"It's an ever-evolving wheel of ideas and a progression of the dishes from home in Texas that are so dear to my heart, now making them as elegant and beautiful as possible.
Chef Michael Toscano grew up in Texas eating tripe and cow's head, but it wasn't until Mario Batali's Babbo cookbook came out that he realized he was fascinated by the mechanics of breaking down a whole animal and using all its parts in various ways. Toscano went to work with Batali first at Babbo, and then move on to create the menu for Manzo at Eataly.
For Perla, another link in Gabriel Stulman's Little Wisco chain, Toscano brought his experience with fine dining techniques and the skills he picked up working with Batali together, and there he's garnered much praise for those off parts, which he somehow handles both with bold flavor and refinement. His chefs now also know how to break down whole animals, and they can execute a pretty extensive menu from Perla's rather small kitchen. We caught up on how exactly he does it, and where it all comes from.
You've attributed a good deal of your love of food to your family. What did food mean to you growing up? My parents are amazing cooks. Nothing extravagant, but we love to eat well and on specific days of the week I'd always expect a certain meal from my mom, like caldo de pollo—her version of chicken soup with Mexican rice and corn tortillas on the side. Her food was always so flavorful, without her even knowing that she was an amazing cook. My father would smoke meat, grill steaks and fry fish, so it was a completely different kind of food, but equally amazing. Being around that made me love food, or at least have an appreciation for it.
And where did the eating tripe and such fit in? The tripe came from menudo, a type of soup with hominy and tripe, with a lot of spices and tomato. The first time I realized nobody else enjoyed the smell of tripe—which I did—was at Babbo when we were making the tripe alla parmigiana, and they would boil it and put it into the sink to cool it down, and that smell. Everybody would be, "Oh, it's horrible!" But it would remind me of growing up. Then the beef head was something we would do on special occasions—we would roast a whole head and then pick out the meat and make tamales with it.
As a kid did you recognize that that was unique? For some reason I didn't. It was exciting, but I didn't think anything of it.
For those of us who didn't grow up with tripe and cow's heads, how do you focus on also making those off-parts accessible? You make it a subtle thing with it still being the star of the show. I don't necessarily want the tripe lovers to be the only people who would like the dish so, for example, I came up with a version of bucatini all'amatriciana when we first opened Perla. It was with tripe and had all of the flavors of the amatriciana sauce, but you usually see slices of tripe and really get the texture that's off-putting to people. I would cook it, grind it through the meat grinder and make almost a ragout, so it had the subtle flavor and somewhat the texture of tripe, but pieces of guanciale in the sauce made it almost like a bolognese. I feel that was a very successful version of trying to make it accessible or almost the "stepping it up" version of whatever that cut is.
Or the brain from the whole-roasted veal head—I take the brain after it's been roasted and puree it until it's completely smooth, then fold it in with mascarpone and a lot of vinegar and olive oil, and smear it on the plate. Then I tell the guests to take the cheek and tongue and swipe it through the brain puree. On its own it's kind of this gamey, somewhat liver-y type flavor, but this way is more approachable. Doing things like that opens people's eyes to trying those things.
Was there something about delving into this world you felt particularly excited about in the beginning? Learning how to butcher the whole animal. I was reading the French Laundry cookbook, and there's a dish with baby lamb&,dash;six different parts on the plate, every one cooked perfectly, really showing the technique and skill. As a young cook you have no idea how to put that together. So I obsessed over "how do you break down a specific animal and what are all the pieces?" So when I was a sous chef at Babbo I got a job at Dickson's farm stand in Chelsea market and learned so much through the repetition of doing ten pigs or ten lambs over and over. And it opened up everything and I was able to creatively take those pieces and do with them what I wanted. Being able to teach the people who work under me to do the same thing was a lot of fun.
Was there a part that blew you away you can't practically work with now?
The flank on a suckling pig. On a small animal those bits are so tender and amazing but you can never get enough of them, so they never really worked.
So how does your experience with your family, Mario and Dickson's equate to your menu at Perla? It's very interesting, because as you progress through your career you're always trying to figure out what your "thing" is, and how you're going to create dishes that are your own. When I was creating the menu for Manzo it really started coming together. I was allowed to do more there because I had more room at Eataly and had all the products that you could imagine, so we were bringing all sort of animals in and breaking them down, then creating dishes out of those things. I was able to refine my technique, and I brought that to Perla. It's an ever-evolving wheel of ideas and a progression of the dishes from home in Texas that are so dear to my heart, now making them as elegant and beautiful as possible.
Your kitchen in Perla is pretty small to be breaking down whole animals. What can you execute now that seemed impossible in the beginning? My team has just gotten stronger and stronger—the amount that they can take on now from when we opened is just unbelievable. Sometimes you feel like your ideas are stunted and you have to slow down you're thinking to what's realistic. We used to be so busy in the middle of service that there was no time for any large format things—the veal head would have been impossible in the beginning when we were just trying to keep up to make sure the ticket times were right and the food was as perfect as we could make it. Now we can have that on the menu and then add more to it. So when you have ideas and are able to do them with your team the second they come to you, that's where we are now.