Billy Nolen at West Loop Salumi
Billy Nolen at West Loop Salumi Credit: Nick Murway

THE FOOD ISSUE: Ancient Methods, Modern Cuisine

Check out three of our favorite spots for in-house charcuterie

There’s a secret chamber somewhere in the city, deep in the bowels of a busy restaurant, concealed behind drywall and piping. It’s dark inside, and only the hum of a small humidifier drowns out the knife work of the nearby prep cooks. It’s about the size of a coat closet, a coat closet that smells of aging meat. In the gloom, four large prosciutto-style hams are hanging from the ceiling, along with some chunks of coppa and a grayish dry-cured sausage that the overworked chef who built this room admits “isn’t working out.” On the floor there’s a box filled with more coppa.

This hidden charcuterie chamber doesn’t play a critical role in his restaurant. The hams, in fact, belong to his friends—one of them an investor in the restaurant—and they’ll never be served to his guests. It would be too much of a commitment in both time and money to put a few pieces of legal house-made coppa on the plate.

There was a time, nearly a decade ago, when committing such acts of illicit in-house meat preservation was the only way chefs could get away with practicing the ancient art of charcuterie and feeding it to their guests. It happened often enough, though. The practice was “rampant,” as one chef put it—but they did it at the risk of losing their product to the Health Department. In the early days of Avec, for instance, an inspector seized some sausages found hanging in the restaurant and destroyed them.

But in 2006 things began to change. First it was Quartino, where chef John Coletta installed a quarantined prep room and drying room to prepare his family’s collection of Italian salumi recipes, which are minced by hand the old-world way—and all perfectly legal. Three years later came Old Town Social, which began stuffing and aging finocchiona, Toscano, soppressata, and more. The Purple Pig followed one year after that with its own aboveboard charcuterie program, and then Publican Quality Meats, Perennial Virant, Vie, West Loop Salumi, and Tete Charcuterie. Chicago is suddenly in the midst of a golden age of charcuterie. What happened?

Billy Pork happened.

Billy Nolen is a 77-year-old food safety consultant, former master sausage maker, and churchgoing grandfather of 23 from Chesterton, Indiana. He more than anyone else is responsible for chefs legally and safely harnessing the powers of bacteria, time, temperature, and humidity to transform raw pork into something magical, all under the eyes of the—usually—tolerant Health Department.

Nolen was born in Detroit, and at a young age moved to Oak Park, where he found work as a meat cutter at a large butcher shop. But his head was in the kitchen, enthralled with the idea of becoming a chef. “I wanted the romance of the art. The art was everything to me.”

One day he was approached by the head of a large spice company, who asked him if he had any interest in being a sausage maker. “I said, is it artsy? He said, ‘yeah.’ So the next week I was there.” He began his training at a now defunct supermarket chain. His teachers? “One was a spice man and the other was a casing fellow.” Nolen found his creative outlet there. He says he didn’t ask for raises—he asked for creative freedom, and every month he was allowed to craft one new sausage, whether it would sell or not. Today he says has a file of 3,000 sausage recipes that span global cuisines: German, French, Polish, Italian, Chinese, Russian, Cajun, Puerto Rican, Yugoslavian, Spanish, and—his favorite—Jamaican.

Nolen later ran the commissary for the now shuttered Moo & Oink minichain for ten years, where he learned to understand processing machinery on an industrial scale. At the end of his time there he says the company was churning out 750,000 pounds of fresh sausage and another 750,000 pounds of smoked sausage each year.

He went on to work at a packinghouse and took courses in food safety, but in 1996 a major change in the way the federal government regulated meat and poultry production was passed. Known as the “Mega Reg” of 1996, it instituted a vast new set of rules meant to control pathogens and made mandatory for producers what is known as hazard analysis and critical control point plans, or HACCP plans.

HACCP, or “hassip” in the vernacular, is a food safety protocol that arose out of NASA in the 60s and identifies potential biological, chemical, or physical risks in a production site, determines points at which those risks can be controlled and eliminated, and requires thorough documentation of the process to ensure compliance. It isn’t easy to write a HACCP plan. The rules are complicated; the language is dense and technical. But Nolen had been immersed in large-scale industrial meat production for decades, and it came easy to him.

He branched out on his own, forming Billy G. Nolen Associates and writing thousands of different kinds of plans for clients as diverse as slaughterhouses, bakeries, pharmaceutical companies, bakeries, dairies, breweries, and Polish delis. He brought others in to work with him and started writing plans for clients all over the country. He also began offering classes in basic and advanced HACCP training, one of which he taught to the city’s health inspectors.

Nolen inside the meatopia he helped create
Nolen inside the meatopia he helped createCredit: Nick Murway

When John Coletta was making plans to open Quartino and build the city’s first legal restaurant dry-cured charcuterie program “the first thing I did was I called the Health Department,” he says. “I said ‘Can you tell me who you would recommend to develop a hazard program that you believe to be the best? I don’t want just anybody, I want the best.’ And the Health Department responded by saying ‘Contact Billy Nolen.'”

Nolen and Coletta’s architect collaborated on the design of Quartino’s quarantined and temperature-controlled prep room—where the marinating, seasoning, and stuffing gets done—and the drying room, kept at a strict 70 percent humidity, which essentially re-creates the microclimate of central and northern Italy.

Word of mouth spread, and Nolen began taking on more restaurant clients, essentially scaling down the plans he’d written for large, industrial-size meat producers to relatively boutique-size restaurant kitchens and artisan operations, including the spotless, USDA-inspected fermenting and drying rooms at West Loop Salumi. Designed by a company that builds labs for pharmaceutical companies, the operation essentially falls under the same kinds of regulations as the giant Vienna Beef plant.

So how does he do it?

First, there’s a “data dump,” says Zina Murray of Logan Square Kitchen, who’s working on several projects with Nolen. Nolen goes over the operator’s recipes and procedures and recommends adjustments needed to meet specs and codes. Then he begins to write a lot of prerequisite documents about how the facility is maintained and what its sanitization procedures are. He teaches the basic HACCP class to at least two people working in each facility, as required by law. As the facility is being built, he writes the plan. Afterward he teaches an advanced class that addresses job training and delivers the plan. Depending on whether it’s a city, state, or federally licensed facility, he’ll shepherd it through the inspection process until it’s successfully operating and the government is satisfied.

But it doesn’t end there. Nolen often drops by to check in on how things are going, answer questions or address problems, and update recipes or work on new ones. He can even run interference with the Health Department.

Nolen wrote eight different plans for Publican Quality Meats, including plans for reduced-oxygen packaging (aka vacuum sealing) and sous vide. PQM chef de cuisine Missy Corey describes him as a “HACCP lawyer,” someone who’ll drop whatever he’s doing and come running if there’s a problem with the Health Department. When Tete Charcuterie had its opening inspection, the inspector wanted to destroy a bunch of coppa, finochiona, and rosettes de Lyon that chefs Thomas Rice and Kurt Guzowski were testing prior to getting their plan approved. They called in Nolen, who convinced the department to allow them to keep the sausages as long as they posted a not for sale sign on the door of their hanging room.

Every month or so Nolen teaches two-day basic and advanced HACCP classes at Lawry’s the Prime Rib or Sun Wah BBQ, the latter a favorite restaurant and a favorite client that has had its share of problems with the Health Department over the years, frequently over the temperatures the food in the front windows is stored at.

“Since I was a kid my dad would say, ‘Here, go take care of this stuff,” says Sun Wah co-owner Kelly Cheng. “So as a teen I would stand in front of the administrative judge and say, ‘Your honor, please give us a break. We understand that we did wrong, but it’s hard to make a living.'” But with Nolen in her pocket, at least she has some guidance about how to correct the problem. “Anytime we have an issue we call Billy up and say, ‘Hey, this is happening. What can we do?’ And he’ll say, ‘Try it this way.'”

Nolen doesn’t use computers much. The astonishing thing is the vast store of technical knowledge that resides in his head. Murray, who’s working with Nolen to help Local Foods Grocer & Distributor write a HACCP plan for its meat production, says they’re also coming up with a DIY plan-writing class for restaurants that may not have the budget to hire him on directly.

“Everything is in his head or [in] boxes and boxes of paper you could never figure out,” she says. “So I always joke that I’m trying to get as much out of Billy’s head as I can before he’s not doing this anymore. I really consider myself his apprentice, and I feel very fortunate to be learning from him. His institutional knowledge is formidable. He’s forgotten more about food, meat production, and food regulation than I’ll ever learn.”