Chef Spotlight: Cesare Casella
Few chefs are more loved by respected chefs than Cesare Casella. Cesare is known for his skills in the kitchen and on the farm — he is the very definition of an eco-gastronomist, someone who knows about great food but also understands that each ingredient and its source is of utmost importance. No wonder his favorite quote comes from Leonardo Da Vinci who said, “Simplicity, is the ultimate sophistication.”
Recognized for his charismatic smile and by the sprigs of rosemary springing from his breast pocket, Cesare exudes conviviality. Cesare is often out and about, trying new restaurants to support his colleagues, and attending events where he can be found slicing up his famed domestically produced prosciutto which uses heritage breeds as the only ingredient (besides salt!). He can single handedly mesmerize a room as he hand slices his Casella’s Heritage Prosciutto.
Cesare has done many things in his career, including opening restaurants, starting an heirloom bean business, importing a rare breed of Tuscan cattle, and introducing Canestrino tomatoes to chefs and home cooks in the U.S. But we know him best for his rescue operation of many of the farms we work with. In 2016, when famed country ham producer Sam Edwards’ plant burned down in a terrible fire, Cesare stepped up and immediately began production on a heritage prosciutto line. These 18-24 month aged hams sourced from a few dozen heritage farms in the Midwest, would go on to become one of the most respected prosciutto in the world and a fixture at hundreds of America’s best restaurants from coast-to-coast.
But Cesare’s greatest contribution comes from his work at The Center for Discovery® which is improving the local and state economy, the fields of education, healthcare and research, and most of all, the lives of individuals with complex conditions, such as autism. The Center has become a magnet institution where individuals from around the region and world travel to receive highly advanced care and access to groundbreaking research.
Cesare understands botany and genetics, he’s a physicist and a chemist, and an expert on agriculture and ecology. He’s an anthropologist through food, and also a sociologist. He gets cooking and physiology, meaning he knows how to determine quality. He understands that food is medicine, and he knows about technology and industry. These are many of the reasons why he is the Chief of D.N.A., the Department of Nourishment Arts, at The Center for Discovery. Cesare’s staff — some 50 farmers, chefs, bakers, and nutritionists — feed not only the 350 full-time residents and 150 day students, but also the 1,600 people who care for them. His team has their own farm, bakery, herb shop, and a CSA where they sell the farm’s vegetables, dried herbs, vinegar, herbal teas, pickles, honey, and granola. And most recently they launched Acetaia Del Sole, a craft vinegar workshop in Hurleyville, New York that creates innovative balsamic-style vinegars using the traditional techniques of Italy’s vinegar masters.
Cesare grew up in Lucca, Italy and was raised inside Vipore, his parents' trattoria that he later made famous. It was there that he gained an intimate knowledge of nature and of the oldest recipes from nonna's (grandmothers) and Norcini (traveling butchers). The tradition of the Norcino started in the town of Norcia in Umbria, high in the Apennine mountains, a place famous for its cured meats. Farming conditions were poor in the mountains, so Norcians ate what they had plenty of, which was the cinghiale, or wild boar, that roamed the forests. They also raised their own pigs, then cured the meat so it would keep for long periods, an art that evolved over the centuries.
In time, the Norcini became so expert, their art was recognized both by the state and by the Catholic Church. After the trade group, the Confraternita Norcina was founded in 1615, it received the blessing of Pope Paul V. The Norcini were considered so skilled, they were allowed to practice surgery, dentistry and bone setting!
The original Norcini typically traveled in pairs. There was the butcher who cut up the meat and broke it down, and the Salumiere, who turned that meat into salumi. Together, the Norcini made the salumi for every season, from fresh sausage for the next day, to prosciutto for the following year. Each duo had its own routes and loyal farmers that it serviced year after year, and as the men crisscrossed Italy, they carried with them the secret recipes and processes for creating prosciutto and salumi. There were generations of Norcini who passed along their secrets to their apprentices who in turn cared for the same family farms decade after decade.
After World War II, as pig farming became industrialized, the Norcini began to fade from the Italian countryside, and the visits made to the Casella Family and Vipore grew more and more rare. Eventually Cesare took on some of the butchering and salumi-making and also worked with local butchers to get the flavors he wanted for Vipore. His platters of cacciatorini, finocchiona and sopressata became one of the restaurant’s trademarks.
The tradition of the Norcini and the flavors and smells of salumi-making in the Italian countryside are what Cesare is drawing on with Casalla’s Salumi Speciali. He is working with farmers dedicated to raising pork as the Norcians did for centuries. Their pigs, he likes to say, are happy pigs. They roam pastures freely. They run around and they roll in the mud. They loll. They’re not dosed with antibiotics. When Cesare makes prosciutto, he cures it on the bone, just as the Norcians did, for that deep, authentic nutty flavor. And just like the Norcini, Cesare has his own special recipe for the spices to make his salami and prosciutto.
Cesare's generosity is part of his personality. Cesare will remain a legend within the Heritage Foods walls and outside of them for a long time to come. We also have him to thank for introducing us to Emily Pearson, our Director of Wholesale, who spent years working at his side.