Finding or Following a Passion?
Sometimes we only know where we’re headed once we get there!
The Founding and Philosophy
of Crested Duck Charcuterie
by Rhonda Schuldt, Founder, Local Goodness, inaugural member of Crested Duck’s Bacon of the Month club, and loyal, adventurous customer!
(written for and originally published in TABLE Magazine’s Summer ’11 issue)
How does a one-time vegan with a degree in international studies and a stint in Africa end up running a decidedly local charcuterie establishment?
For Kevin Costa, chef and partner in the local family business that is Crested Duck Charcuterie, it makes a lot of sense…if you trace the unlikely and unintentional path that led him there.
One morning in Beechview, sitting on steps down the street from Crested Duck’s new establishment currently under construction, I asked Kevin how he ended up in this business. As we sat he retraced the journey for me.
Reflecting back, he realized he’s always had a passion for food and where it comes from. But the first, uncharted, step toward a career in food was at age 16 when he took his first job in the restaurant business…as a dishwasher. With no experience in a kitchen (even at home) he surprisingly found himself promoted to prep cook within a matter of weeks. His first culinary endeavor? Pancakes! While earning a degree in International Studies at Ohio State, he continued his journey, working for a French bistro. This time he found himself behind the bar where he expanded his knowledge of wine, but regrets not getting into the kitchen more.
Following college, he confessed he “ran off to Africa.” While halfway around the world, reflecting on life and his future, Kevin came to the critical realization that what he’d always viewed as “just jobs” could actually become a career.
With a new focus and drive, Kevin returned to the states (and Cincinnati) where he joined a renowned restaurant to hone his skills. There he found a mentor in the head chef who enthusiastically shared her hobby of charcuterie. Kevin eventually left Cincinnati, moving to Indianapolis where he served as chef of a high-end specialty grocer and was further exposed to the art of charcuterie.
The end of a relationship precipitated a change in the trajectory of Kevin’s journey and he found himself looking towards home. Concurrently, Kevin’s brother, Adam, was feeling the entrepreneurial bug. He approached Kevin about coming back to Pittsburgh and going into business together. The brothers considered a restaurant, but the old neighborhood butchers Kevin got to know in Cincinnati intrigued him. Seeing a trend in other cities, he pitched the idea of a specialty charcuterie business to his brother and parents. This was in December 2009. All of them recognized an unfilled niche in Pittsburgh and Crested Duck Charcuterie (and a family business) was born.
Immediately Kevin immersed himself in learning anything and everything about butchery and the old-world methods for preserving and preparing meats. Believing it’s critically important to know where your food comes from and being fully committed to using only locally, humanely raised animals in his products, he scouted out local farmers and ranchers to source his meats, poultry and game. In rented kitchen space Kevin began making, curing, aging and testing prospective products. The intense efforts paid off. Within just a few months Crested Duck opened for business Mother’s Day weekend 2010 at Farmers at the Firehouse market in Pittsburgh’s Strip District. They’ve been wildly successfully since, expanding later that summer into a permanent stand in the Pittsburgh Public Market and a new retail space this year.
So, what ‘s the vegan connection? Interestingly it plays into Kevin’s philosophy and approach at Crested Duck. Essentially he wanted to understand and appreciate the vegan lifestyle and point of view so he committed to a vegan diet for two years. He applies this same dedication to learning, understanding and appreciating all that goes into creating high quality, traditionally cured meats. This leads to providing the best products possible for Crested Duck customers.
A consummate student, Kevin readily admits he will always be learning and perfecting the art of charcuterie. But he’s also a teacher and relishes sharing his knowledge.
Serious when working (and admittedly grumpy-looking), he is thrilled when customers ask him questions about a particular product, types and cuts of meat, how something should be prepared, even the ubiquitous question, “what is that?” Acknowledging an occasional person will simply turn up their nose at his products, he harkens back to his vegan experience and challenges them to experience something new. Whether fresh cuts of elk, venison and goat, or nontraditional interpretations of traditional charcuterie, like prosciutto-style duck breast, lamb coppa, and rabbit rillet, those who take his challenge are likely to be pleasantly surprised. As often happens, skeptics become loyal, appreciative customers.
The next leg in the Crested Duck journey? In late spring 2011, merely a year after they debuted at the farmers’ market, Kevin and family open the doors to Crested Duck’s new retail space, housing a production kitchen, aging room, deli and teaching space for classes on butchery and charcuterie. Where this leg of the journey will lead is yet to be seen, but at the end of our conversation Kevin doesn’t hesitate to let me know that, yes, the work is hard but he is indeed following his passion…and loving it!
Update since original article: Crested Duck Charcuterie’s new kitchen and restaurant at 1603 Broadway, Beechview, PA opened in 2011