, and animals that are humanely raised. But they know that on a regular Tuesday night, simple sells; skipping the beet and goat’s cheese salad is the equivalent of restaurant suicide.
And so Louis DiBiccari, sous-chef at Sel de la Terre, makes a confit from goat “till it looks like duck” and serves it as a tart with black currants, caramelized onions, and Comté. At Todd English’s original Olives, Chef de Cuisine Brad Rainville gussies up sweetbreads with enough butter to make any fearful diner change his mind.
Even Tony Maws, the charismatic and uncompromising chef who has built a cult following for his 40-seat, subterranean Craigie Street Bistrot in Cambridge, is in semistealth mode at his “Whole Hog” evenings: Head cheese and pigs’ ears are on the menu as tete de fromage and oreilles de cochon.
Chefs are right to tread carefully: “I would not order goat, pigs’ ears, and particularly not beef heart, no matter how ‘in’ they are,” says Elizabeth Navisky, a self-proclaimed “open-minded eater” getting her master’s in gastronomy at Boston University. “If someone else at my table ordered one of those things, I could be persuaded to try it,” she says. “But tasting it, and ordering it and paying for it, are two very different things.”
“I have no problem with goat, but the pigs’ ears would need not to be recognizable,” adds Kristin Spinola, a Boston management consultant. “Head cheese? I would probably try it if I couldn’t recognize it. Tongue? Again it’s best if I can’t look at it and say, ‘Hey, look at that big tongue on my plate.’” She pauses. “But there’s a certain amount of street cred that comes from saying you’ve eaten pig ears.”
The trick with offal, chefs say, is to either slip it into accessible dishes, or put it on a tasting menu where it’s less of a psychological investment. If the diner likes it, he may just tell a few friends.
If all else fails, chefs rely on their industry buddies to make foods trendy. At Anise, a Szechuan restaurant that opened in Kendall Square last summer, General Manager Cedric Adams says the fact that local chefs come in late-night for plates of marinated chicken-heart skewers, duck tongue with soy bean paste, or beef tripe and daikon salad is creating buzz for the hard-to-find location. “The chefs drive it,” says Adams. “People want to know where those guys go to eat. Word gets around.”
Photographs by Peter G. Leis