Pork, Salt, Time & Place Chef Cesare Casella Relocates to the Catskills
It isn’t a sprig of rosemary that chef Cesare Casella wears in his pocket; his signature accessory is a veritable hedge. When we meet, the greenery is jammed into the breast pocket of Casella’s brown corduroy jacket, its spiky branches causing the jacket’s soft fabric to jut in a conspicuous bulge. As we talk, a scent-cloud of crushed rosemary envelops us, its pineyness smelling of summer, despite the fact that it is now fall. Even as we walk down Hurleyville’s chilly Main Street, an aromatic puff of rosemary occasionally hits my nose, serially evoking (whiff ) Italy, (whiff ) sun and (whiff ) food.
Fragrant boutonnieres aside, no place can be further from Casella’s native Tuscany than Hurleyville, a quiet Sullivan County hamlet nestled among the remnants of the Catskill Borscht Belt resorts. Nowadays, no one is dirty dancing in Hurleyville. The only lingering ghosts of the Borscht Belt’s mid-century heyday are the clusters of abandoned and moldering tourist cabins dotting the outskirts of town. Yet here is where Casella is planning to site his new artisanal butcher shop and salami factory, Casella’s, opening this winter.
Main Street Revival
Cesare Casella is the latest—and arguably the most famous—of the New York City chefs heading to the Hudson Valley. He is the former chef of numerous critically acclaimed restaurants in NYC, a James Beard Award–nominated cookbook author, the dean of Italian studies at the International Culinary Center and the owner of the import company Republic of Beans, Inc. Casella (and his trademark rosemary) have long made the rounds on national food television, appearing on Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, Top Chef, Iron Chef and After Hours with Daniel Boulud. Currently, chef Casella is a partner in Giorgio’s Salami, whose products can be found at Del Posto and a variety of high-end retail outlets, including Eataly in New York City and Chicago.
Although Casella confesses that he is a country boy at heart (he grew up in a restaurant family outside the city of Lucca), Casella’s presence here in Hurleyville—halfway between New York City and Binghamton—is still a bit shocking. In his elegant sing-song Tuscan accent, he admits that when he came to Hurleyville, this sleepy hamlet “was a ghost-uh town-uh.”
Hurleyville, previously a center for dairy farming in the region, is currently making huge strides to pull itself from the ashes of the Borscht Belt’s decline over the last 30 years, an effort fomented largely by the presence of the Center for Discovery. According to the center’s president, Patrick Dollard, the many-armed nonprofit is “a care program for kids with complex disease and disability.” Currently, the center houses and cares for more than 300 residents, roughly 50 percent of whom live with autism spectrum disorders. Casella heads up the Center for Discovery’s Department of Nourishing Arts (DNA) based on 150 agricultural acres spread over multiple sites in and around Hurleyville. These are collectively known as Thanksgiving Farm. On this land, the Center for Discovery offers educational and therapeutic programs for its residents. Additionally, the farm yields much of the food that the center serves to its residents and employees—nearly 2,200 meals per day. Thanksgiving Farm also sells some of its produce through the high-end restaurant distributor Baldor.
According to chef Michel Nischan, president and CEO of Wholesome Wave (and three-time James Beard Award winner), Thanksgiving Farm has proven a boon to both residents and chefs. Citing the successes of noted livestock industry reformer Temple Grandin (herself also autistic), Nischan notes that working with animals can “stop the madness” for people living with autism. The idea that Grandin asserts is that people with autism often share an intrinsic comfort level with animals because the two process thoughts on a sensory realm, rather than in a word-based manner. Then, there is the fact that Thanksgiving Farm is raising its organic/biodynamic produce—and, often, heritage breed livestock—on lush Hudson Valley pastures. Laughs Nischan, “They’re just raising really good pigs.” Nischan, who was the executive chef of the Dressing Room (Paul Newman’s farm-to-table restaurant in Westport, Connecticut) until it closed in 2014, notes, “When I was at the Dressing Room, we bought a pig every six or eight days from Thanksgiving Farm. They’re stupendously delicious pigs.”
For nearly a decade, the Center for Discovery has also been extending its influence into downtown Hurleyville. The nonprofit is buying and rehabilitating the town’s dilapidated buildings, then finding tenants like Cesare Casella, whose 210 Main Street factory site once housed the town’s Polish market. The center has also leased 218 Main Street to Hurleyville’s only gastropub, the Pickled Owl. It also owns the site for Wild Turkey Bakery and Market (238 Main Street), which vends products from Thanksgiving Farm. According to Dollard, the Center for Discovery is hoping to make Hurleyville “a really foodie town.”
Dollard’s plan is not exactly a moonshot, entrepreneurially speaking. In nearby Monticello, Indian billionaire Dr. Subhash Chandra is behind a $90 million Ayurvedic spa, resort, yoga and wellness center under construction on the site of the Borscht Belt icon Kutsher’s. Less spiritually minded plans are afoot for another Borscht Belt landmark in Monticello, the Concord. In 2014, New York State’s Gaming Facility Location Board granted permission to Empire Resorts to build an $800 million complex complete with casino, 18-story hotel, indoor-outdoor water park, conference center, cabins and hiking trails on the Concord’s former grounds. Casella (and the town’s other frontiering tenants) are betting that these two projects alone will funnel well-heeled tourists through Hurleyville’s newly rehabbed Main Street.
Pig in Place
Casella’s occupies a modest red-painted frame building at 210 Main Street. Its tiny, white-tiled storefront will serve as a butcher shop selling housemade salumi and fresh heritage-breed pork and pork sausages. Though Casella has also been associated with beef—his connection to the Center for Discovery began when a friend suggested he move his lone heritage breed Tuscan Chianina cow to Thanksgiving Farm—the theme of Casella’s in Hurleyville is decidedly porcine. The real action at Casella’s will be glimpsed through a glass panel behind Casella’s rustic retail shop tables, both of which were hewn from locally sourced lumber. Here, Casella will operate a small-scale salami factory with the noble—and somewhat moonshotty—aim to re-create the salami of Casella’s Tuscan childhood under the USDA’s most stringent control. Casella envisions that this small factory, which is slated to open in January 2017, will act as a proving ground for a much larger operation nearby.
“Today in the U.S. you can find great salumi, great salami. But what I wanted to create was in my memory from when I grew up in Italy, to create the same flavor. To do that, I need to start from the pigs and then work my way up.” He continues, “The problem is that the pigs here, they are smaller than the ones in Italy. There, you have pigs that are 400 pounds. At this moment, it’s very difficult to find the right pigs.” Obviously, Casella has explored buying Thanksgiving Farm pigs “whenever they have them,” but that program’s meat production is primarily allocated for the diet of its residents and employees. Casella has also experimented with many breeds and hybrids: Duroc (aka “red hogs”) and Mangalitsa (known as the “hairy pig” because of its coarse long hair). The search for a suitable pig for his products forces him to weigh an almost infinite collection of qualities: fat-to-muscle ratio, age at slaughter and consistency of all characteristics within the breed and among farmers. It is a frustrating process. “But, the thing is, it is easy to raise pigs: It’s a very profitable animal. And I hope that in the future, people raise more pigs and raise them in the right way.” This is what eventually brought Casella to Hurleyville. “I’m thinking, maybe I need to start raising pigs myself. And, to do that, I’d like to find a place where it can be helpful to the community, too.” However, dreams of a pig farm in the area are just dreams for now.
Currently, Casella’s salami factory floor is comprised of imported Italian meat grinders and processing equipment. More critically, it also contains small rooms for the fermenting and aging of salamis, whose precious white mold is carefully nurtured under controlled heat and moisture. Along with salumi, Casella is planning to make prosciutto and the coveted Tuscan specialty culatello, which translates to “little backside.” When I visited, Casella rolled a rack from an aging room that was strung with guanciale, roulades of pancetta and spice-rubbed planks of pork belly. As of October, Casella was already aging test batches of products for USDA approval. It is a surprisingly collaborative process between chef and government. As Casella describes it: “They test; I taste.”
Given the small size of Casella’s production and the cost of his raw materials—heritage breed animals raised under ideal conditions are pricey—Casella predicts that his products will sell primarily to elite restaurants who can pass their costs on to deep-pocketed diners. That said, Casella’s salamis and hams will be available in select markets and, of course, in his Hurleyville store. Plus, a USDA certification will allow, eventually, for even greater distribution.
Nevertheless, Casella is happy to start small with the Center for Discovery as his landlord and longtime collaborator. “This is my pleasure, and I do it because I believe. And, because it is something I believe in, I don’t want it to be too stressful. We are so small here, I’ll only have two people working. This means that I can be free; I can play with it. I can make almost anything I want.”
210 Main Street, Hurleyville