Getting To Know Elias Cairo and His Meat

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As the eagerly anticipated restaurant and salumeria Olympic Provisions prepares to open in the Produce Row neighborhood of the Southeast waterfront next week, there’s a lot of buzz surrounding the OP and its roster of influential and accomplished partners, which include Clyde Common owner Nate Tilden, Clyde Common Executive Chef Jason Barwikowski, and former Executive Chef of Castagna Elias Cairo, who will assume the unique title of “meat-curing chef.”

Last weekend Eli, Michelle (Eli’s sister and OP co-owner) and I went to breakfast at Broder (one of Eli’s favorite breakfast spots) and talked a little bit about his globe-trotting meat-loving adventures, his taste in meat-curing music, his favorite spot to get meat, his ironic stint as a happy teenage vegan, and why Olympic Provisions will be the biggest and most exciting challenge of his career.

You grew up in a big Greek family that roasted whole goats in a pit in the backyard and ate lamb like it was going out of style, and now you’re poised to become the Meat Master of Oregon’s first salumeria. So is it really true that you used to be vegan?

Yes, I went vegan for a skateboard.

Explain, please.

I used to eat so much meat, but I went vegetarian when I was 16. I was hanging out with a bunch of straight edge vegetarians and hard core vegans, everyone I knew was vegetarian or vegan. I was driving around with friends one night and they said “if you go vegan for three months we’ll buy you a brand-new setup–trucks, wheels, and a skateboard.” I was super hard up and I was already vegetarian so I was thinking ‘this can’t be that hard.’ I did it for the three months and was kind of into it, so I did it for another year.

Before you came to Portland and started working at Castagna, you spent quite a bit of time in Europe in some pretty intense kitchens. How did you end up overseas?

I was planning to go to the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) in Hyde Park, New York, but when I told my uncle, who owns restaurants in Chicago, he said ‘you shouldn’t go to culinary school, I have somebody in Switzerland who owes me a favor.’  He called back the very next day and I had two weeks to gather my stuff up and go, to Wildhaus, Switzerland. They told me it would be crazy but I learned the language and how to write it, and if I really put my head down, they’d send me to school.  So I went there, I worked six days a week, and on my day off I went to German school in the village. And after a year and a half they sent me to a Berufsschule, a trade school where I studied under Annegret Schlumpf, she was the highest grade of kitchen chef you could ever have in all of Europe. It was an amazing experience.

After Switzerland, you went to Greece. What was that like?

The job in Greece was crazy. Five cooks, three services–breakfast, lunch, dinner–we fed 4-500 people three times a day, it was 110 degrees in the kitchen, and all the farmers would come in and drop off dirty potatoes, garlic, animal parts, at all times. The lamb would come with the skin on in a huge crate and we didn’t have refrigeration so it would sit in the middle of the kitchen until we had time to run over and take the skin off and start deboning it. The fish would come in big crates with every kind of Mediterranean fish you could imagine lying every which way.

I didn’t get a day off, nobody had a day off. Our baker, in 10 years, had had one day off. We’d go home in the morning at 1 am and wake up at 8am and start over. You were expected to wash all your own clothing so you took the cook’s jacket you’d worked all day in and wash it in the bathtub at one in the morning, soak it and scrub it. When we’d get off work all the cooks would go to this tavern in the village, the most picturesque tavern you can imagine, and we’d just get drunk, all the servers, all the chefs, until almost sun-up. We’d go to the chef’s wife’s house, and she’d make us kebabs and onion salad, we’d fire up the grill and we’d eat until two hours before we had to go back to work. Somebody would run you home, you’d fall asleep for an hour, maybe, take a shower, put on your chef’s jacket, put the other one in the bathtub to soak, and start all over. I loved it, and I can work my ass off, but it was torture.

Michelle (interrupts): Don’t forget about the rat problem.

Eli: And we had a crazy rat problem.

How did those two very different experiences shape you as a chef?

It was a crazy contrast between Greece and Switzerland, where you’d be making a 30-gallon batch of bouillon and they’d make you count the cloves and the black pepper and you had to be exact in everything you did. In Greece you were feeding 500 people and they told you to make lamb and you didn’t even have a recipe, they’d just tell you to make lamb and white beans. It was good to see the different sides of how kitchens can work, as a cook. If I’d come back here straight after Switzerland it would have been horrible, I would have been way too controlling.

How did you escape the rats and clove counters and get back to America?

I’d spent time in Portland and I loved it and wanted to move there, but I knew I would need a job. I was sitting in this little coffee shop in Greece and I Googled the best chefs/restaurants in Portland, and Cathy Whims at Genoa and Cory Schreiber at Wildwood were the only two I could find online then. I called Cathy and Cory from Greece and they both said, ‘yeah, it won’t be hard to get a job when you get into town, there are plenty of restaurants here.’ You know, I had no clue. Cathy said I should give her a call when I got into town. So when I got here I randomly called Cathy, who I barely met for the first time a month ago and I bet she has no clue about this story, and she said ‘I have no place for you here at Genoa whatsoever but Kevin Gibson at Castagna is looking for a cook right away.’ I ran down there and dropped off my resume and they called and asked me to stop by and that was six years ago. Castagna’s kitchen was beautiful and the produce and product was striking. When I left Switzerland I thought I’d never find product like that again, I’d taken it for granted. In a year and a half I was sous chef, and then a year ago I became executive chef.

Will it be weird for you to go from the craziness of a helming a full kitchen to making meat?

Yes, but that’s why we opened next to a restaurant, so it will always be in my life. That was a big concern when we talked about opening up the meat shop. I was like, how am I ever going to go without being in a kitchen? I love it. It’s so much fun and that energy, the daily life of a kitchen, is what I live for. Jason loves making meat and I love cooking and we’ll collaborate.

Now that you don’t go kebab-eating and drinking until 6am in a Greek village, what do you do to unwind?

Fly fish and eat.

What do you think about when you’re fishing?

Fishing.

That’s such a guy answer.

(looks confused) What else would you think about?

Moving on. So in your meat-loving opinion, who has the best meat in town?

Otto’s for sure. Otto’s is the coolest place. I worked there for a weekend recently, just helping out and learning about sausage-making and butchery. It’s amazing, his grandfather built the place, and they have a two-story smoker and a flat screen TV for watching sports while you’re making sausage. If I didn’t have anything going on, I’d be working there.

People are really excited about Olympic Provisions, and about your meat operation. What’s so special about what you’re doing?

The dry fermenting. We’re going to be the only place where you’re serving a fermented product–much like yogurt or beer or wine, you’re making a culture to ferment or activate and release a sour flavor, and producing a shelf stable product. We’re the only ones that have the facility and capability to make a traditional old world salami in Oregon. There are salami makers, but they’re all semi dry salamis, a greasy smoked kind of American style salami as opposed to a traditional European salami where it’s just raw meat and it just loses its water and gets naturally sour and develops a really cool flavor.

What sort of meat are you going to offer?

We hope to make all meats, we’ll be making the mortadellas, bolognas, pates, all the pressed charcuterie galore, but first we’re going to start with fermented sausages, all the traditional Spanish, French, and Italian-style salamis.

Michelle (interrupts again): And Greek.

Eli: And Greek.

We would like to do the chorizos from three or four different regions. I think it would be nice to offer not only a hardcore chorizo but to do a chorizo from San Sebastian in the north, the Riviera, and maybe one from the Barcelona area or a Catalan-style chorizo, and have them all right next to each other. They are all the same pork ratio, but we use different spices. Some are sweet, some are very herbaceous, some are full of smoked paprika, some are spicy. We’ll decide which ones we like the best. I love chorizo culture, and finding different variation. You can walk into a market in Madrid, into a meat shop, and they’ll have 20 different types of chorizo, all dry-cured, stacked up, and people are very selective. Nobody would just roll in and grab one. They want to know who made it, where it came from.

I also really want to do a nola, that was huge in our valley in Switzerland. We had three hog farmers and they would do a salt-cured sausage with all the three pigs from the valley, with no spice in it whatsoever, so you could really taste the meat. It’s just the most piggy flavor ever. I always thought it was such an interesting flavor, just pork and salt and the natural sour from the meat that makes such a great flavored salami. We’ll see how that works here, people may find it super bland.

When can people get their hands on your meat?

Depends on who’s asking.

I’m so quoting you on that, Eli. For shame.

Oh great, Anella (Eli’s girlfriend) will love that.

The cooked charcuterie will be ready right away, all the cooked charcuterie and bologna and pates and terrines you’ll be able to get the day we open. It’s the cured stuff you’ll have to wait for. We’d like to develop a backstock so we aren’t like, “Today, we have A chorizo.”

So is it just going to be you back in the meat room making all this?

For now I am the only person back there but there are already tons of volunteers asking to help. It’s so experimental and people are excited about it. I’ve never dealt with the USDA, I have no clue what we’ll be allowed to do. I’m going to have to get in there and start making product to see exactly what I can produce and how the whole environment is going to roll. I’d love for it to be like Otto’s, where it’s a huge fun family sausage-making environemnt with the smoker rolling and music blaring, but I don’t know what the USDA environment is like.

What kind of music do you listen to when you’re making meat?

Slayer.

Cool.

If I have to be there at five in the morning, I need good music.

Five in the morning? (I am clearly shocked, having familiarity with Eli’s nightlife habits.)

The USDA governs my schedule. It’s strictly 40 hours a week, from whenever they start me ’til whenever they stop me. It’s either 5 to 2 or 6 to 3 or 7 to 4, and they rotate it so it’s whatever they say and you’ve got to get it done in that time frame. Then, twice a week, before I open my doors, they’ll be there and they’ll swab test every one of my meats, the walling, flooring, spices, everything, and if it’s not compliant, then no operation that day.

Wow, that’s strict.

Yes, but the USDA is super excited about us, and they’re excited to learn about what we’re doing. They think it’s crazy that we’re doing all of our lab work, all of our HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point) work, all of our production work here, and that it is a one-man operation. They aren’t skeptical, they are just like ‘it’s going to be so much work.’ They told us our space is unorthodox, we’re next to a restaurant, it’s totally crazy. They are willing to work with us, but it will be a challenge. They’re excited that we’re pushing it.

Sure it’s going to be a lot of work–we’re developing an environment to breed salamis that you can’t buy elsewhere, we engineered 2500 cubic feet of dry room and 250 cubic feet of incubation, all done with cross fans and low humidifiers, and to get that up and running to the perfect climate will take time and a lot of work to prove to the USDA that we know what we’re doing and we are serving up a very safe product.

There will be kinks for sure. We don’t think we’re going to walk right in and serve them our first batch and they’ll say, ‘great, sell that.’

Where will you get the meat to make your meat? Locally, yes?

Definitely, from Oregon and Washington. Sweet Briar Farms, Tails & Trotters, etc.

In addition to your exploits in European kitchens, you’ve traveled all over the world, you’ve lived on a stallion ranch in Switzerland, survived desertion on a Greek island with a broken foot and very limited foodstuffs, you were kidnapped by sailors in Prague, and you narrowly escaped death at the hands of hostile villagers in South Africa in a car that was running on fumes. You’ve lived an adventurous life. What’s your vision for the future, will you be making meat in relatively sleepy Portland for a while?

Absolutely. I hope Olympic Provisions is always around and that it’s my retirement. I hope I’ll be curing and producing meat there for a long, long time.

I hope we do 30-pound batches of salami from the day we open until the day we finish. I never want to be making a hundred pound batch of salami, I want to do three or four batches in a day, 30 pounds each, and hopefully that is enough to make a living. I want us to be more of a niche market, and a truly great product. I hope we can hand sign and hand date all of our product. I don’t want it to be a huge machine, I want it to be a European-style, truly artisan operation. I really want people to think of our meats as made by hand, made by a person. Every piece of our product will be made fresh, from a farmer, de-boned, de-sinewed, and hand-formed by a human being the whole way.

That’s lovely. Now, for the most important question, are you going to eat that last aebelskiver?