Rey Knight’s easygoing persona serves him well Sundays at the Hillcrest farmers’ market as customers linger to sample exotic spiced meats. In the prepared-foods section, Knight hawks sausage and salami. His white apron, stocky frame, and black hair and beard add to a Mediterranean butcher-shop atmosphere, as though beef and pork flanks might be dangling behind him. He dishes me up a sausage stuffed with smoked Gouda cheese in a French roll. It has just come off the grill, and I can barely keep the melting cheese in my mouth as I bite into the amalgam of flavors.
A day earlier, Knight toured me through the 3000-square-foot facility in Kearny Mesa where his Knight Salumi Co. processes meats. (Salumi is a general term for cured meats.) Knight opened his business in February 2008 after a stint producing sausage for a local restaurant.
We first walked through the refrigerated storage. “On the racks here is sirloin trim that goes into our cacciatore Tuscan salami,” said Knight. He showed me a meat grinder that looked to be the size and shape of a large toaster. “Twenty-four thousand pounds of meat went through that little guy last year,” he told me. After the meat is ground, a hydraulic stuffer forces it into the standard cylindrical salami shape.
In the room next door, the air was drier and the temperature dramatically higher as Knight led me to see the “fermentation stage.” Here the meat is inoculated with bacteria that “will acidify it and set its color,” he said. “At this point we’re taking the meat to the point where all the moisture’s going to fall out of it. During this time, because there’s a stagnant airflow, we get a mold bloom.” We looked at thick mold on the salami that had what Knight called an “angelic powdery look. It’s a combination of a type of yeast and a mold like that on cheese.” Later the mold dies from lack of moisture, and a white papery casing is left on the salami. “You can eat it,” he said.
Knight grew up on a farm in northwestern Montana. His father hunted regularly and brought elk and bear back to the farm, where he and his teenage son dressed the meat and prepared cuts for smoking. Rey Knight later attended the Culinary Institute of America in New York. There he received a chef’s education and earned a bachelor’s degree in business management. He also came under the influence of an important mentor who had been trained as a chef in France. Through that connection, Knight landed a job as a chef at a renowned restaurant in a community just north of Cannes. The head chef was a specialist in preparing meat from the slaughtering stage on. Eventually, the two men began going together to small farms in Provence and northern Italy to slaughter animals for farmers who wanted certain cuts of meat or other products. Knight would climb on the backs of the animals and shoot them in the head with a revolver before he and his partner started butchering the meat. The work involved reaching into the still-warm animal from behind and opening the carcass with a knife pointed outward to avoid cutting into the internal organs. “I’d slaughtered animals at home growing up,” says Knight, “but killing them still made me queasy.”
Knight came to my attention on January 14 when the Wall Street Journal ran a story on chefs who, primarily for learning purposes, have smuggled European meats into the United States. The article claimed that Knight once smuggled a pork shoulder and a fennel-pollen salami from Italy to Miami and, on another occasion, “hid a 4-pound goose-liver torchon from France inside the belly of a salmon.” (There are fewer restrictions on importing fish.) According to the Journal, such practices may fade as the scrutiny of potential terrorists increases in the wake of the Nigerian who, in December, “allegedly tried to set off a bomb hidden in his underpants on a Northwest Airlines flight to Detroit.” The paper then continued, “ ‘I’ll have to come up with more creative ways’ to get charcuterie into the U.S., says Mr. Knight.”
Knight says he’s never heard of jail time for smuggling meat, though fines as high as $500 are possible. I ask him if the Wall Street Journal’s exposure of his smuggling bothered him. Could his admissions get him into trouble with law enforcement? “No,” he says, “because I’d have to do it again. Now I don’t really want to dig my hole any deeper. However, that is the chef culture. The chef’s culture is about buying the best things, the greatest things, and nine times out of ten it’s a back-door deal. The mushroom purveyor, or forester guy, shows up at the back of the restaurant with a truck full of mushrooms. You come out and take what you want, and it’s the best that’s out there. It’s like a drug deal. There’s no need to do that in Europe. But here it’s all about the back-door deal.”
Other foods that might come secretly in the back door, according to Knight, are ham, caviar, truffles, and other delicacies. The items might be out of season or smuggled into the U.S., or the seller might not be licensed to resell. “Here in San Diego,” says Knight, “I could go catch a fish, head to a local restaurant, and trade it for a meal, if it is good quality. It would end up on the plate the next day as a special.
“I don’t have the need to smuggle again,” Knight continues. “I have my business and I’m successful. Now, instead of trying to mimic what they’re doing in Europe, we’re inventing our own. We know a company here in town — White Labs, Inc. — that can grow bacteria for us so that we can experiment on a bacterial plane with our production. San Diego has the best conditions for drying and curing meat. We have the right humidity levels and cool-but-not-freezing winters. We have great parameters here for what we do.”