Those who attend a “Whole Hog” cooking class at enter the kitchen to see, well, a whole hog, or at least one split in half. They leave with six types of high-quality meat ready for home cooking.
The Michelin-starred Western Springs restaurant’s monthly classes let attendees spend a Sunday in the kitchen with chef de cuisine Nathan Sears (and, for the July class, grill cook Ben Truesdell) as he demonstrates the techniques Vie uses to turn swine into delicious meats like Irish bacon and country ham.
On Sunday, Sears had some of the meat dunked in a brine, other parts ground for sausage, some pork marinated in a sauce and some wrapped in the pig’s own fat for flavoring. Each half of the hog is simultaneously prepared for the dual demonstration.
“It’s about bringing the knowledge to everybody, where cuts come from,” Sears said. “Putting a face with what they’re eating… It’s good to realize it every day, not just, ‘oh yeah, I buy ground pork in a little package.’
“It gets you a little closer when you see the whole animal… There’s a little more connection; a little more love goes into the food.”
Students sampled parts of the hog, cooked as the class progressed, including pork rinds as a snack and a complete lunch of roasted pork loin with black-eyed peas, Swiss chard and creamed tomatoes.
Each attendee also left the class with a bag filled with the sausage prepared before them that day. They will return in two weeks to pick up the other five meats that require curing: Irish bacon, regular bacon, stock, pâté and country ham. (All the meat from the hog goes to the class participants.)
Dave Schonberg (a self-described bacon enthusiast) drove down from Wilmette to attend the class, having heard of Sears from his award-winning booth at Baconfest Chicago. He said he plans to apply the techniques he learned to process his own meat for home cooking.
“To be taught how to hand-cure bacon and be able to do something that’s that delicious, and pretty easy… You could serve something up that’s going to really wow people,” Schonberg said. “You could have something that’s pretty special and pretty unique.”
His friend Rich Giltner of Hinsdale said a highlight of the program was that the knowledge imparted by Sears wasn’t just how to prepare the meat, but also, for instance, how to acquire it.
“You get the best of a cooking class, but you also get the best of a restaurant experience,” Giltner enthused.. “A cooking school would give you technique, but not the restaurant knowledge.”
Sears, who has been running the classes since early 2011, said that Vie may consider further developing the classes in the future.
“We’re going to keep doing them as long as the interest is there and we’ll probably look to expand to a second level and do more with curing and salamis and prosciuttos,” Sears said. “There’ll be more coverage of, say, how to rig a fridge to be a fermenter.”