TWH / The Pig Man
Bruce Wieszala talks pork
Thin Man’s Bruce Wieszala has built a reputation on his charcuterie
Photos by kc kratt
Thin Man’s Bruce Wieszala has built a reputation on his charcuterie, but the chef’s way with a pig is not the only trick up his sleeve. He values fresh fish and a well-made vegetable just as much as pork, and he has spent his career in Western New York shining light on all quadrants of the plate.
Wieszala has made the rounds of Buffalo's fine dining scene, with stints at O’Connell's American Bistro, Verbena, Stillwater, Bistro Europa, Carmelo’s, Tabree, and Bourbon & Butter. Now, he’s the brains behind the carving board at Thin Man Brewery, serving elevated pub food that includes his signature charcuterie board, sandwiches, sausages, and veggies with an attitude. The menu also challenges diners to “Think pig. Think ahead,” order a whole suckling pig at market price, and enjoy the snout-to-tail experience.
A lot of Wieszala’s recipes are rooted in his mom’s cooking, including the meatloaf on Thin Man’s menu as both a sandwich and a dinner. “Everybody embellishes their memories of their mom’s food,” the chef acknowledges with a wry grin. “But my mom’s food was really good. She cooked a lot when I was growing up, so I learned to love food from her.”
Wieszala uses hogs from Rich Tilyou’s T-Meadow Farm, one of the primary sources of heritage hogs for Western New York restaurants. Tilyou’s animals were the earliest inspiration for Wieszala’s charcuterie, which he developed at Carmelo’s in Lewiston, and has carried with him to each kitchen he runs.
While he recommends all visitors to Thin Man start with charcuterie, Wieszala urges diners not to forget about the other elements on the plate; he’s a fan of “good quality ingredients prepared properly,” he says.“I did the fine-dining thing for awhile, and I think it’s more important to let the ingredients speak for themselves. And that goes for vegetables as much as meat. I look at a vegetable the same way I do a piece of pork. Just like I want to enhance the pork flavor, I look to vegetables to create a well-composed dish.
“I see vegetables as an opportunity,” he adds. “You can do them roasted, fried, do a confit—anything you can do to a good piece of pork, you can do with fresh produce.” As a chef, Wieszala wants to serve diners food that reflects his insistence on good old-fashioned hospitality.“I don’t refer to people as customers. They’re my guests,” he says. “When you think about it, people pay me to make food for them. [The restaurant] is just the middleman. I always keep that in mind.”
With that mindset, Wieszala tries to serve food he would also want to eat. He loves to play around with flavors. While he was never a big beer drinker before starting at Thin Man, he enjoys creating dishes that complement what’s coming out of Rudy Watkins’ brewhouse. Often, that means butchering up one of Tilyou’s hogs.
“There are so many things you can do [with a pig],” the chef notes. “Once you venture past the basics into the organs, you can fold them into a sauce to fortify it and add flavor; you can do a roasted kidney or heart. People are getting more accepting of these ‘different’ types of meat.”
One of those overlooked parts is the head, which Wieszala loves using for porchetta di testa, a rollup that uses every part of the pig head. “You remove the whole head from the skull in one piece, even the ears,” he explains. “You can wear it as a mask if you want, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it.” That gets marinated for a few days, then the inside is seasoned with sea salt, fresh herbs, minced garlic, and lemon zest. It's then rolled and trussed. The tongue fills the gap left in the middle. The chef slow poaches it before it gets chilled and sliced, served just a few slices to a plate. Garnished simply with some shaved Pecorino cheese, onions, capers, and a light vinaigrette, porchetta di testa makes a beautiful starter.
“It’s a mosaic of parts, and in one preparation, you get all of these textures,” Wieszala explains. “You get the firmer tongue, the cartilage that has a snap to it, the softer cheeks, the whole thing.”
From the jowls, Wieszala makes guanciale, a cured salami that makes a salty addition to a charcuterie. From the shoulder, he derives capiccolo, picnic ham, and most of the meat for his house-made sausages. The ham hock makes a great addition to stews or broth for thickening.
Trotters can be stuffed with foie gras and braised, or used in a confit. “There’s tons of preparations for trotters,” he says. “And it’s a shame when people just throw them out.” The back fat is where Wieszala gets lardo, a type of salumi made by curing the fat with rosemary, herbs, and spices. It’s a soft, supple meat that melts in your mouth and makes an excellent accompaniment to hard cheese or pickled vegetables.
From the pork loin, Wieszala cuts juicy pork chops or lonza, an air-cured salami made from whole pork loin. This area of the pig is very lean with a nice fat cap, so that, when cured, it tastes similar to prosciutto. The ribs make for great barbecue, which Wieszala likes with plenty of smoke. From the belly, he gets Thin Man’s famous bacon nubs as well as pork belly for his bahn mi sandwich. “The nubs were kind of a happy accident,” he says. “We had these trimmings left over from the pork belly for the bahn mi, so we fried them up and people went crazy.”
Ham makes the pork expert think of a Cuban sandwich, made with cured, smoked ham and roasted shoulder meat, which are then sliced and served wth gruyere cheese, housemade pickles, and mustard. While he does not make a Cuban for his current rotation, he notes that any pressed sandwich is great with ham.
Finally, the chef extracts leaf lard from around the organs and viscera and renders it to liquid. The resulting pure white lard is a great cooking fat, he explains, with a nice, clean flavor. Once all of the meat is used, he makes stock from the bones to complete the whole-hog process. If the chef's usual method is followed, he notes that “of a 260-pound animal, usually about ten pounds is waste. Of course, you’ll get some hemorrhaging into the meat and inedible glands, so it’s impossible to use 100 percent of the animal, but that’s a pretty good ratio for me.”
Wieszala gives periodic hog-butchering workshops, to teach both chefs and kitchen staff as well as home cooks how to make the most of the pig. “I try to share as much knowledge as I can on how to use the whole animal,” he states. “There’s so much you can do, and there’s just no reason to waste any of it, if you know what you’re doing. The possibilities are really endless.”
Lizz Schumer writes frequently for Spree and teaches journalism at Canisius.