This year is the Chinese year of the Rabbit, I wanted to begin to introduce an array of fellow craftsman from across the country, John Fink of San Francisco as part of an ongoing outdoorsman industry insider interview.
I met John recently at an event in the S.F. area as I finished judging the meat category of the Good Food Awards. The Good Food Awards is a platform to recognize artisan and craft producers of a variety of foods from across the country. During the even yet another fellow craftsman Dave “The Butcher” Budworth (to be featured in an upcoming article) was doing a half hog carcass breakdown. So in speaking with John I found that what he does is the essence of what outdoor gatherings are about as we stood amongst the S.F. Downtown Skyscrapers eating tacos from a food truck, outside of the coffee roasting warehouse where the event was being held. Additionally the fact that John yields a welder to craft his own equipment is pretty bad ass, and in our world of Jeeping, remote places there is nothing like a good chef that can whip up a feast but also take care of your potential Jeep breakage needs.
How did you come about creating the Whole Beast Company?
Over the last couple of years I have spent time visiting and learning from local farmers who are raising heritage breed animals, going back to the traditions of farming and raising the animals humanely and the line of husbandry. This learning has coincided with my deep interest in fire cooking whole animals over hard woods. With these two areas of passion, I decided to create The Whole Beast as as a way to celebrate the art and practice of cooking over fire along with cooking whole animals that have been humanely grown and prepared in a holistic manner.
Was any formal training required and how did you get into this?
I have my degree from the Cordon Blue and I have been a professional chef for 20 years. Through my upbringing I was exposed to sustainability from my grandparents as well as growing up in the farm lands of Kansas City and rural Pennsylvania, and in college and after I was a commercial fisherman. I’ve done my own research on small animal farms which are bringing back heritage breeds; as well as learned from chefs I have worked with who have shared how they cook all manner of goat, deer, yaks, camels, horse, pig and the rituals behind cooking with whole animals. My Cuban-American brother in law and his father have also shown me their process for a whole pig roast. I’ve taken all of this knowledge and applied it to my culinary training which gives me a substantial base to draw from.
Is what you do a commonplace in the culinary world?
Yes and no. People are cooking whole animals but normally it is on an indoor rotisserie, which is my least favorite way of cooking an animal. There is a true art of cooking a whole animal over a hard-wood fire outdoors–and this very old practice is a more soulful, difficult and hands on way to cook an animal.
I understand you make a lot of custom equipment for what you do, what was the most challenging?
Working with the iron cross is a challenge on many fronts from securing the animal properly but also being able to rotate it. Fire-cooking uses a tremendous amount of fuel and I have to take into account weather and wind flow which translates to smoke direction.
What is your overall outdoor kitchen comprised of other than the special equipment needed?
My whole outdoor kitchen could be considered special equipment. Stainless steel grills housed with an aluminum frame, cinderblocks, rakes, shovels, wood that is indicative to the area for sustainability reasons, oven tiles, welders or fireman’s gloves, a large enough space. I worked with friends to create a few items which work well for my cooking including a Maple hardwood cutting board large enough for whole animal preparation, butchering and carving, handmade to specification in North Carolina, and a custom-made whole animal grill rack that turns on an axel over the fire.
What was the most memorable and/or remote area dinner feast you’ve done?
The Kuleto–Thomas Keller dinner
Chef and restaurateur Pat Kuleto had just finished building his outdoor oven at his winery, and I was the first to debut cooking in it. I was cooking a 42lb spring lamb for Chef Thomas Keller and his executive team. It was a lot of pressure! We did a simple herb rub of rosemary, parsley, olive oil and black pepper, the challenge was using an oven which had never been used before as well as a way that I was not as familiar with. It was a fine balancing act of pulling out coals and keeping the temp on the lamb so the oven didn’t get too hot and dry the lamb out to jerky, it turned out amazing but it was a real learning experience for me. The French Laundry team was very complimentary of the meal–which was so gratifying!
Sockeye Salmon Roast Vashon Island in the San Juan Islands, Washington State.
It had been a great sockeye salmon run season, they were running bigger than normal and had great fat content, it was an amazing opportunity to use a local fish from such a beautiful agricultural island. I cooked it over alder wood which is indicative to the area, and stuffed it with local herbs and veggies grown on the island. I built a fire on the beach and paired it with Dungeness crab that I had caught earlier that day. It was an amazing neighborhood party at sunset, sharing and swapping stories
What is your favorite animal to prepare?
Lamb requires the perfect amount of cooking time- roughly 4 hours, just enough time that you get into the process but not too much that it requires a whole day. I love bringing out the true flavor of lamb and turning non lamb lovers into lamb lovers. We are so use to being brought up on the “lamb” that are actually “ewe”. They are over 50 lbs tend to taste gamey and probably not feed great food. A true lamb is subtle, and juicy, not gamey at all.
Recipe for Lamb Chermoula Rub (1 animal)
4 qrts Yogurt- Greek or Goat milk
2 cups Chermoula
1 lb Ginger
10 Lemon Zest
2 bunches Mint
2 bunches Cilantro
Planning to celebrate the year of the rabbit, John even has a full menu to assist or give you some ideas on his website. Check it out by visiting www.TheWholeBeastSF.com.
– Check out our interview of Nick Chaset from the Bull Moose Society by clicking here
* Published by JPFreek Adventure Magazine – The leader in Jeep and adventure enthusiast publications.