Bruce Aidells deserves the title of “King of Meat” after years of crafting delectable meaty goods and founding an eponymous sausage company in 1983. Aidells is widely known as a prolific expert on everything related to sausages, meat, salumi, and charcuterie. His story has ties to the Bay Area, where he has lived for many years.
The longtime success of Aidells sausages marked a huge shift leading up to the late 1970s, when Americans bought sausage as an occasional breakfast staple with little variety. Now you can find creative sausage links that show Aidells’ culinary craft: chicken apple, artichoke garlic, or even pineapple bacon fly off the shelves at Costco and grocery outlets.
In 2002, Aidells left the sausage company to pursue recipe consulting and writing work. The Bay Area resident is an award-winning author and has a new hefty cookbook, The Great Meat Cookbook: Everything you Need to Know to Buy and Cook Today’s Meat (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $40). Aidells ably breaks down meat cuts and labels, and gives budget-friendly advice on using under appreciated (and usually cheaper) parts. He told me that this may his last book; readers may hope not after diving into creative recipes that include lusty meatloaf, beer broth marinated hanger steak and braised Montana coffee-marinated bison short ribs.
Aidells got his start as the first chef and co-owner at the popular Poulet restaurant in Berkeley in 1979 and is married to chef Nancy Oakes of Boulevard and Prospect fame. I caught up with Aidells after a recent book signing event in San Francisco.
Bay Area Bites: Your wife Nancy Oakes is a chef-restaurateur. How does that play out in your home kitchen? Who decides what to cook?
Aidells: I’m an ex-chef and she’s a current chef, so we’re not used to people telling us what to do. We do things our own way. Even how a piece of bread gets sliced is debated: I would cut it perpendicular and she’s going to cut on a bias. If we have company over, she’ll plan the meal and I’ll cook the meat. For Thanksgiving, she cooked and I determined when the turkey was done. I carved the turkey, which I do every year. Unfortunately, neither of us know how to cook for small groups so we make a lot of food. Nancy’s the coordinating chef for Meals on Wheels and we usually do three or four auction items where people come to our house or on a boat. We usually raise about $100,000-$200,000.
Bay Area Bites: What are you most passionate about food-wise?
Aidells: Besides white truffles? (laughs). With sausage ingredients and spices, there is always something interesting to learn. For this cookbook, I learned a lot about spices. I’m really passionate about ras el hanout [a Moroccan spice blend]. We have access to one that comes from Morocco via Pacific Gourmet. You have to grind it yourself and there’s something like 20 ingredients in it.
I’ve been lucky enough to have some of the best Iberian ham and prosciutto. At the book event lunch my wife did at Prospect last Saturday, we did Rosa di Parma, ham, and a breadstick with prosciutto wrapped around it. Also there was escarole and beans with prosciutto. It was really over the top.
There’s a guy in Iowa with La Quercia who has access to the Tamworth breed of pig, one of the few pigs that’s known historically as a bacon pig. Tamworth is a leaner pig but with amazing flavor. He feeds some on acorn at the end. I know him personally. That’s all he talks about is his ham.
Bay Area Bites: Who are your mentors?
Aidells: My mother is a negative mentor, which she hates for me to say. In the 1950s you had an entire cuisine by soup and my mother embraced that. There was Lipton onion soup meatloaf and casseroles with cream of mushroom soup. When I went to college, I asked my mom to send me her recipes. I looked at them and said “Nah.”
My roommate had a James Beard cookbook that was falling apart and written for home cooks. I got a lot of use out of that one. Then my roommate my senior year got us a subscription to Gourmet. I went off to be a graduate student and the Time Life Foods of the World were around. I cooked through all 35 and learned a tremendous amount. Those books gave you the actual ingredients and let you go find it on your own. That was a great breakthrough.
It’s so cliché but I learned a lot watching Julia Child: how to hold a knife, and to always tuck my finger. Even if I watch the old shows today, I still learn stuff. Jacques Pépin La Methode and La Technique taught me. Actual La Methode showed me how to turn a fridge into a sausage smoker. I still have the fridges. They are historical. My wife hates them.
I’ve been to Italy 30 times and whenever we travel with Faith Willinger, it’s like you’re family. The Italian recipes I have are the best.
Vikram Vij is the best Indian restaurateur in North America. His wife is opening a branch in Seattle soon. Vij’s recipes and books are really spot on.
Bay Area Bites: What are the lessons you’ve learned on the way?
Aidells: I credit a lot of my success more to relationships, and to treating people in a straightforward and fair way. My style tends to be blunt, where I’m not holding back and always putting my cards on the table. I still have relationships from the first sausage sale I made 30 years ago. That really builds a brand: when people know you care about your product and about who’s eating it. I’d like to think that comes through in the cookbooks as well. I’m trying to help people learn, which I suppose comes from my science and teaching background.
Bay Area Bites: Do you have any favorite Bay Area food/drink spots?
Aidells: We do most of our eating in Healdsburg on the weekend. Our favorite place is the Farmhouse. The chef has become our friend and I think he is the best chef in the county. He usually takes January off and goes to Asia, which shows how serious he is.
We shop at Mexican markets like Lola’s. Some of them have taco stands in the back and they’re pretty good. I like to get Salvadorian food in Santa Rosa — on Sebastopol Street. The trucks are parked in front of a restaurant and have a covered patio. There’s great tamales and if you spend $10 you’ve bought way too much food.
Big John’s grocery store and Taylor’s Refresher are both great. My wife’s a huge supporter of The Gardener. I like to say that she single-handedly keeps them in business.
Bay Area Bites: What are you working on these days? What’s an average workday like? What’s it like writing a cookbook?
Aidells: My typical day starts around ten. Around four hours are taken up with email and Facebook. I will respond to messages, which are usually from some sort of media exposure or recipe questions.
This is my last book for sure. (Laughs.) The Great Meat Cookbook was a big book and involved a lot of research and work. It made a tremendous amount of sense to do books when I was in the sausage company and really helped the brand. Now, I don’t know how to measure the success. The actual writing is such a small part of it. There are sales and publicity efforts. I do strongly believe the best selling is done through word of mouth. That’s how I succeeded with sausage. That’s how it works with books.
Where I really do the best financially is working with food companies as a consultant. I did some Duroc ham and Vande Rose bacon recipes. I get a little royalty from those.