By Micah Cheek
Like most new things in Chicago, Greg Laketek is on his way up. In the two years since Laketek’s West Loop Salumi opened, his client list has ballooned with the names of heavy hitting businesses. “There were always dreams of serving the customers we have,” says Laketek, “We never expected them to seek us out.” Among those seekers are famed restaurants such as Alinea and Nomi, as well as high profile market retailers, including Eataly NYC. Fueled by the stunning endorsements of traveling chefs, West Loop meats are finding their way into culinary hot spots from San Diego to Boca Raton.
Laketek, 29, opened West Loop Salumi in 2013 after spending four years training under master salumiere Massimo Spigaroli. At Spigaroli’s Antica Corte Pollavicina in Polesine Parmense, he learned the craft of curing and preserving meats with an eye for quality ingredients and Old World techniques. Laketek even took part in the processing of the British royal family’s prized Berkshire hogs. When he returned to his home town of Chicago, he saw that these traditional Italian salamis were in nowhere to be found. “I noticed in Chicago, not many people are doing salumi and charcuterie; it seemed like a good market to get into.” he says. West Loop Salumi began with a small crew and no safety net. Laketek recalls, “Last year we had a flood because we had a frozen pipe. We ended up losing about $140,000 in product. That was our first eight months, we only had three employees, and our products weren’t covered in the insurance. It was a big hit to us.” The flooded shop could not stop the flood of praise, however, and West Loop rebounded to even more critical success. Zagat has since included Laketek in its “30 under 30 2014” list, as well as “11 Chicago Food Artisans to Watch.”
West Loop Salumi takes its name from the neighborhood it occupies, a formerly industrial area that is now a dining and art hot spot. The neighborhood’s rebirth as a fine food and leisure hub, though beneficial to the city, is not without its consequences. Greg says, “West Loop was the butchering and packing area of Chicago. It’s really dying though, now this area is called Restaurant Row, there are only a few butcher shops left here. It’s really a shame. Hotels and restaurants are coming in and raising the rent.” A particular loss, Greg says, is the redevelopment of the Fulton Cold Storage building, which had operated for over 90 years. “They took all the old signage down. Google is using the building. The insulation was all horse hair; it took four months to defrost the place.”
From the start, buyers could tell something was different about West Loop’s wares. Laketek believes the contrast lies in how other American processors make charcuterie, compared to how he was trained in Italy. “Producers out here don’t understand how to make the salumi we’re making,” he says. The difference can be seen especially well in meats like culatello, a whole muscle ham cured in wine, salt and pepper for more than 12 months, which West Loop makes in the Italian style. “The thing about culatello is you can’t import it, it’s not available in the US. We’re now doing the culatello the way they did, but not many others can,” Laketek says. He found that he could avoid using nitrite, a commonly used preservative for cured meat products, in his culatello by aging it even longer, up to 16 months. This keen knowledge of the curing process sets his products apart from his competitors. “They’re cutting corners they don’t even know they’re cutting. It’s about attention to detail,” he says.
Attention to detail goes hand in hand with the extremely high quality ingredients that West Loop starts with. Berkshire and Iberian pork are heavily used, as are fresh Calabrian peppers. Laketek takes special pride in his braseola, which he formerly made with pasture-raised, grass-fed beef. “We’ve switched to just using wagyu now. We are the only producer in the US that’s allowed to make bresaola without spraying any bleach on it. We use the acidity of white wine vinegar to make it stable.”
While the lowlands of Parma are ideal for the dry curing of specialty pork, the environment of Chicago doesn’t lend itself to the process. The chill and humidity of the Midwest would make traditional open air curing impossible if not for West Loop’s state of the art curing chambers. A constantly operating computer carefully balances the humidity and heat needed to promote the right bacterial cultures and drying times.
Laketek is bucking an old trend in American eating. When looking for salami, the American diner has an expectation of glossy, razor thin slices with a distinctly chewy quality. West Loop teaches a different lesson. The texture of its product is notably soft, even delicate. The casing must be gently removed to avoid taking bits of pork with it. Portions are cut in a thick wedge, similar to a serving of cheese. The thin slices are all pieces of whole muscles, cut against the grain.
Having proven himself in classic ciauscolos and sopprassetas, Laketek has begun to try new things. His Lagunitas IPA salame features not only the hoppy beer, but toasted spent grains from brewing as well. The Finnochiona is dusted with fennel pollen before aging. The Krug Champagne and Truffle is as decadent as it sounds; finely aged Krug Grande Cuvee adds flavors of sweet barley, and pieces of Alba black truffles are hidden throughout. “A chef needs to start out with a basis of how to make the basics. You can’t just say ‘I have a crazy idea, let’s put Sriracha and plum wine into a salami,’ without any background,” Laketek says.
The USDA has declared Laketek’s salamis completely shelf stable. They travel well too, as the meats are packed with degassers and deoxygenizers. For the retail market, Laketek has a few tips for care and handling. “For salami, we just recommend they don’t keep them in the fridge or deli case. Those cases have a lot of moisture in them. Salami breathes, just like bread. We recommend taking it out of the package, letting it hang and do its thing.”