Chef Hugh Acheson has gone on the record to defend charcuterie from those who "might pronounce the shark jumped," and chef Josh Hopkins, of Acheson's Atlanta restaurant Empire State South, is a huge reason why. In his pro-charcuterie argument, Acheson calls Hopkins (and ESS alum Ryan Smith) his "meat heroes": The duo, longtime friends, got to experiment with charcuterie recipes and styles together when Hopkins joined the ESS team last summer.
Today, with Hopkins as Empire State South's executive chef, the charcuterie board provides a variety of proteins and preparations that encourage guests to "just jump in," he says. Although Hopkins' approach tends toward the traditional, Southern influences emerge all over the board: the rillette of smoked catfish belly, the spoonful of chow chow, the splash of bourbon in the head cheese. "One cool thing about this restaurant is the guests that come here are really trusting for some reason," Hopkins says. "I feel like we're very lucky in the clientele we get, because we can pretty much put whatever we want on the menu." Here, a look at the baker's dozen tastes on ESS's "large" charcuterie board:
1. Pâté de Campagne: Empire State South's country pâté features pork, pork fat, and pork liver, stuffing it into a synthetic casing so that it slices into a rounds instead of the loaf-shaped pâtés common elsewhere. "We like to do different shapes and sizes," Hopkins says.
2. Catfish rillette: Hopkins gets much of the restaurant's flatheads and blue catfish from a friend who fishes in a lake about 30-40 miles east of Atlanta. "I got a catfish yesterday from him that was 48 pounds," Hopkins says. "The belly was about the size of my forearm." The catfish bellies — which Hopkins says look like pork belly, complete with inner muscular fat layers — get cured with salt, spices, and citrus before smoking. "It's amazingly delicious," Hopkins says of the product. "It's so fresh — it's the freshest fish that we get." The smoked bellies are then whipped into rillette.
3. Mustard and pickles: In the first of the ESS board's two pockets of meat accompaniments, there's a house-made Dijon-style mustard and a trio of pickles: bread-and-butter, spicy dill, and carrots.
4. Mortadella: Hopkins calls ESS's mortadella preparation "pretty straightforward" and true-to-tradition — just pork and pistachios — and again placed in a synthetic pork casing.
5. Beef braciole: A cured beef braciole is seasoned with rosemary, thyme, salt, juniper berries, and aleppo pepper. According to Hopkins, it spends 16 days on salt and then is hung for anywhere between four to six weeks.
6. Head cheese: Another classic preparation, Hopkins and his team poach pig heads whole, then pull the meat off and spice it with coriander, mustard, and aleppo pepper before setting it in a terrine mold. There's also bourbon in it, because "every kitchen loves bourbon," Hopkins laughs.
7. Coppa: Hopkins massages this pork shoulder muscle with all spice, fennel, anise, thyme, and bay leaf, then salts it for 18 days. It's hung anywhere between two-and-half and three months.
8. Rabbit pâté: This rustic-style pâté stuffs a synthetic casing with chicken fat, rabbit liver, pâté spices, thyme, and of course, rabbit meat. Hopkins notes that on a recent Saturday, ESS broke down two whole pigs, some goats, and a dozen rabbits.
9. Andouille sausage: While Hopkins says the charcuterie kitchen usually keeps things "pretty straightforward," this particular take on the classic andouille sausage mixes chicken in with the usual pork. "It gives a nice little texture and it binds really well," Hopkins says of the poultry addition. The sausages get a three-hour smoke before hitting the plate.
10. Pork Jowls: A Southern classic, ESS' version of the cured and smoked pork cheek is cured with fennel, coriander, all spice, and thyme.
11. Mustard and chow chow: The second pocket of meat accompaniments places house-made whole grain mustard near chow chow, an iconic Southern salsa made with green tomato (or alternately, Hopkins notes, cauliflower and onion). The chow chow pictured features green tomatoes, tumeric, and pickled mustard seeds.
12. Smoked "city ham": Unlike the traditionally long-cured country ham, Hopkins' city ham gets salted for only three-and-a-half to four weeks, depending on its size. After the cure, it's butterflied (removed from the bone in flat pieces), "glued" back together using meat glue, then pressed into a mold for shaping. The pressing is a purely aesthetic move, designed to look "really pretty when we shave it," Hopkins says. After the press, it's smoked and seared before serving.
13. Beef blood bologna: A mash-up of blood sausage and the more finely-ground bologna, ESS's BBB features beef, beef fat, and beef blood, sliced thin. Hopkins admit that the bologna and city ham are "the first thing I would probably go for" when eating the board himself.
There's one more item not pictured in the photo above: starch. The board is accompanied by a grilled farro sourdough bread made in-house (sometimes, when the ESS crew runs out, it's swapped with bread from Holeman & Finch). But the farro sourdough works best with the board for its sour notes and the "nuttiness" provided by the ancient grain. "With mustard and fat," Hopkins says, "it's delicious."