A Trip to Old World Italy via the West Loop
Even before I peeked inside the room where hundreds of handmade salumi were fermenting in their warm dark womb, the escaping aromas invaded my reptilian brain. The sense of smell, as Proust and his madeleine amply demonstrated, can unleash a flood of memories, transporting us instantly to another time and place.
That’s what happened when West Loop Salumi founder and salumiere Greg Laketek opened the sleek stainless steel door to the fermentation room.
Suddenly I was in Italy, ducking under the mold-covered sausages and hams swaying in the dank semi-darkness of the underground cantina at a farmstead outside Parma. The deep, ripe, funk of all that fermenting meat was identical.
Talking with Greg Laketek, I soon learned why. He had studied under “culatello king” Massimo Spigaroli at his historic estate just outside Parma, which consists of a 14th century castle (now a hotel), a huge biodiverse farm and two restaurants. But the magic of salumi takes place in the musty medieval cellar, and the secret is in that must.
Great salumi happens the same way great cheese and wine happen: skillful artisans working together with nature’s own micro-artisans. Every winery, cheese cave and salumi cellar has its resident microbes, part of the terroir that creates the unique flavor profile of food made in that place.
Greg knew that in addition to learning classic salumi recipes and techniques, he needed those invisible helpers. So when he left Italy, he brought home some of the microbes and their slightly more evolved cousin, mold.
My Proustian moment at West Loop Salumi made scientific sense because the salumi hanging in Massimo’s cellar in Italy near the Po River and the salumi hanging in Greg’s fermentation and drying rooms on Randolph Street near the Chicago River are utilizing the very same bacteria and mold.
They are also using the very best meats, spices, wines and other ingredients. And Greg is making salumi in the time-honored ways, right down to the twine (natural hemp), salt (sea salt from Sicily) and bladders encasing the culatelli, which are imported from Italy.
Culatello is often called the king of salumi, prized for its sweet musky taste and velvety texture. It is also prized because it is rare. While some 10 million prosciutti di Parma are produced each year, there are only about 30,000 culatelli.
Because Greg is the only American making traditional culatelli, and because culatelli age for 14 months, there is a long list of chefs waiting for the meat to mature. The burgeoning demand led Greg and his company to design and build an off-site culatelli curing facility four times the size of his current curing room. It was built to Italian standards, up to the 15-foot ceilings and down to the signage. In Massimo Spigaroli’s cellar, signs indicate which culatelli are for Alain Ducasse, for Heston Blumenthal, for Prince Charles, and other luminaries. Soon similar signs will indicate to whom each batch of Greg’s slowly curing bespoke culatelli belong. In Greg’s relaxed presence, it’s easy to forget that the success of West Loop Salumi has come with a great deal of effort and perseverance. Greg worked 12-hour days with Spigaroli for the three months he spent with him in 2011, and then again in 2012. In between, he returned to Chicago to plan and build his company, which took three years from concept to opening.
He found his Randolph Street location while walking around the West Loop. “I just walked by this place one day and saw that red door, and thought, ‘This place looks awesome!’”
It was a garage, so Greg and his brother tore out the floors and completely built it out, putting in new piping and the requisite washable floors and walls. The fermentation and drying rooms are insulated to a value of R20, with dual moisture barriers and antimicrobial lining.
Among the biggest hurdles to making traditional salumi, it turned out, are the USDA, FDA and health department regulations. In the U.S., meat and other potentially hazardous foods must be kept under 40° (refrigerated or frozen) or over 140° (cooked). But salumi has always been made at ambient temperatures around 50–60° and dried at slightly higher temperatures. In Italy this is done in buildings open to the air, guaranteeing that the good bacteria and good molds will come in and do their work, developing the flavors of the meat.
All cured meats were born of necessity: the need to preserve meat for months after slaughter. Salting, smoking and air-drying are powerful and effective ways to transform a perishable product into one that can be preserved for months or even years. Although meat has been preserved this way for thousands of years, Greg had to work out a very detailed plan for hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP) before the USDA would allow him to make salumi the old-fashioned way. He records every step from the moment raw meat is delivered until the final product leaves the premises. In his fermentation and drying rooms, automatic monitors continually record temperature, humidity and airflow. And Greg takes regular swabs to send off for testing to ensure that only good microbes are present. Even now, most of his time is not spent making salumi, but keeping records that allow him to do business as the first, and so far only, USDA-certified high-temperature traditional salumi plant in Illinois.
The “back of the house,” where all the meat cutting, grinding, mixing and salumi-making is done, is subject to daily USDA inspections, as well as unannounced “audits.” But the small retail space in the front of the house is inspected by the local health department. Although this inspector does not have jurisdiction over the back of the house, one day she came in, Greg says, looked in the back, and asked what was behind the steel doors. With a gleam in his eye, Greg said, “There’s raw meat in there, hanging at 60°. And we sell it across the country.” He laughs, “It blew her mind!”
Greg came to his time-honored craft by a circuitous route. But there was one guiding star in his winding path from a west suburban childhood, to international business major in college, to starting his own consulting company, to becoming Spigaroli’s apprentice. The lodestar was a deep appreciation of real food made by farmers and artisans, which he was lucky enough to experience during his childhood.
“My parents would ship me over to my grandparents in Italy during summer vacation,” he said. “When I was 6, 7, 8, they would go to all their friends’ farms all around the Marche region. We would go to these farms where they made their own salumi, their own cheese, their own bread, their own liqueur . . . .”
The Italian connection continued when Greg spent time in a small town north of Venice during his college years. But food was pleasure, and business was business. It wasn’t until Greg started to burn out with his consulting business that an employee pointed out the obvious: Greg was always cooking for friends and family and even for his employees. Finally that employee said, “Greg, why don’t you just get into the food business?”
And so he began taking night classes at Kendall College. It was during an after-class drink with friends that he realized that what Chicago really needed, and what he really wanted to do, was make traditional salumi.
“I woke up one day and said, ‘If I’m going to do this, I want to learn how to do it exactly, how they do it in Italy, and do it right, and not mess it up. There’s enough bad sausage out there already.’”
So Greg booked a one-way ticket to Italy and started knocking on doors. Everywhere he went, he saw and heard the name Massimo Spigaroli.
“So I showed up on his doorstep and told him why I’m here.” Spigaroli showed him around his farm, restaurants and salumi cellars. Then, even though Spigaroli had never taken on an apprentice before, Greg said, “he didn’t turn me down.”
That was one sign that he was on the right path. Another, it turns out, was yet to be discovered. It wasn’t until he was looking for equipment one day that he found out his grandfather had been in the sausage-making business in Chicago. “He died the day I was born, so I never got to meet him,” Greg says, “but one day someone looked at my business card and said, ‘A Laketak was vice president of this company.’ Later, when I found my grandfather’s butcher’s union card, I knew I was on the right path.”
West Loop Salumi now has more than 100 clients across the country, including Alinea chef Grant Achatz and “Iron Chef” Marc Forggione. Product can also be found in Chicago at Eataly at 40 E. Ohio St. and other specialty food stores. For a complete list of locations: westloopsalumi.com or visit the storefront at 111 W. Randolph St.—look for the bright red door.