Fatty Crab's Zak Pelaccio pairs great food with music and drink at a party for his new book (and gives us a recipe)
12:20 pm Apr. 18, 20121
The music, which included a live performance by the Brooklyn-based folk-rock band Woods, was too loud for real conversation, but the perfect volume for dancing. Friends wielding cans of Tiger Beer yelled enthusiastically to each other from across the room. And instead of the usual passed canapés, there was whole smoked pig—a four-foot expanse of leathery, brick red skin and juicy pulled pork holding court on a folding table (pictured below; photo Helen Rosner). The mix of hearty, well-wrought food, plenty of drinks, and good music was an appropriate setting for a book that celebrates all three.
Pelaccio sat at the book-signing table, in a porkpie hat and his signature red-framed glasses. He was ebullient, friendly (writing novel-length inscriptions in the margins of admirers’ books) and somehow seemed larger than life—which is fitting since in the past half decade the 37-year-old has vaulted from respected New York chef to culinary rock star.
While Pelaccio isn’t yet a household name like Batali or Bourdain, his restaurants—the Malaysian-inspired Fatty Crab, the Asian-style barbecue joint Fatty ‘Cue, and about a million spin-off kiosks, pushcarts, and pop-ups—have become must-stops for New Yorkers and food-obsessed tourists alike.
Eat with Your Hands reads like a full-color jumble of Pelaccio's various food fantasies, interspersed with boldly flavored, ingredient-driven recipes from the Fatty restaurants and the depths of his fusion-obsessed brain. Like all of his food, which is equally inspired by his mother’s Roman-style home cooking (she and Pelaccio’s father lived in Italy before he was born), his extensive travels through Southeast Asia, his dedication to local agriculture, and his training at the French Culinary Institute, the book’s recipes cater to globetrotters and serious locavores alike—and really to anyone looking to have a good time in the kitchen.
“I wanted the book to have the light-hearted, celebratory quality I bring to all my projects,” Pelaccio told me a few days before the event. To that end, many of his recipes are augmented with rather off-color instructions. For example, the ingredient list for smoking a whole pig (yes, he does it often), includes 2 cases of beer—“cans, not bottles” and “3 friends who like to stay up all night … understand the importance of maintaining a consistent temperature in a smoker … and are funny as fuck.”
Recipes are accompanied by both suggested drink pairings (“Even the best food only gets better with a good drink,” he writes in the book's introduction) and a play list. According to Pelaccio, his pork and cockles are best prepared alongside Bob Dylan’s “Baby Let Me Follow You Down” while swilling a hoppy I.P.A. from Dogfish Head. And his braised lamb shoulder with cavatelli gets “2HB” by Roxy Music and a glass of red from the French winery Georges Descombes Régnié.
Meanwhile, although the book title’s directive to “eat with your hands” may be a metaphor for digging into life, Pelaccio also means it literally. “I eat salad—whether it’s at home or in a rare uptown four-star situation—with my hands,” he writes in the salad chapter. “[I think] metal and delicate greens have no business hanging out with each other.”
If Pelaccio’s writing is engaging, there is a good reason. Before committing his heart to the stove, he worked as a food writer contributing copy to, among other places, the Food Network. These days, he writes occasional articles for food mags like Saveur and pens a regular column for Food Republic—hyper-personal, stream-of-consciousness pieces that he co-writes with his long-time collaborator Jori Jayne Emde (the two were recently married).
One recent column exposed yet another Pelaccio pursuit: part-time cooking instructor. Along with two partners he co-founded The Cooking Room—a food literacy program for elementary-school students piloted at his son Hudson’s public school in Manhattan.
Despite his ongoing list of passions and projects, Pelaccio manages to stay grounded. His team, the Fatty Crew (headed on the culinary front by executive chef Corwin Cave), expertly manages on-the-ground operations, freeing up his schedule for dreaming and scheming—and also a crack at the country life. When we spoke, Pelaccio was in Old Chatham, New York, a hamlet three hours up the Hudson River from Manhattan where he and Emde currently live about three quarters of the time (They share an apartment in Brooklyn for the remainder.)
“We are interested in slowing down a bit—raising rabbits and building out our garden,” he told me. Meanwhile, Emde recently started making and selling her own Worcestershire sauce, which she ferments in rye barrels, under the name Lady Jayne’s Alchemy. Pelaccio told me that they have plans to open a restaurant in Old Chatham, independent of the Fatty empire, using products that they have grown and crafted themselves.
All in good time. For now there is a book to celebrate, a summer of delicious meals at Fatty Crab and ‘Cue to eat and, if Pelaccio has anything to do with it, many more pigs to smoke.
Pork and Watercress Salad with Egg and Caper Vinaigrette
For the dressing
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
2 tablespoons capers, drained
1/2 cup olive oil
To finish the dish:
2 pounds full-fat pork shoulder
2 bunches of watercress, tough bottom stems discarded
1 tablespoon capers
1 fresh Thai bird chili, thinly sliced
Make the dressing
1. Place the eggs in a small saucepan and cover with cool water. Bring the water to a boil, then reduce the boil to a gentle simmer. Cook for 3 minutes, drain the eggs, and immediately rinse them under cold water to cool them. Peel.
2. In a blender, combine the boiled eggs, 1 teaspoon salt, the mustard, the sherry vinegar, and the drained capers. Blend on medium, slowly adding all but 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, until the dressing is emulsified. The dressing is meant to be thick but should still be pourable. Add a little water if it's too tight.
Finish the dish
1. Cut the pork into even slices, about 1/4-inch thick, against the grain. Heat the remaining tablespoon of olive oil in a cast-iron pan or heavy skillet over medium-high heat until it's hot but not smoking. Add the pork to the pan, working in batches if necessary, and cook until golden on both sides, about 3 minutes.
2. Dress the watercress, put the pork on plates, and top it with watercress, capers and chili.
LISTEN: The Clientele, "Bonfires on the Heath"—soft, mellow, and easy to enjoy, like this recipe.
DRINK: The Balkan—it'll make you feel cuter. Pour 1 ounce each vodka, Pernod, and raki over ice in a shaker, add a dash of angostura bitters, and shake like you mean it. Strain it into a cocktail glass. Repeat and repeat with more booze.
This recipe is reprinted, with permission, from 'Eat with Your Hands,' by Zakary Pelaccio. Copyright © 2012. Photo courtesy Ecco. It has not been re-tested by Capital New York.