Rather than ordering ready-to-cook meats from a commercial supplier, Mendoza, the owner of Kitchen 1454 on Walton Way, makes his own sausage, pancetta and other cured and smoked meats from whole pork parts he orders from a nearby farmer.
In his kitchen, Mendoza soaks meat in homemade brines, processes it in a meat grinder and stuffs pig intestines to make his own sausage. Pig belly and pig jowl are cured and smoked, then hanged in a special cooler for weeks to make Italian delicacies including pancetta and guanciale.
“If I have the option of making it myself, I think I can do it better,” he said. “I can control everything from the ingredients to the cooking. I have my hands in all steps along the way.”
Mendoza is one of several local chefs in Augusta’s budding food scene preparing more food from scratch. Restaurateurs have taken to making their own ingredients such as specialty meats and growing their own produce in gardens as one way to control food quality.
“You really can’t beat something that is done in-house. They’re just beautiful products,” said chef David Ross, the chairman of culinary education at Helms College and owner of 5 O’Clock Bistro on Central Avenue.
In an international cuisine class at Helms, Ross teaches students to cure meats and make sausages and patés. They also learn to make cheeses.
At his restaurant. Ross prepares his own cheeses from scratch as well as ingredients such as vegetable, veal and fish stocks. He could buy them ready-to-eat but said they lack flavor compared to what he can do himself.
“It takes skill, it takes time and usually costs a little bit more money, but it’s always worthwhile,” he said.
Ross said restaurants must get special permission from the health department to cure meats, which has limited some area restaurants from giving it a try.
At the Augusta Marriott at the Convention Center, chef Craig LaPonzina has started experimenting with making his own cured meats but has not placed them on the menu because he wants to get it right before applying for a permit from the health department.
LaPonzina, who oversees meals for the hotel convention center and the on-site Italian restaurant Augustino’s, said that by preparing his own ingredients he can keep food sources local. He’s keeping up with current food trends but also keeping his job fresh and fun.
“Every once in a while you have to reinvent yourself and find something new,” he said.
The chef used to make homemade pasta at Augustino’s. Now, he uses local produce to make homemade strawberry and blackberry jam, jellies and pickles.
“I’m not opening a can of Smuckers. It comes out of a mason jar,” LaPonzina said.
He is also planting an all-natural herb garden at the hotel.
At Manuel’s Bread Cafe in Hammond’s Ferry, 40 percent of the vegetables used in meals are grown at the Blue Clay Farm located in the same neighborhood as the restaurant, said chef Manuel Verney-Carron.
“I love to be able to control what I grow in the garden. I can harvest it when I want it,” he said.
Also on the farm are chickens and ducks that lay eggs for the kitchen to use in food preparation. The restaurant makes its own bread and salad dressings and will soon churn its own ice cream, Verney-Carron said.