Off The Line

2013-08-30T12:00:00Z 2014-09-15T12:53:12Z Off The LineWritten by Brandon Chuang Feast Magazine | Inspired Local Food Culture/Midwest
August 30, 2013 12:00 pm  • 

U.S. Highway 67 is much like any other Midwestern highway. Cars and trucks, moving back and forth along various swatches of expanse that stretch from Sabula, Iowa, to Presidio, Texas, seem frozen in place – the consequence of a rural landscape that is forever changing, yet perpetually the same: Fields. Trees. Barns. Fields.

And mile marker 301 is much like any other mile marker. It sits, staked along the eastern strip of the southbound road, reflectively green with the words “Wayne County, Missouri” emblazoned proudly across its metallic chest. It looks almost identical to mile marker 300, and most assuredly 302. But this particular mile marker, mile marker number 301 of U.S. Highway 67, is different. For it’s here, between the fields and trees and barns, that Chris Bolyard and the Law meet; it’s here that he gets to see firsthand what the interior of a Missouri State Highway Patrol car looks like.

Bolyard does not get arrested, but he does get warned: the left lane is for passing only. As he falls back behind the wheel of his Suzuki Forenza, the two 128-quart coolers riding in the back make a short groan of protest. “He asked where I was going,” Bolyard deadpans about his mini-interrogation from the Show-Me State’s finest. “I told him I’m a chef from St. Louis who’s heading down south to pick up a pig.”

Bolyard is indeed a chef from St. Louis who’s heading down south to pick up a pig – hence, the coolers – but not just any pig. Bolyard is making the nearly four-hour trek to the Arkansas state line to bring home a heritage-breed Berkshire pig from Newman Farm in Myrtle, Mo. Beloved for its moist, fatty meat, Berkshires have long been considered some of the best pork money can buy, and Newman Farm has long been considered one of the best places to buy it. The national food cognoscenti will recognize David Chang and Mario Batali as some of Newman Farm’s more famous chef customers, but they won’t recognize Bolyard. To them, he’s just some dude pulled over on the side of the road in a cooler-stuffed station wagon.

Living outside the spotlight is nothing new for Bolyard. As the chef de cuisine of St. Louis’ Sidney Street Cafe in Benton Park, he has long worked alongside its celebrated owner and executive chef, Kevin Nashan. While the story itself has been told many times – talented chef laboring quietly behind the scenes – Bolyard’s tale is different because of its length. He’s worked for Nashan for nearly a decade, playing right-hand man to a boss who collects James Beard nominations like Pokémon cards.

When it comes to food, chefs, by their nature, are a narcissistic bunch, and many in Bolyard’s position would’ve left to spread their own culinary gospel. An executive chef position here. A small bistro there. But Bolyard has stayed rooted, happy in a situation that is not far from ideal.

“Kevin [is] like family to me,” Bolyard says about his tenure at Sidney Street. “He’s been amazingly supportive. He sent me to Spain to learn more about food and cooking. He trusts me with his kitchen, and I think it’s because, in many ways, Kevin and I are very similar. We both like to observe; we like to see what’s going on around us, and if something seems interesting, we try it.”

What’s interesting to Bolyard is meat. A few years ago, both he and Nashan were intrigued at the prospect of using whole animals at Sidney Street. Neither had ever butchered a whole animal before, but that didn’t stop the pair from ordering an entire pig and giving it a go. Bolyard immersed himself in the process, devouring instructional books and going so far as to stage at places like Nashville’s Porter Road Butcher and Publican Quality Meats in Chicago. Today, Sidney Street only uses whole animals, save for their beef (“I wish we had enough space for a cow”), and Bolyard is crazier than ever about butchering. It’s the only way to explain why a man would spend most of his day off driving, basically to another state, to slice up a pig and bring it home.

The Berkshire pigs at Newman Farm range in size, but the one Bolyard has lined up for the restaurant is roughly 250 pounds. Having already been processed, i.e., slaughtered, Bolyard immediately begins breaking the pig down into what are known, ominously in the industry, as primordial cuts: thighs (hams), belly (bacon), sides (ribs and loins), shoulders (pork butts), head (head). It’s the only way he can transport everything on ice back home in the coolers. With him is his small array of tools: a fillet/boning knife (for precision work), a cleaver (for dirty work), a mallet and hacksaw (yes, a mallet and hacksaw, for breaking through bone) and a scimitar (lovingly referred to by Bolyard’s friend as the “f*** you knife”).

As Bolyard works to break down the pig – and it is definitely work to saw through the flesh and bone of a 250-pound animal – he explains what attracted him to butchering.

“I’ve always enjoyed putting in a hard day’s work and being able to see my results, and with butchering, you can definitely see the results. This pig will be turned into ribs, tenderloins, pork chops, etc. There’s something very calming about the process. It also gives me time to think: about work, my life, the future.”

He hasn’t always been so forward thinking – scratch that, he hasn’t always been so focused in his thinking. Growing up, Bolyard knew that he wanted to cook. His father, a dental technician, whiled away the work week building fake molars and bicuspids in his basement. But on weekends, Bolyard’s father would take to the competitive barbecue circuit, son in tow, and participate in events all across the Midwest, including the venerable Memphis in May festival. The desire to cook has never been questioned; it was seared into Bolyard’s flesh, low and slow, over years barbecuing alongside his father. The real question has always been what to do with that passion.

“I never really had any direction,” Bolyard says about his early career path. “I didn’t have an end goal.”

Bolyard went to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., because, well, he wanted to become a good cook, and the CIA was where people went to become good cooks. He returned home and found a job with Bill Cardwell at Cardwell’s at the Plaza, and everything seemed to be fitting into place. Bolyard had wanted to become a chef, and there he was, CIA-trained and working for one of the most respected chefs in his hometown.

Like many young chefs, Bolyard fell into the natural schedule of those in the industry: work 12 or more hours a day, go out and grab a few drinks with the crew, maybe grab something to eat – maybe a few more drinks – then finish the day with a couple hours of sleep. Get up. Repeat.

He adhered to this routine for years, even after moving on to work at Sidney Street. As time passed and Bolyard’s star continued to rise behind Nashan’s, people would often ask what he was still doing at the Benton Park restaurant. Why hadn’t he moved on? If you skim through past interviews with Bolyard from that time, you’ll find his responses to always be the same in spirit: he still had much to learn from Nashan; there was more to grow and nurture at the restaurant; Sidney Street is his family. While he did, and does, believe in these responses, the young chef never gave the one answer that he knew, deep down, to be the truest. Chris Bolyard had absolutely no idea how to move on.

If you strip Bolyard of his chef’s uniform, you’ll discover two distinct tattoos on his body. One, the Ironman logo – as in the insane endurance triathlon that consists of a 2.4-mile swim and 112-mile bike ride, capped off with a marathon – is carved into his calf. The other, a giant, barren tree with the name “Abigail” swirled into the bark of the trunk, hugs the entire right side of his upper body, its leafless limbs spindling and splaying towards the sky. By origin, tattoos are meant to tell a story, an indelible mark of meaning and import on the wearer’s life. The two tattoos that adorn Bolyard’s body are exactly that: bookmarks in a story that’s still being written.

To have Bolyard explain it, his life, until recently, was one of unknowing and uncertainty; a Lost Boy in a culinary Neverland. But as he’s continued to work with Nashan, evolving from a sous chef into his current position as chef de cuisine, his path has become far more clear. It was Nashan, himself an endurance athlete, who first got Bolyard interested in marathons and triathlons – in the focus and tangible results that one could discover in training for something like the Ironman.

“I work out now on a daily basis,” Bolyard notes about his routine. “It’s the first thing I do when I get up, and it sets the tone for the rest of my day. I’m apparently a glutton for punishment, because there’s definitely suffering in running and biking and cooking.”

Gone are the energy-sapping days of late-night socializing. It is, after all, virtually impossible to work in a hot kitchen all day, go out all night, and then wake up and run five or six miles before returning to an oven-for-an-office to begin anew. Instead, Bolyard has given up drinking, and substituted it with running, working and planning the next phase of his life with his wife, Abbie – as in the “Abigail” etched into his side – and their newborn baby girl, Betty. With this new direction, this new Bolyard, you would assume a new goal and path would emerge, that this talented chef would finally know exactly what he wanted to do and how to do it – and you’d be right. But apparently what Bolyard wants to do is build a time machine, because his goal is to work in Mayberry, circa 1952.

Bolyard is a classically trained chef who attended, arguably, the most prestigious culinary school in the country. He has worked under two of the city’s most well-known chefs and is currently the second-in-command at one of the city’s greatest restaurants. Nashan himself has continuously commended Bolyard in interviews and stories for playing a key role in Sidney Street’s evolution. He is, for all intents and purposes, the most famous non-executive chef in the city. So why is it that Bolyard wants to leave this all behind and start a butcher shop?

And not just any butcher shop, mind you, but an old-school butcher shop. A whole animal-style butcher shop, naturally – one that actually runs out of popular cuts, because there are only so many popular cuts on one animal.

“I’m really drawn to the idea of offering what I offer, but also educating people at the same time,” Bolyard says. “If we run out of rib-eyes, I want to be able to introduce the customer to a different option that they may not have even known to consider.”

Bolyard has drafted multiple versions of his business plan. In it, he details exactly what it is he wants to do: hormone-free and humanely raised meats, on-demand butchering, a continuously rotating selection of stocks and charcuterie to be supplemented, in the future, by pre-prepared meals, all courtesy of your friendly neighborhood CIA-trained butcher.

“We have a daughter now,” Bolyard explains, “and we plan on having more. I just want to be able to have the family life that I envisioned for myself, while still maintaining what it is I love about cooking.”

Deep in the belly of Sidney Street Cafe is where Bolyard butchers his pig. Others have their hands in dissecting the various fish and fowl the restaurant serves, but the pig has always been left to Bolyard. On a large stainless-steel table, he cuts, scrapes and breaks the bone, muscle and sinew down into manageable, recognizable pieces.

“I usually have heavy metal music playing while I butcher,” Bolyard says. “It’s kind of soothing.”

There’s still much to do before he opens the butcher shop of his dreams, but for once, Bolyard knows exactly what it is that has to be done to reach his goal of rising early to accomplish a hard day’s work in a sane amount of time; to be able to come home early enough to have dinner with your family; to know your customers, because they’re your neighbors; to begin to butcher and package pork chops for the Johnson’s dinner because it’s Tuesday and Mrs. Johnson is about to walk into the shop, and she always makes pork chops on Tuesdays.

This is the life Bolyard has envisioned for himself, a black-and-white occupation set in the Technicolor of the modern world. There’s no doubt he’ll get there – the boy who grew up surrounded by meat, growing up to love being surrounded by meat – the commitment and drive and verve are all there. He’s in the process of securing financing, and he’s still got a few tricks up his sleeves to accomplish with his friend, Kevin Nashan. And as he finishes butchering and wrapping his Berkshire hog from Newman Farm, Chris Bolyard smiles. It’s the smile steeled by the knowledge that the road to his destination is, finally, straight and clear. And it’s only accessible from the left lane.

Sidney Street Café, 2000 Sidney Street, Benton Park, 314.771.5777, sidneystreetcafe.com

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