Sumptuous when cooked right and revolting when botched, offal is the perfect medium for showing off. “It’s all about stimulus,” said Saul Bolton, who is currently cooking real French andouille sausage—i.e., pork stomach blanched and slow-cooked and glued together with “hog gel” before being stuffed into pork large intestine, cold-smoked and poached—at the Vanderbilt. “It’s like TV: The textures are more varied, the flavors more varied, it’s a much more interesting eating experience all-around. If you allow yourself to spend the time to really get to know feet, tail and head, they’re so much tastier than any other part!”
Undoubtedly, some chefs relish offal’s aloofness and lack of appeal to the city’s growing vegetarian, allergenic population: David Chang, for one, an innards enthusiast who once famously excised his only vegetarian dish from the menu after being chastised for being insensitive to meat-avoiders; and Gabrielle Hamilton, who has served sweetbreads and bone marrow at Prune since 1999 (she also serves veal hearts and monkfish liver, and calves’ brains every Valentine’s Day). “It was this very efficient kind of mutual interview for a date,” she said of her offal. “Like, here’s my menu and it’s very plain what’s available here. It weeded out a clientele.”
But though the snob appeal of challenging organ meats cannot be denied, “people who say we’re an elitist movement are ignoring entire cultures that are based off lesser cuts,” said Patrick Martins, owner of Heritage Foods USA, which supplies pork from small farms to Mr. Batali, Mr. Chang, Ms. Bloomfield and Daniel Boulud, among others. In certain enclaves of the city, offal isn’t back so much as it never went anywhere; it’s a staple of, say, traditional Italian, Spanish, Dominican, Puerto Rican and Greek cuisines. Mr. Mullen of Boqueria describes having Dominican tripe that, touted as a hangover cure, “really tastes like cow gut,” on the Lower East Side; Mr. Gold, the author, often treks to Yakitori Totto, in midtown, for “chicken parts”—i.e., “hearts, livers, gizzards, bones, cartilage, the tail, crispy chicken tails, which are amazing crunchy little nuggets.” (He called this restaurant his “happy place.”)
A quick glance at a Gourmet cookbook first released in 1950 reveals the extent to which we’ve become squeamish eaters in a single generation: The book boasted 51 recipes for offal, most French; the most recent Gourmet cookbook, released in 2009, had two. Ms. Hamilton grew up eating a wide variety of organs cooked by her French mother in rural New Jersey; Mr. Batali was raised in Seattle on liver slathered in ketchup. “When I landed in New York City in ’92, I thought, ‘Wow, what an interesting place filled with a lot of steaks and tuna and chicken!’” he said.
Only in Manhattan could we pay premium prices for something once considered a culinary castoff. Farmers and purveyors used to send innards in bags attached to the carcasses for free, but offal has become a specialty item that is, in some cases, more expensive than filet mignon. “The stuff’s doubled,” said Pat LaFrieda, the famed third-generation meat man who keeps 600 of Manhattan’s best restaurants stocked. Mr. LaFrieda estimates that offal currently makes up 10 percent of his business, up from 5 percent five years ago and 2 percent 10 years ago. “I’m constantly speaking to the packers when I call and ask for offal, and they say, ‘What are you guys doing with it?’” said Mr. LaFrieda, who estimated that “lamb’s brains have gone from $2.50 to $5 a pound, veal cheeks have gone from $5 to $10 a pound in the last five years; pork livers are maybe up 50 percent.” (Filet mignon, meanwhile, goes for $7 or $8 a pound.) Calf livers are up about 30 percent in the past five years, Mr. LaFrieda added, and other veal items are the same price they were 20 years ago.
The rise of guts is good news for small farmers who once gave the stuff away, but it has decreased chefs’ margins on dishes that were once moneymakers. “These used to be the ones that might buy me a Mercedes-Benz, but now I’m definitely going to be in a Volkswagen forever,” bemoaned Ms. Hamilton, who now pays upward of $8 a pound for sweetbreads and anywhere from $9 to $19 a pound for monkfish liver, an expensive delicacy in Japan.
Still, Mr. LaFrieda said that offal’s limited regional appeal (currently, the revival has not spread beyond New York and a few other urban culinary centers) means that prices will only rise so much, because the supply of animals with organs to give is “not tapped out.”
In which case: Will we eventually tire of seeing hooves and intestines alongside salt cod and rib-eyes? Cheek is hot right now, but after that, what next? What is left to eat? Former Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl recently predicted via Twitter that “lamb necks might be the pork belly of 2010.” Mr. LaFrieda, for his part, is burning through 200 pounds of veal tongue a week and has been fielding requests for cock’s combs—currently on the menu at Michael White’s Alto. Mr. Martins of Heritage Foods admitted to selling the “bunghole”—that’s exactly what it sounds like—to a chef in Virginia, who uses it to make sausage casing. He also said that Mr. Batali has been recently begging him for pig’s bladder, currently banned by the U.S.D.A.
“He’s like, ‘I’ll pay you anything for pig’s bladder,’” said Mr. Martins. “I think he wants to cook stuff in it.” Ms. Hamilton, meanwhile, one of the original harbingers of the trend, is moving on, in her mind if not yet on her menu, from the modern obsession with cooking things “for the sake of being outlandish,” an attitude she described as “‘Hey, you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to put pork snout on top of pork belly and then I’m going to fry it, man.’” What will she do instead? Perhaps “a little crab salad and a half an avocado and a glass of Lillet,” she said.