At Belly of the Beast in Northampton, they smoke, cure and make every bit of meat count
The Daily Hampshire Gazette, May 18, 2018, by Andy Castillo
Not one scrap is wasted. Not the head. Not the feet. And certainly not the belly of the beast, the namesake of Northampton’s eclectic Belly of the Beast eatery.
Everything that’s not immediately cooked is cured and smoked, or pickled, creating a menu rich with complex and deep flavors.
“We want to be, as much as possible, a no-waste kitchen,” said Aimee Francaes, 38, who co-owns the Main Street bistro with her husband, Jesse Hassinger, 37. The couple moved to the Pioneer Valley last June from California to open their own downtown restaurant with the idea of using whole animals, curing and smoking the meat, and pickling vegetables.
With a diverse menu ranging from French toast, BLT sandwiches, pulled pork and soups, to shan tofu — made from housemade fried chickpea tofu, crispy with a soft center, served with leafy greens, Asian pickled turnips, and vegan kimchi spread on toasted rye — Belly of the Beast’s offerings don’t fit into any one genre. However, an underlying theme of earthy flavors curated by Hassinger and Francaes ties everything together.
“We’re basically breakfast, lunch, and dinner, all day. It’s very eclectic and covers all sorts of bases,” said Hassinger. The restaurant is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day except Tuesday. “We opened with the idea that we would serve soups, sandwiches and salads.
A kid who liked scapple
Hassinger says he cooked at home often growing up and makes food at Belly of the Beast that he enjoyed as a child, such as scrapple, which is a hash that’s made from bits of the pig not suited for any other dish combined with cornmeal.
“Because we work with whole animals, that means the head, the feet, and any of the small cuts we make off the belly,” Hassinger said.
In recent years, he spent a decade working in restaurants like Coppa in Boston, and Hungry Mother and State Park, which are both in Cambridge. Around the same time, Francaes worked at Flour Bakery and Cafe in Boston.
Hassinger learned to cure and smoke meats while working at M.F. Dulock Pasture-Raised Meats, a butcher shop in Sommerville.
“The minute I started making my own bacon I could no longer eat bacon that was processed,” Hassinger said.
First-time business owners, the couple got their restaurant off the ground with an Indiegogo campaign, their own savings, and a loan.
As Francaes and Hassinger talked, they sat at a table inside the restaurant’s cozy dining room. Overlooking the intimate space on a wall in the were black and white photographs taken by Hassinger near Hoover Dam in Nevada. On the opposite side were paintings created by Francaes. A staircase in the back of the restaurant leads down to a large basement kitchen where pair do the bulk of food prep, including the curing and smoking of meats.
During the curing process, a preservation method achieved by rubbing and soaking the meat in salt and spices, Hassinger injects flavors like molasses and pepper to give it a signature flavor. Besides the benefit of customized flavor, smoking meats and pickling vegetables helps to reduce prices for customers, he says. In general, meal prices range between $3 and $12. However, the process requires labor and expertise from all of the restaurant’s employees.
“In some ways, it’s more challenging. But you have that much more control over what you’re doing, and you’re not relying on someone else’s product. You know exactly where something came from,” Francaes said, noting the restaurant purchases two whole pigs every three weeks and beef twice a month. “We’re always doing something. Between the curing and the pickling, there’s never a time when we’re not doing one of those things.”
In many of Belly of the Beast’s dishes, the lingering savory and smoky taste of the meats is sliced by an explosion of vinegar from pickled vegetables like okra, turnips and cucumbers. Housemade cornbread and crumbly biscuits, made with half wheat and half white flour, or salted, smashed, fried and sauteed potatoes, reminiscent of upstate New York fair food, act as palate cleansers.
“The fried smashed potatoes are amazing. I’ve never had anything like it,” said Sean Fallon of Connecticut, who stopped into the restaurant for the first time Monday evening and ordered eggs on toast served with a side of the smashed potatoes. Francaes said the potatoes are soaked in salt before they’re quickly fried, giving them a savory middle accented by crispy skin. To wash everything down, Belly of the Beast has a variety of local craft beers on draft, and pours wine, coffee, and teas.
For Francaes, food “should be thrilling and awesome … Mediocre is the thing that scares us the absolute most,” she said.
To that end, as much as possible, everything is made from scratch in-house. The restaurant’s BLT sandwich is made with fresh tomatoes grown on nearby farms in the summertime, and the same tomatoes, pickled, are used during the winter.
“We’re just coming into rhubarb season, and that’s something we’re really excited about. We did a great rhubarb sauce for our pulled pork last year, and we can’t wait to have that back again,” Hassinger said.
The start in art
Hassinger and Francaes, who met during high school in their native upstate New York, were artists before they were chefs.
Hassinger studied experimental film in an MFA program at the California Institute of Arts. After high school, Francaes interned with fine artists Susan Roth and Darryl Hughto, who are married, in upstate New York.
“Painting is an internal drive that I have,” Francaes said. It was through art, inadvertently, that Francaes became interested in cooking.
In addition to making art, Francaes said Roth cooked often.
“It wasn’t until I got into Susan’s kitchen that I understood the religion of going to the weekly farmers market, making the bulk of your food for the week, and eating directly from farms to the best of your abilities,” Francaes said.
While interning, she also developed a philosophy on art that the couple apply to their restaurant.
Food as an art form is fleeting. Every bite is unique, but temporary, Hassinger said. He compared making food to live theater. In a similar way, Francaes said it’s like playing music.
“With cooking and music, they are (performed) in that moment and that is the only moment you have with them,” Francaes said. No matter how much preparation work goes into creating a sandwich, it’s never going to be the exact same two times in a row, she says.
“I approach cooking and the idea of what a chef is with the idea that everyone has their own palate. And this is something I bring from my art background. Everyone has their own eye, and aesthetic.”
They describe the menu as “organic and flowing,” changing depending on what’s in season. Popular dishes include the pastrami sandwich, pulled pork, Jamaican beef, shan tofu, bodega breakfast sandwich, and the smashed fried potatoes.
“A couple of things on the menu have come from staff members saying ‘we have this lying around.’ We want to use every ounce of everything that comes through our doors effectively,” Francaes said, noting a broth that’s served as a dip for sandwiches is made from the brine used to cure meats, laden with collared stems and bacon and ham ends.
Varying the menu so often, however, requires a lot of time. But with the challenge comes are rewards, namely the ability for Francaes and Hassinger to work together, for themselves.
“The buck stops here,” she said. “I think to myself, if I won the lottery, would I do something different? I wouldn’t.”
Andy Castillo can be reached at email@example.com.
Belly of the BeastButtermilk Biscuits
Serves 24 to 30 (the raw dough can be frozen)
4⅓ cups all purpose flour
4⅓ cups whole wheat unbolted pastry flour
¼ cup baking powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
7 teaspoons (or 2 tablespoons and 1 teaspoon) of fine sea salt
4 sticks of butter
3⅓ cups buttermilk
1 egg for egg-wash
Sugar to cover
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Whisk together dry ingredients. Cut the butter into ½ inch chunks and add to the dry ingredients. Using a food processor, in batches add the dries and butter and pulse to a coarse meal and transfer to a bowl large enough to hold everything.
Make a well in the center of the flour and butter mixture and pour in the buttermilk. Pulling the dried flour toward you from the opposite side of the bowl, incorporate it into the buttermilk.
Turn the bowl 90 degrees and repeat three more times until all of the flour is now beginning to be incorporated with the buttermilk. Continue folding the dough toward you, forming layers as you fold. Once everything is of a whole and it is difficult to continue folding, turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and flatten into a 1-inch thick round. If there are some dry pieces of dough that haven’t been combined, continue to fold and flatten the dough until everything is fully incorporated. It should be slightly flaky and have some visible butter chunks.
Once everything is together and pushed down to a 1 inch height, use a 2-inch diameter biscuit cutter to make the biscuits. Do not twist while cutting otherwise the resulting biscuits will topple over when baking off.
Once you have finished cutting out all of the biscuits possible, you can recombine the dough and cut out more, but each successive time after the first you risk making the dough too elastic and it will end up being less flaky.
Whisk the egg with a little water or milk and brush on top of the biscuits, then finish with a sprinkle of sugar.
Bake for 10 to 12 minutes at 450 degrees. Rotate and bake another 8 to 10 minutes or until beginning to turn golden and baked through.
The raw dough in biscuit form can be frozen, and you can just put them right into a preheated oven to bake.
Occasionally Belly of the Beast hosts dinners with specialty dishes. In honor of the restaurant’s one year anniversary, Aimee Francaes and Jesse Hassinger will host a special mostly vegetarian four-course dinner with offerings made by guest Chef William McKerchie June 7 at either 5:30 or 7:30 p.m. A seat at the table is $54 per person. For more information, visit www.bellyofthebeastma.com.