The chef Silvia Garcia-Nevado had just launched into a description of the jamón Ibérico at Bar Vinazo, a new Spanish wine bar in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood, the other night when a cook came by and tapped her on the shoulder.
“Sorry to interrupt,” he said, looking anxiously at a nearby wooden stand cradling a leg of partially carved Cinco Jotas ham. “There are more orders for the Cinco. Do you want … me to slice it?” Garcia-Nevado considered this only for a moment. (The Cinco Jotas, which retails to restaurants for a little over $1,000 per leg, and which is cured in Atlantic sea salt in southwestern Spain, requires a specific carving technique to elicit its uniquely nutty, juicy flavor.) Then she shook her head no, and darted off to resume her position at the ham, where she spent much of the rest of the night wielding a long, thin carving knife as though it were a bow and she was first chair violin.
Suddenly, specialty cured pork seems to be on every other menu in New York. Chefs collect hind quarters. Servers speak about it with an almost religious reverence: “Let it melt on your tongue before you swallow.” Plates are assembled with deft precision and little adornment. “All of the pieces should be swimming like a school of fish, the fat facing in one direction,” says Joshua Pinsky, a co-owner and chef of Claud, a French-inspired restaurant in the East Village where the domestically sourced country ham comes with a pile of sunchokes and red-eye mayo for $23. At Lodi, an Italian cafe in Rockefeller Center, the prosciutto di Parma ($21 per plate), aged 30 months and imported from the family-run business Fratelli Galloni, arrives on a stainless-steel pedestal, with each strip arranged like a wavy petal across the surface so its just-translucent fat catches the light. At Raf’s, a new French and Italian restaurant in NoHo, a mountain of sweet, tangy jambon de Bayonne floats over to the table, along with paper-thin Sardinian carta di musica crackers. And the entire design scheme of Pig Bar, a newly opened beer-and-pork purveyor from the team behind the neighboring Lower East Side wine bar Parcelle, centers on a mandarin-colored Berkel slicer, used to hand-cut rarefied bits of cured hog to order. A borough away, another antique slicer — at & Sons Ham Bar, a restaurant in Brooklyn’s Prospect Lefferts Gardens neighborhood — dates to 1910, and turns out plates of country ham as nuanced in pertness and smokiness as any collection of fine wine.
The presence of fancy ham in New York is not new. Local institutions like Estela, King, Ernesto’s, Carbone and those of the Momofuku group (where Pinsky used to cook) have long touted elevated cured pork to diners looking to pretend they’re vacationing in Europe. But it is newly ubiquitous. In part, it’s because, since the lifting of pandemic-era restrictions, wealthy New Yorkers have never been so ready to feel spoiled by their culinary choices, to revel in the drama of dining out, no matter what they’re eating. Upper East Siders are spending $29 on a takeaway deli meat sandwich. And there’s a $29 hot dog on the menu at Mischa, the chef Alex Stupak’s new restaurant in Midtown. At the same time, says Ignacio Mattos, the chef and founder of the Mattos Hospitality group, which includes Estela, Altro Paradiso, Corner Bar and Lodi, “the pandemic refined people’s palates. People had more time, they got more curious. Cured meat, there’s nothing more sophisticated.”
“Consumers have gotten supersmart,” says Grant Reynolds, a co-founder of Pig Bar and Parcelle. He credits a chef-led education of the market. “It became ‘Portlandia.’ Olive oil bottles are dated by vintage. Harry’s Berries has become a household brand.” (The jammy, ever-ripe Californian strawberries, which retail for more than $15 per pound, have lately become a status symbol among home cooks.) “In fine dining, there’s talk about perception of value,” says Pinsky. “Ingredients you don’t have to do much to — things like uni, caviar, truffles — you buy at the highest quality and put on the plate and let them shine. I think country ham is one of those.”
It’s also no sweat off chefs’ backs. “Restaurants are leaning into charcuterie,” says Brian Goldblatt, a managing director at Natoora, a wholesale supplier of high-end ingredients. “It’s cost-effective. They can charge a lot, and it takes very little labor.” The ham itself is of course expensive, whether imported from Europe or ordered from one of a handful of small-batch domestic producers. But the lighter demand on the kitchen — basically, just a need to slice to order, coupled with loose requirements for storage since, as Goldblatt says, “cured meat is indestructible” — amortizes its strain on operations, especially in a labor environment where turnover is high and salaries are up. The sommelier André Hueston Mack, who opened & Sons Ham Bar in 2020, says part of his concept came from a desire to reduce heavy chef labor. “I was looking for something sustainable,” he says: a dish that could be sliced and served by almost anyone after brief training, in a pinch.
And New Yorkers are not only willing to stomach a per-plate price tag that keeps the cost of fancy ham around the coveted 30 percent markup (a watermark often cited by restaurateurs); they’re driving it. Mary Gibson, the executive chef at the Italian restaurant Jupiter, which opened at Rockefeller Center late last year, told me she’s surprised by how popular the salumi misti plate has been; “it’s such a common order, every other ticket or so,” she reports. At Raf’s, the executive chef and co-owner Mary Attea says diners will often place a late-in-the-meal order for the jambon de Bayonne and carta di musica platter after seeing it pass by on its way to another table.
Since it opened a few weeks ago, Bar Vinazo has already gone through four legs of Cinco Jotas, at $30 a plate. It’s just one of a handful of pork dishes on the menu. I proceeded as instructed by Garcia-Nevado and let a slice render on my tongue. It was delicate and earthy at first and, as I chewed, it became fruity, almost fragrant. It wasn’t wholly transformative; it didn’t change my life. But it was delicious.