In the Meat Forest, five pigs, bisected à la Damien Hirst, swing from short hooks. Steaks that have been aging for 30 days patiently await butcher Frank Pace’s bone saw. And hampers filled with tails, hocks and feet stand stacked and ready to be taken to restaurants where they’ll be used for stocks.
The magical forest — actually a temperature-and-humidity-controlled walk-in — is one of many zones of culinary alchemy at the Guild Commissary. The Winooski plant that was once the Samosaman factory began operating on July 5 as a new type of food producer supplying multiple restaurants.
The 5000-square-foot, USDA-approved plant is a project of the Farmhouse Group, which owns Burlington-area restaurants the Farmhouse Tap & Grill, El Cortijo Taqueria Y Cantina, Guild & Company and Guild Fine Meats. Managing partner Jed Davis says opening the facility was “a sizable investment, but an investment in ourselves.” The Commissary is now home base for all the meat processing that turns whole animals into steaks, ground beef and deli meats for the Group. It also houses a bakery that ensures that every bread and dessert served at the Group’s restaurants is homemade.
The first facility of its kind in Vermont, the Commissary would be rare even among big-city restaurant groups. Davis, who has worked for Daniel Boulud’s New York restaurant group, says the famous chef has his desserts made at a central baking facility, “a proper, controlled environment that allows them to do it right.”
The Farmhouse Group has taken that principle and expanded on it, using the Winooski facility to supply meat to its restaurants, as well. The opening of Guild Fine Meats (GFM), the group’s new downtown butcher shop, was timed to follow that of the Commissary by a month and a half.
Davis says the decision to expand production from a few of the company’s individual restaurant kitchens into the Winooski building was employee driven. “We had some really great, key employees that needed a better work environment,” he explains. “Mostly Frank, Tom and Samantha.”
That’s master butcher Frank Pace, GFM chef and charcuterie expert Tom Deckman and pastry chef Samantha Noakes, née Madden. When she married Farmhouse sous chef Andrew Noakes last month, Deckman was a groomsman and Pace catered. “We keep it all in the family,” says Samantha Noakes, who refers to Deckman as her “brother,” though they are not blood relatives.
That bond was likely forged in their previous work environment. Needing space outside the Farmhouse kitchen, Noakes baked for two years in the basement of the restaurant’s Bank Street building. She had ovens and two cassette burners, but no sunlight. “We see the light of day now,” jokes the perky blond.
Deckman used to craft charcuterie in the same downstairs area. Now, Noakes says, “Two great minds think alike. We help each other out and make sure things are going to be OK.”
They’ve been more than OK. In two years, Noakes has gone from making desserts for one restaurant to supplying four Farmhouse Group eateries with sweets and breads. She also makes 150 rolls a day for her Winooski neighbor, Misery Loves Co.
Soon Noakes will supply desserts to Burlington’s American Flatbread, co-owned by members of the Farmhouse Group. She’s hard at work conceiving pastries made from elements used at the restaurant’s on-site Zero Gravity Craft Brewery, such as a brownie sundae with wort in the chocolate sauce.
Noakes has already perfected one beery dessert, a chocolate-stout cake that is served at the Farmhouse and sold at GFM. She says the decadent dessert reminds her of the shiny, perfect chocolate cake that overweight Bruce is forced to eat in Roald Dahl’s Matilda — though, she clarifies, “I’m not a scary lunch lady.”
Noakes and her crew of four produce a staggering number of baked goods. In leaner times, they manufacture 300 to 800 challah buns a day for Farmhouse burgers, but in the summer — especially when Farmhouse supplies burgers to the Intervale Center’s Summervale dinners — “a thousand has happened,” Noakes says. “Farmhouse never ceases. We could probably never get too far ahead.”
Besides the buns, Noakes makes biscuits and sourdough English muffins for brunch, appetizer pretzels and GFM sandwich rolls. She lays claim to arguably the best chocolate chip cookies in Burlington (sold at GFM), as well as crafting batter for El Cortijo’s churros and crème Anglaise and coulis for plated desserts. All told, her product list includes some 50 baked goods, not to mention the zucchini, beet and carrot cakes and seasonal pies that GFM will soon stock for the holidays.
For their part, Deckman and Pace have been working long hours at the Commissary turning out meat for the new butcher shop and the restaurants. It’s heavy labor to transform beef quarters into steaks, burgers and deli meats.
Crafting those deli wares is a new skill in Deckman’s arsenal. The 30-year-old former Champlain College business major is a largely self-taught cook. When he started as sous chef at Farmhouse in 2010, he distinguished himself by an interest in charcuterie and sausage making that made him an asset to Davis. “He’s a rare talent and a heck of a nice guy,” the co-owner says of the chef.
Deckman was the force behind creating the value-added meat products, such as terrines and pâtés, that would eventually be sold at GFM. He took on the new challenge of learning to case and smoke meats such as Adam’s Turkey Farm breasts into products that worked in a deli case. “We’re taking products like [those of] McKenzie and Applegate and using good ingredients to do the techniques that they do,” says Pace. “It’s sick.”
Deckman and Pace are only allowed to handle meat from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., when they’re subject to the plant’s daily meat inspections. They can leave the turkey and salty Vermont Heritage Grazers hams to smoke overnight. Similarly, dry-aged beef shoulder spends 20 hours cooking at the Commissary before it’s ready to send to Farmhouse for inclusion in a sandwich and dinner plate.
Over at the restaurant, chefs assemble their dishes with the help of these premade elements. Thus the Commissary enables the Farmhouse Group to combine the convenience of supplying a restaurant chain (albeit a small one) with the flexibility and top-flight ingredients of a small, locavore enterprise.
The Farmhouse Group may be a far cry from chains such as Chili’s, but “small” isn’t the word for its current meat production. In Pace’s domain, the meat fabrication room, he and Deckman grind 175 pounds of beef at a time, mostly for burgers at Farmhouse. They say the patties have changed dramatically since the producers been able to make consistent use of whole animals.
Each steer yields about 150 pounds of trim, the fat and any other nonessentials that end up in ground meat. The grind at the Commissary includes connective tissue and necks, but also higher-end cuts such as loins and chuck. “The line cooks love them because they’re easier to cook,” says Deckman of the patties that include 75 percent lean muscle and 25 percent fat. “Flavor-wise they’re better, because we can hand-select what goes into them. We affect the amount of moisture loss, the amount of fat. You can say, ‘I want it to taste the way it does.’”
“We can produce the same product every time,” Pace adds. That’s true even when they’re turning out 800 to 1000 pounds of ground beef a week, for burgers at Farmhouse and Guild, carne in El Cortijo’s tacos and sausage stuffing at GFM.
Dry aging meat works better at the Commissary, too; Pace says he can taste the difference. The chef has been experimenting with the technique since he worked at Shelburne Supermarket, and improved his skills as butcher at Healthy Living Market. Then he moved to Guild & Company, where, he says, the walk-in was too humid for his purposes, causing meats to mold while aging. “It wasn’t as clean and efficient, and there was some loss,” he remembers.
Now Pace is finally working in a true dry-aging facility, where cold air passes over primal cuts from LaPlatte River Angus Farm without troublesome moisture. The result: “They are immensely better than a year ago,” Pace says with a grin. Even chunks of trim, which this reporter salted and seared at home, were tender as filet mignon, yet retained the marbling and beefy flavor of less lofty cuts.
Another innovation at the Commissary is a sturdy bone saw, which allows Pace to cut bone-in steaks from the beef once it’s aged for 30 days. Rib eyes and New York strips now boast a deeper flavor thanks to being cooked on the bone.
Back in the ready-to-eat room, Deckman is preparing to start yet another project. When the group moved into the Commissary, the chefs and state inspectors agreed it would roll out its meat products in three unofficial phases. Phase one encompassed all the basics, including cutting whole animals and dry aging. Producing deli meats — such as the mortadella and capicola on GFM’s Italian sandwich — constituted phase two.
Phase three is dry curing. Deckman has readied the small chamber in the ready-to-eat room for aging whole muscles. Though bacon curing is much less intensive than the process for deli meats, it is also covered by the facility’s Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points plan. Homemade bacon will soon be available at Farmhouse group outlets, including rashers at GFM.
The Farmhouse Group is unlikely to stop there. Pace says that once the systems are in place for baking, meat cutting and food prep, the group will continue to expand, whether within the Commissary or to other outlets. Whatever the team does next, it’s sure to be delicious — and made from scratch.
Read this week’s installment of “Alice Eats” on Seven Days’ Bite Club blog for Alice’s review of Guild Fine Meats.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Guild Meat World"