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Yes Danica, I’m Mean

May 22, 2012 | Frank Bonanno

I’m such a jackass; ask anyone who’s never worked with me.

Here’s a perfect example. I’m going to brag about my “Hold Production” citation from the Department of Environmental Health–brag partially because it reads like an advertisement for a cured meat program (19 cheeses, some with mold, all between 54 and 57 degrees; 12 different kinds of meats plus jars of kimchee holding at 64 degrees. Temperature, humidity, mold conditions–all perrrrrfect) and partially because bragging irks our local inspector, Danica Lee. Furthermore, my work on a soon-to-be-released project has this teaser. I love it. Again, not only because it highlights work that I’m extremely proud of, but because it rubs it in-just a little–scary music and all, that I’m still making beautiful cured meats. I and a select group of talented peers have been curing meats and cheeses for over ten years. Four of those years I have been in the continuous process of working with my local Denver officials on a HACCP plan so that we can legally serve this bounty to the public. It’s a tricky process, though (as I’ve written about in this very blog) and even serious aficionados can be stymied by the chemistry and controls involved in what our ancestors thought of as common practice. It’s trickier still for a novice, non-scientist, non-chef–one trained in the necessary but finite skill of rule enforcement–to understand how mold and humidity are not detrimental, but essential; how sixty two is a lovely holding temperature; how the most pungent odors are indications that something fabulous is afoot. Initially, we offered these cheeses and meats at Luca d’Italia, and the inspector at the time simply asked me to send our meats to an off-site laboratory for testing at my own expense. When the results came back as “well within safe,” I was asked to explain the process in writing.

I understand completely how our local inspectors are put off by verbiage which originally weighed in at over forty pages and included a sous vide plan. That first document stayed in the Health Department offices for several months before the inspector finally confessed she’d lost it. I re-submitted a plan without the sous vide portion, and to this day I keep plugging away, whittling at the more complicated terms, adding diagrams and flow charts and checkpoints–even borrowing (with their permission) the words of other, more famous artisans involved in the same endeavor.

Last month, a federal inspector stepped in–acting as an interpreter of sorts–to help our language translate in a manner that still holds up as safe food handling in accordance with a regulation book that I can only guess was composed in the 1960’s. He gives me hope, and I cross my fingers that a resolution is in sight.

Because jackass that I am, I want to stop butting heads with health inspectors; I want to get out of the courtroom (where I spend four days a month) and back into the kitchen; I want to respect my Denver health officials the way I respect fire fighters, police, teachers. The way I used to respect health inspectors before I had to reduce a forty page document to a two page bullet list–only to have a federal inspector tell me to put those pages back in as necessary public safeguards. The way I used to respect them before one tried to write me a ticket for “being mean.”

I do have an abundance of gorgeous flesh breaking down as I write this, and though I can’t bring the bounty into my restaurants, you ought to swing by my house and ask for a bite. Try the prosciutto or the copocol.

My sons will join you (their favorite is the bresaola), though my vegetarian wife will decline. We’ll drink wine together, you and I–because in truth, food is communion to me, an act of Love, a way of sharing the very best of myself with you. If you’ve met me before, dined at my restaurants or in my home, you know the truth of this statement–and I’ll add to that another truth: this meat that you try, that I put into my own mouth and offer my family and friends and some day my clients–it is not only delicious, it is entirely safe.

While we’re enjoying the salty richness that melts just so on the tongue–I’ll raise my glass to Danica Lee (here’s to Danica!), who compelled me to up the contents of my personal home cellar and shift my practice (I have to practice, to be at the ready for the HACCP approval) from a too-small-office above Bones to a larger, more temperate room in my house. Legally.

See? I can’t resist a last dig. I am a jack ass.