Affinity For Swine: It’s A Matter Of The Heart, Part 2

This is the continuation of my interview with Executive Chef Anthony Prontelli.  If you missed the first part, click here.

There’s a pig-roasting pit in your backyard, which you yourself built. Correct, seven-foot round.  How long did it take to build? Altogether, probably about 15-16 hours put into it.  And how big of a pig does it hold? An 80 lb. pig.  When did you break it in? First night!  Not with a pig, just a bonfire at night, had the neighbors over with a couple bottles of wine.  But I had about 30 people over first weekend of October, which kind of now has become my annual pig roast….I had a 37 lb. Kurobuta black pig that cooked for 12 hours.  How does it’s meat taste? It’s fattier than regular pork…it would be like the Kobe beef of pork, so the meat has more flavor.  Has a higher fat content, so it’s a lot juicier.  Originally, they’re Japanese, but this one came out of Pennsylvania.  It’s a whole process of raising them.  The whole concept is the happier the pig, the better the meat will taste.

Do you have a favorite recipe involving pork? No, I don’t.  One of the ones I like the best would probably be the fresh pappardelle pasta with the suckling pig that we [at Rock Center Cafe] have done on the menu.  Just because it’s such a long process to doing it, it’s really start to finish, and it’s just an outstanding product.  I made Head Cheese for the first time.  We were playing around with a couple [pig] heads in the kitchen…that was fun.  I kind of like doing different things with it, just because it’s so versatile.  So no favorite family recipes? No…there are plenty of family recipes, I don’t follow any though.  I take the concept of it, like the concept of making the Head Cheese–my uncle makes it in Italy–so I knew the process that he did.  I didn’t do it as a cold-cut, as it normally would be.  I diced it all up and put it in mason jars and used them more as a spreadable item instead of a sliced, cold-cut item.  Obviously they’re all old-school recipes, which–there’s nothing wrong with it–but I try to put a new spin on it, make it more acceptable.  You tell someone it’s Head Cheese and they see, like, chunks of fat, you know, an ear, a snout.  A little bit harder to swallow.  You try to make it more mainstream for people. Correct.

How much pork do you eat in a week, do you think? (Laughs.) Poundage?  No, that’s okay!  Just tell me how often you eat it. I would say, I probably eat pork everyday.  In some form or another.  Probably two or three times a day.  You’re a pretty lean guy, how do you keep your figure? My girlish figure? (Laughs.) I don’t sit down.  I’m very active.  Whether I’m here, 10-12 hours on my feet, or I’m home, I do a lot of things around the house.  Are you a nibbler or do you actually sit and have [substantial] meals? I nibble.  I think the only time I sit down and have square meals is when I go out for dinner or on my one day off, obviously I’m with my family, and we have dinner [at home]…here, it’s pick here, pick there.

Is this just a pork-lovin’ phase?  Or will you always have an affinity for pork? No, I was brought up on pork.  Every meal ended with cheese and some kind of pork product.  Whether it was prosciutto, sopressata, cacciatorini, always.  That was the ending of every meal.  So you have an emotional connection to pork? Yeah, I definitely do.  I mean, it’s always been in my family.  I remember as a child, my father used to bring home testa in cassetta which is Head Cheese–literally means “head in the box”–and it was wow, it was disgusting, I wouldn’t eat it.  Now I love it.  Obviously you grow into things….We had pork, probably at least twice a day.  [During] the holiday times you had big antipasti spreads…my father used to make sausage when I was a child, we always had it.

As a child (growing up in the Bronx) did your family buy ingredients the day of making something?  Was there a lot of natural, fresh food around? Fresh.  It was important.  My mom shopped everyday, she had her garden.  It wasn’t a huge garden…but she had enough room for her lettuce and her tomatoes and her herbs.  I never had canned tomato sauce.  It was sacrilege.  I’ve never had soup out of a can…they didn’t exist in my house.  We grew up where my mom would cook for us three meals a day, we didn’t go out to eat a lot.  It was home-cooked meals every day.  Cans of SpaghettiOs would never find its way into my house now, or in my mother’s house.  She still makes little tortellinis and raviollis, she’ll sit there and bang out like 700 tortellini–because we like tortellini soup–and she makes two or three piles each and we go over there and pick them up.  It’s definitely a different lifestyle being brought up that way.  I think you appreciate things more.  My parents came here from Italy…you lived off the land.  You raised pigs, rabbits, chickens–for food.  You farmed your land for food…that’s how they were raised, so that’s how they raised us.  So freshest of ingredients is very important.  Everyday my mother went to the store, everyday.  She bought what she needed for the day and that was it.  I think that kind of plays a part in what I do and how I look at things.

So did your mom, and the way you grew up, get you interested in cooking…becoming a chef? Yes.  Meals, in my family, weren’t just nourishment to eat, they were gatherings.  That’s how we get together and that’s how we talk.  And between me and my brother and my sister, we try to keep that alive, like with the holidays.  I’m always having people over, when I’m home.  Even if it’s just “come over” and we put some cheese and sopressata on the table, couple bottles of wine and hang out and b.s. all night.  It’s more of a bonding thing and a sharing thing.  I can go back to some of my best memories with my dad, he’s been passed away for many years.  [For example] Christmas Eve–big holiday to begin with, big seafood night.  So we’d do the seafood thing and then we’d all go to midnight mass, come back, go to my parent’s house and open presents.  And me, my brother-in-law, and my dad, we’d be up until 4:00, 5:00 in the morning.  Drinking wine, cognac…so we’d come back from midnight mass around 2:00 in the morning and my mother would be like, “Okay, what do you guys want to eat?”  Whether it was dessert or some snacks, food was there and it’s always been a part of my family.  So growing up like that, I saw it, I wanted to do it [cook].  I went more for the cooking end of it instead of the baking end of it because…it’s more free.  Baking is more of a science [with the ingredients and measurements].  With cooking it’s more winging it, it’s more of a creative outlet [for me] in the sense that there is more freedom to experiment.

Anthony Prontelli has been the Executive Chef at Rock Center Cafe in New York City’s famous Rockefeller Center since 2000.  He received his degree at The Culinary Institute of America.  He is completely devoted to the sus domestica, a.k.a., the domestic pig.

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