Fifteen Minutes with Belcampo Meat Company's Ross Wollen
Meat ranch first, butchery second, and restaurant third, Belcampo U.S. has left no detail untended, from the CCOF-certified Mt. Shasta pastures to the processing plant for which Temple Grandin consulted, to—with the opening of Larkspur’s Belcampo Meat Company—the grind of the swoon-worthy burger. In a culture where meat is treated with such respect, the guy who’s tasked with cooking it bears no small amount of responsibility, but head Chef Ross Wollen is up to the job. Like Belcampo itself, Wollen’s resume represents a journey from the ranch to the table: The New York native got his start making goat cheese on a farm back East, which led him to Cowgirl Creamery; from there, it was on to Oliveto, where Wollen learned to make salumi, and The Local Butcher Shop in Berkeley. Belcampo’s ethos is to be mindful of the entire process, and to deliver an exquisite product that reflects this; Wollen’s mission, really, is to show that product enough respect to simply get out of its way.
Here, Wollen and I talk Velveeta, electric fences, and The House of Prime Rib. And, you know, meat.
If your decision to become a chef could be traced to a single food memory, what would it be?
In college, my best friend studied abroad in Japan and had this hot pot we’d plug in and make sukiyaki or shabu shabu... We were in Vermont, and one time we drove all the way to Montreal just to go to an Asian grocery store so we could get the right things we couldn’t find at the Safeway in Vermont… Those meals were so evocative… I’d never been [to Japan], but it felt like I was in Japan, eating with a Japanese family. It was exciting; so much more than just sustenance; it was culture. That’s when I really began cooking and really enjoying it.
You have a guest at home you want to impress. What’s the go-to meal?
Probably lamb shanks. If I have a guest over, I like something I can just reheat so I can actually spend time with them. And shanks, with the bone, they’re beautiful. They’re impressive, delicious, they’re easy to make delicious.
If someone could only eat here once—let’s say eat once and visit the butcher shop once—what should they order?
At the restaurant, probably the burger… by far our bestseller, what people talk about, and it’s symbolic of the way we do things here: It’s familiar, comfortable, delicious, but at the same time it shows off the quality of the meat. The beef is grass fed, dry aged; the butcher nails the fat percentage, gets exactly the grind we want, the fattiness we want every time… For something to take home, I’d recommend the pork chops. Our pigs are the most flavorful I’ve ever had; really bright red meat and delicious, soft fat… A potentially boring cut, but it can be really good if the meat’s really good.
What do you think is the best dining experience to be had in the Bay Area, other than here?
I unfortunately haven’t been to a lot of the obvious Michelin-rated places—French Laundry or Meadowood—but a place I go frequently and is always as good as I expect it to be is the House of Prime Rib. The theater—the zeppelins, them slicing the prime rib right in front of you; but it’s also this great scene where one table’s black tie and another’s in flip flops and shorts, but everyone’s celebrating something and the whole room shares the same good mood. Honestly, that’s probably my favorite experience.
Awesome. What’s the most outrageous thing that’s ever gone down here?
Either nothing outrageous has happened here or I haven’t been aware of it! Really. We’ve only been around for six months; dinner shuts off at 9, so nothing yet. As far as I know! At the goat farm, there was a crazy near miss when my wife and I were working there: The farmers took the first vacation they’d had in six years, because they trusted us to run the farm. There was this huge blackout that blanketed like Ohio to New York and they called, like oh my god, because had the blackout touched us, all the electric fences and water spigots would turn off. Without water, goats will leave and they’d go everywhere—it’d be impossible—we had no idea how to get animals back! Luckily it didn’t touch us. But we still think about that. It could have been one of the worst nights of our lives.
Seriously. Speaking of bad nights, you killed your butcher and you’re on death row. Last meal?
Growing up, one of my favorite things was macaroni and cheese that my mother would make—this classic, middle-America, ‘50s recipe that had you start by building a roux, doing things nice and classic—and then it uses Velveeta cheese. That flavor—I sort of can’t shake it; I still make it once in a while. That would be a pretty good death row meal, super comforting.
Yeah, you’d go out all warm and cheesy. One ingredient you can’t live without?
I mean, meat. That’s what my job is here, to show off the meat, and it’s just awesome. We have salads, one or two vegetarian things, but really, we’re showing off the meat. I don’t know if that’s too broad, but it’s accurate.
That works! Favorite food city?
Probably New York. I love here, too, but I grew up in New York and whenever I go back I’m floored by it how large it is; you can find anything… every trend is over-represented, there’s a million places and also, if you go out to Queens, the malls in Flushing, there’s thirty different Chinese food stalls with every type of noodle.
Fill in the blank. People might be surprised to see me eating ___.
I eat just about everything, but I guess they’d be surprised to see me eating seafood and vegetables, just because I’ve been so tied to meat. I’ve always been the guy that was breaking down things, making sausage, but at home I eat the opposite of that.
Okay—and this may be sacrilege to even ask here, but—bacon: Awesome or overrated?
I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. There’s no question it’s awesome. It’s one of the most delicious things. I don’t know if it’s overrated; it might be overused. But I shouldn’t be the one to talk about this! I mean, we don’t have candied-bacon-frosting cupcakes here, but I use bacon frequently. I’ll say it’s properly rated.