The Cannibal Chef Talks Grilling (and Beer)
Is there anything better than meat and beer? What if you combined the two in one marvelous butcher’s shop-meets-restaurant-meets-beer-heaven? Then you would have The Cannibal, brainchild of Christian Pappanicholas and Cory Lane, which now has a California location in Culver City. Executive Chef Francis Derby and Beer Director (best job title ever?) Julian Kurland give us the skinny on everything we need to know this grilling season.
The art of the butcher shop has been somewhat lost to the convenience of a grocery store, which is a huge loss for consumers and animals, really. The Cannibal is deeply passionate about the food they serve. They use only small farmers who care about quality of life for their livestock, as well as sustainability, something largely absent in grocery store meat. The Cannibal also wants to be a source of knowledge: “When you know your butcher, the process becomes about learning,” Executive Chef Derby says. “I feel like when you go to supermarket you may just tend to grab what you’re used to cooking because it’s familiar. When you have a relationship with a butcher they will talk you through some new cuts and even be able to coach you on some preparations you might not have worked with before…. We will even send you off with some spice blends and sauces, as well as instructions on how to use it.” This is the dedication of people who love and respect animals and meat.
The Cannibal is unique in a number of ways: they offer charcuterie, larger cuts of meat (whole pig’s heads, lamb shoulders) in addition to traditional butcher fare. They have a whole animal approach, meaning no part of the animal goes to waste, and they love their vegetables. Plus, they have a whole restaurant side, giving you the benefit of eating butcher-made and approved meals without the awkward trouble of inviting yourself over to his house.
The man responsible for the menu is Executive Chef Francis Derby, a customer before he was a team member. He lived close to the original location in New York City and spent a fair amount of time on their back patio. Born in Long Island, Chef Derby has been a part of some incredible New York restaurants, including Gilt, which has two Michelin Stars. Suddenly, the timing was perfect, and he found himself as The Cannibal’s executive chef, eventually opening The Cannibal’s first west coast spot in Culver City. He’s infused the menu with all his experiences and travels, ensuring it has what he calls “balance.” Chef Derby explains: “When I talk about balance, it’s in a couple different ways: style and places we draw from—everything on the menu is inspired by a meal I’ve had or place I’ve been and all the cultures that influence what we cook. Our sausages at the moment are a good example of representing many different cultures. For instance, Morcilla from Spain, Polish-style Kielbasa, Chicken Parm sausage is taken from red sauce Italian joints in NYC, and Bulgogi is a taken from Korean BBQ. This is all food I love to eat. I try my best to represent this in what we cook each day.”
The other part of that balance comes in the form of veggies. “As much as I love saddling up to a 36oz ribeye that’s been aged for 60 days and has a ton of funk and fat, I also like to balance that with bright fresh vegetables. We get our inspiration from the local produce of whichever city we happen to be in.” In a surprising twist, he says the vegetable section is the biggest on their menu. “This is because of the fact that it provides balance to all the meat sections. I love the fact that you can come here and start with a bright refreshing salad of summer squash and peaches and then get down and dirty with a 22 ounce pork chop that has a 2 inch thick fat cap that just melts.”
What does the maestro of meat suggest for a backyard grill? “Tougher cuts of meat require some long slow roasting or braising, so for quick grilling I’d stay with steaks and chops if you’re looking for something easy.” However, if you want to get a little adventurous and stray off the beaten (albeit delicious) path, Derby suggests skewers. “[T]hose can be fun for some unusual offcuts like chicken liver, duck hearts, soft chicken bone, which provide an array of different textures.” When you have experts like the folks at The Cannibal at your disposal, it might be time to branch out.
Chef Derby talks about grilling almost like it’s a lesson in meditation. Patience is the secret ingredient to success. “The worst things happen when people get impatient.” He explains that it’s important to let the heat build up properly, most especially if you’re cooking with coals or wood. “You need a bed of white coals to ensure even heat, the grill should be hot and you should hear a sear when the meat hits the grill. You will never get the nice charred outside that you only get from grilling, and this is why we grill—it’s that flavor that makes all the difference.
Secondly the meat must rest. The rule is the meat should rest for half the time it was cooked. So if you spend 10 minutes grilling a steak then make sure you wait five minutes to cut it. It will make all the difference in the world, and you will have a very juicy piece of meat.”
All right, Julian Kurland, we now know how to grill perfectly, so what do we drink with this meal? Kurland originally worked in the entertainment industry, but moved to New York, starting as an intern at The Cannibal, working his way up to becoming the Beer Director, which is no small feat: The Cannibal offers over 450 beers. Kurland has two answers for what beers to drink: “There’s the type of beer I want to drink while grilling and prepping, and the other I want to drink when I sit down to eat all the food I’ve cooked.
Related: The Bitter Truth about Sour Beer
When it comes to prepping and grilling, I always think light is better. I want to quench my thirst standing over a hot grill, but I don’t want to get too drunk in the process. Light bodied pilsners and lagers are always a great way to go, while American wheat ales give me the citrus bitterness I’m looking for. Another great idea is sour wheat beers. Think German Gose’s or Berliner Weisse. Both have a citric tartness and sourness that is extremely thirst quenching. By style, they are both low ABV so they are easy to continue to drink.
When the meat is done and we are ready to eat, we want to embrace the char of the grill but it’s still hot out so we don’t want to go ahead and drink incredibly dark and heavy beers. American brown ales are a great place to start. They have the slight roasted bitterness of a stout, while maintaining a medium body that allows you to drink more than one. IPAs are always great for rich and fatty foods, as the bitterness cuts through the fat very well. Although I can’t drink more than one when grilling, I think it’s always great to have a Rauchbier on hand. This style of beer uses smoked malts in order to impart a smoky peat flavor to the beer. It makes a perfect companion to smoked meats.”
There you have it. And this just scratches the surface of the wealth of knowledge The Cannibal offers on beer and meat. They have you covered in really any situation in which you want delicious, sustainable, seasonal food: private dining and “feasts,” the restaurant, and the butcher shop.