Swine and dine
Capital Hotel sous chef goes whole hog for a pig roast at Dunbar Gardens.
When it comes to having a cookout, Travis McConnell knows how to go whole hog. Indeed, it was an entire roasted pig he served up in a recent gathering at Dunbar Community Garden. The event was intended to kick off a series of several such gatherings, all aimed at spreading the word about his plans for a new business with an old way of thinking.
“I came back to Little Rock with a vision for what can happen here, and I think it can be a lot of fun. There’s big potential,” said McConnell, who returned as sous chef at the Capital Hotel last year after time spent working in San Francisco and studying in Italy.
That vision, he explained, is a place called Butcher and Public, a mix of old world butcher, charcuterie and sit down cafe where the emphasis is on locally (or regionally, if necessary) raised meat and handcrafted, artisan preparations utilizing as much of the animal as possible. Those familiar with Hillcrest Artisan Meats on Kavanaugh, a business McConnell said he admires, already have an idea of what the vision looks like in reality.
What may be unfamiliar to local eyes is the way in which McConnell is spreading awareness of the concept. That is, the roasts. In the future, those will be events ticketed through the Butcher and Public website, butcherandpublic.com. However, the first, held Jan. 20, was a walk-up, free event — and a learning experience, McConnell said.
“I wanted to do it and see where problems might arise, what the issues would be,” he said. “I’d only done it once before.”
For smokehouse veterans, the process won’t sound entirely unfamiliar, though with a whole animal it begins with taking the bones out. Then McConnell tied the pig to a spit he and his father built and started roasting a little after 6:30 a.m. The meat came off nearly 12 hours later, a little after 5:30 p.m. It’s not just a set-it-and-forget-it operation, though, and especially not outside. The fire has to be monitored for consistency, as does the meat as it cooks. Wind, temperature, humidity — all of that plays a factor, just as in most any grilling. Of course, the difference in serving a whole animal is the cut that ends up on a person’s plate depends on where they end up in line.
“We started with the ham and worked our way up to the neck,” McConnell said. “First you get ham, then back, loin and belly, then shoulder.”
The good news: a 130-pound pig can feed a lot of people. The bad news: McConnell had to stop short of some of the best parts. The head, he determined, was underdone and not fit to serve. A shame, he said, since it has some choice cuts, like the cheek. Yes, the cheek. One can also count nose, ears and tail in the edible category, too. In fact, said McConnell, about the only parts of the pig that can’t be used are teeth, hair and gristle. Bones and marrow, kidneys and spleen, even blood and intestines have their uses. Not all are utilized in a cookout right away; some are preserved and cured for later. But in a 230-or-so-pound pig, McConnell estimated maybe 5 pounds might be waste.
And it’s that way of thinking, along with recognizing the quality of what can be had from local farmers and ranchers, that McConnell said he hopes people will recognize. To use the whole of the animal is to respect the animal, to honor a traditional sense of consumption that’s sometimes lost in the modern world. It’s got a national following, a network of folks in an online group called The Butcher’s Guild, and McConnell said he hopes to bring that to Arkansas. Add in the communal aspect, he noted, and it’s a sort of universal human scene that transcends time and place. Not that he gets so philosophical about it.
“I just love to build a fire and have people around,” he laughed. “I don’t think we really get to do that anymore.”