The whole-pig-on-a-spit cookout is a time-tested tribe-pleaser that combines ceremony, group participation and an appeal to our barbaric sensibilities. But whole-hog hootenannies and luau kaluas are passé in the face of a radical leave-no-flesh-behind concept that a new breed of chefs and butchers practices with unconventional cuts and innovative preparations. This waste-not philosophy uses every inch of the animal anatomy and keys on winning diners’ hearts and minds with hearts and brains.
Some restaurants simply prep the pig-on-a-spit party for you: Call ahead to Frontier in Chicago or The Cannibal in New York, opened in 2011 and 2012, respectively, and they’ll offer a range of creatures. Goat, lamb and pig are popular at both venues, and Frontier will even prepare a chicken-stuffed alligator, smoked and roasted whole to order.
Other whole-animal purveyors are intent on distinguishing individual cuts of the animal from one another. This style of diverse preparations is the signature of the nose-to-tail program at Resto, the Cannibal’s adjacent sister restaurant. Order a lamb at Resto, and the animal will arrive as a deconstruction in courses: Its liver a pâté with green apple mostarda, its heart a tartare with pickled mustard seeds, its neck a ragù with spaccatelle pasta, its shoulder a confit with Brussels sprouts. “The lamb brain has been the showstopper as of late,” says the owner Christian Pappanicholas. The brain is fried, a crunchy counterpart to the soft scrambled egg–stuffed lamb head. And yes, Resto will serve you the entire animal. “Every piece that’s coming to the restaurant is getting served on the table,” Pappanicholas explains. “If we’re gonna take that animal, it’s just a matter of respect that we’re gonna use the whole thing and treat it properly.”
Adventurous home cooks can still get their head in the whole-animal game too. Cleaver & Co., a New Orleans butcher shop (employees pictured) that opened in 2012, purchases whole animals directly from local farmers. Owner Seth Hamstead proudly proclaims he has no need for a Dumpster—every scrap is used, even if it ends up as dog food or bone broth or beef-tallow soap. Hamstead says that using the whole animal allows him to isolate some of the best cuts: Few local meat processors, he says, offer “the flatiron, the shoulder tenders, the chuck eyes.”
Cleaver & Co. lists 30-odd available cuts on a chalkboard each day. “Most people come in, they maybe recognize five,” Hamstead says. He loves introducing customers to unfamiliar parts of a familiar animal. Thinking of making a pot roast? Hamstead recommends passing on the typical chuck or rump and opting instead for a neck roast. “The neck is absolutely delicious,” he says. “As long as you have time to let it braise for four hours, it blows any chuck out of the water.” Hungry for a strip steak? Cleaver & Co. suggests the flatiron—a long, flat muscle next to a cow’s shoulder blade. Fast to cook and rich in flavor, Hamstead says it’s the second-most tender cut of beef. Who says you can’t teach an old cow new tricks?