Once a week, Salty Pig executive chef Kevin O’Donnell neatly portions off each cut of meat of a sturdy, 200-pound New Hampshire pig, never wasting more than a fist-sized clump of lard that’s been stripped off the tenderloin.
“You have to really work out some aggression,” he says, wrenching a saw through a bone. He trades it for a smaller knife and slices through the fatty layer of skin, separating the shoulder and then deftly cutting around the ribs, a calm, satisfied look on his face.
“Is this your happy place?” I ask.
“Absolutely,” he says, without looking up. “This and washing dishes. I love washing dishes.”
When the Salty Pig opened its doors in the summer of 2011, its quirky atmosphere, solid beer selection, and create-your-own charcuterie-board menu made it a hit with the Back Bay crowd and meat-and-cheese fanatics. But then it dipped under the radar; the original chef left at the end of last summer, taking the entire crew with him.
Enter O’Donnell, fresh off a one-year stint working in Paris, where he had opened a bistro in under a week and propelled it to national acclaim in three months. Two weeks before he left for Paris, he was a sous-chef for mega-chef Mark Ladner at New York’s Del Posto. Before that, he lived in Italy, motoring through the countryside, wooing a local girl, learning the language, and cooking his ass off, leaving after two and a half years to be closer to his family.
Before he made it overseas, O’Donnell grew up in Rhode Island, in a family where “everybody cooks, but not super seriously” — spaghetti and meatballs and lasagna fill his early food memories. He never aspired to be a part of the industry until he fell into a prep-cooking position at a new restaurant in his hometown.
“I went to community college, dropped out, didn’t know what I wanted to do. After those first shifts, though, I knew it,” he says. “It was the rush, the excitement, actually enjoying what you’re doing, being able to see people’s immediate reactions to what you’re putting out there. I think that’s still what keeps me going.”
He has now been tasked with bringing the Salty Pig back into the limelight. And if his recent additions to the menu — like the grilled Point Judith calamari with artichoke tempura, Kalamatas, and Meyer-lemon aioli, or the market squash with pickled gooseberries and brown-butter vinaigrette — are any indication, Boston’s dining scene could be in for something big.
“The Salty Pig’s concept is already so established, so trying to take it over without totally changing the idea and throwing people off . . . it’s much more difficult to me than starting from nothing,” he says. “I’m still trying to figure out what exactly people want when they come here.”
That may not be an issue much longer if O’Donnell’s star continues to rise. Just recently, he was invited to fly solo at the James Beard House sometime this spring.
“I don’t really like white linen or 10 people surrounding the table; that’s not me,” he says, looking around the dining room. “Laid-back, with a level of food that’s through the roof — that’s what I want.”
The Salty Pig » 130 Dartmouth St, Boston :: 617.536.6200 or thesaltypig.com