28 year-old chef Ignacio Mattos started work at 6 am today to get the coals hot enough to roast a pig in the middle of Bond Street this afternoon. The annual Sagra del Maiale event at Il Buco is a celebration of the autumnal equinox and at its center is a whole roasted heritage breed pig. From 1-6 pm, $20 gets you a plate of cross-Ossabaw meat and sides like panzanella with greenmarket vegetables, sausage made from Flying Pig Farms pork, and apple fritters doused with saba. From 6pm to midnight, the festival moves indoors and the menu expands to include charcuterie plates and pasta with walnut pesto. Beer and wine are extra, but look for apple wine from local Wölffer Estates. We asked Uruguayan-born chef Mattos about his mentor Francis Mallman, being a vegetarian, and what it might be like to go live amongst the pigs on Ossabaw Island.
Is there a vegetarian option at the pig roast? We do have some pretty good vegetarian options, but honestly, they are more like sides for the meat.
Do you ever get sick of people asking you if there’s going to be a vegetarian option at the pig roast?It doesn’t make me sick, but I always wonder about the reason the person who’s asking is a vegetarian. I think, and most people might agree, that a pig roast is not the best place to feed yourself if you’re a vegetarian.
How does roasting a heritage breed pig in the street make the world a generally more sustainable place for pig farming? The pigs from this event come from the best pork suppliers in the city. There are many farmers doing great stuff here, people raising breeds sustainably, and working really hard on smaller farms. We are using Flying Pig Farms pork for the pig roast, and I think this is a good way of promoting their products. If more carnivores pay attention to the smaller, sustainable producers, it would have a bigger impact for everyone. The paper goods and utensils we’re using for the outdoor roast are also all biodegradable.
You told USA Today that "you get a totally different product depending on the animal you use," referring to different pork breeds. Do you think you'd be able to tell the difference between 6 different breeds in a blind tasting? A blind tasting could be really hard, but it would probably be interesting. Some breeds are easy to distinguish, and others are much harder. You really need to touch the meat – look at the meat and the fat.
All pig breeds are different- each one has a particularity, and each one adapts itself to different spaces, soil and weather conditions. It’s a difficult job mastering and raising different breeds of pigs. The farmers who supply Il Buco do a fantastic job with this. Each breed has different taste characteristics, and the task of a chef is showcasing these things.
You’re only 28, but you’ve racked up an impressive resume working in kitchens all over the world. What as the most important thing you learned working for Martín Berasategui in Spain? I learned that it wasn’t the type of food I really want to do, and realized how not to run a kitchen. Anyone who’s spent time in that kitchen would understand what I’m talking about.
You also worked for Alice Waters. What was that like? The environment at Chez Panisse is one that I think all kitchens should be about: respect. I learned a commitment to cooking and it was a place like no other, fun and professional at the same time.
What about working for the Argentinean chef Francis Mallmann, who developed this cast iron infernillo contraption you use to roast the pig at Il Buco? From Francis I learned that the most important things in the kitchen are about living, attitude, and character. I was really lucky to work for him; his food is really good, very simple and straightforward. He inspired the Il Buco pig roast. Francis is a friend of Il Buco’s owner Donna Lennard, and he brought the infernillo, which he custom made, for the first roast here.
I think the first time I roasted something this way was also with Francis, like 9 or 10 years ago, at an event in Mendoza in the middle of the mountains. We cooked some whole big fish in a salt crust with the infernillo. The structure is large and rustic: sandwiched pieces of metal and cobblestones, a brutal fire all over it. On the bottom and on top it’s really high temperatures. The name infernillo means “little hell,” and it’s really like that. For the pig we go much more gentle, but it’s still cooked between these hot coals and plates.
You're from Uruguay but you told the Village Voice that you'd choose a Brazilian meal if you had to pick a "Last Supper." Are there good Uruguayan restaurants in NY? It would take place in Brazil, that’s for sure. I love it there. As for Uruguayan food in NY, there are a few places in Queens, I hear, but I don’t really know names. [Ed. note: here are a couple]
I imagine you've spent some time with pigs on your supplier's farms. Let's say you one day went crazy and felt bad for roasting so many pigs. With whatever scrap of sanity you had left, would you consider moving to the wilds of Ossabaw Island to live amongst the wild pigs? I came from a family of farmers, and I used to have very strong beliefs in animal rights. I was a vegan for 4 years; I know that even vegan food can taste good. I still hold certain aspects of these beliefs but I think it’s more important for a meat eater to be conscious and responsible with how and where the meat they eat comes from. To move to some isolated place sounds good, however, for at least for part of the year!
It's really beautiful there. Do you have a strange, only-in-NY story, like something so ridiculously weird that it could not have possibly happened anywhere else? This is easy to answer. I once saw some customers eating olives with forks and knives. I don’t think that happens in any other place, does it?