When you think about meat lifers in Denver, the name on your mind is likely Mark DeNittis. The chef and butcher made a name for himself through his now defunct meat curing business, Il Mondo Vecchio, his butchery demonstrations and classes in a variety of settings, and the Rocky Mountain Institute of Meat, a professional program he founded. DeNittis is now working full time for Sysco, but he did not stop breaking whole hogs and preaching the gospel of traditional curing methods. We asked him to share his background, his philosophy on butchery, and his plans for bringing Il Mondo Vecchio out of retirement.
How did you first get into meat, on a personal level? I grew up around it with a lot of my family – father, grandfather, uncles. Surprisingly, it was heavily seafood. We used to spend a lot of time out on the cape fishing for large game fish. And that, coupled with other land game... Just growing up around it, I guess. We were an American family and always wanted to make use of economical cuts of meat by braising and stewing some of the cuts. You know, making meatballs and sausage and Sunday gravy and things along those lines. Making prosciuttos once a year and what not.
How did you get to be a butcher? The best way to summarize it: through being a chef. I went off to culinary school knowing that I didn't want to be in the back of the house for the rest of my life, and that's a long story in of itself. I really enjoyed my meat fabrication class, and go figure ten years later I was head of the meat-cutting curriculum for Johnson and Wales, for all their campuses, which was really cool. At that time, in the industry, we weren't breaking down carcasses or anything like that. I came into this world at the tail end of any real hardcore butchery because of convenience and automation and the dynamic of the industry changing. My butchery skills came in from a chef's perspective mostly because I had to be fiscally responsible.
Tell me about that fiscal responsibility. I think more important than the butchery itself is the ability to make educated business decisions. I always look at it from the perspective of: how am I gonna purchase or how am I gonna butcher? Am I gonna buy stuff already precut? Or am I gonna bring it in, and what gauges that? Do I have the staff? Does the staff I have have the skill? Does the staff have the time to do these functions within a day in a way that doesn't sacrifice or take away from any other aspect of running a food-service operation?
How did you gain that perspective? I speak to it a little differently because I have a significant background in hotel-resort, private-club type things. I don't have much in the independent restaurant scene, so I've been fortunate enough to come up through some amazing kitchens. I've had Cryovac machines in my kitchen. I've had plenty of room to work with. It's not like the independent restaurant owner who has a smaller budget for the kitchen and has this tiny little space to work in.
So, tell me how you made the decision to take the leap from your regular life, a steady paycheck, to starting Il Mondo Vecchio? Well, it [meat curing] had been a passion of mine that I reconnected with when I started teaching at Johnson and Wales. I would have anywhere from six to ten versions of dried hams hanging in my meat lab. It wasn't part of the curriculum; it was above and beyond. I'd have a couple different Bayonne hams going. We'd do prosciuttos. I'd have infused prosciuttos where I would inject a leg with sambuca before salting. Or I would inject a leg with Amaretto before salting it. I was just thinking like a chef and applying that to meat processing. Through all those things and reconnecting with my childhood memories, and furthering myself professionally and the professional-development side of myself, I began to get into writing HACCP and SSOPs for the university, getting into the regulation and the science and the processes behind meat production at a different level. Being the chef-educational consultant to the American Land Board for five solid years until 2010 was also helpful. I had appearances, made DVDs for them, educational tools, and then sat on an advisory committee as a chairperson for the lamb section of the Meat Buyer's Guide.
What is the Meat Buyer's Guide? The Meat Buyer's Guide is an internationally used tool for consistency. It's just an industry standard professional tool.
How did you translate those experiences into the beginning of Il Mondo Vecchio? Working on that stuff made me reconnect with my roots. I figured with my flexible schedule at Johnson and Wales, I wanted to do something and try putting this into action and formalizing it as a business. It was a good industry friend, who is the corporate chef for Canyon Ranch Spa Resorts, who gave me the opportunity. I went to visit him while I was at a conference for the American Land Board down in Scottsdale. He said, "Well, tell me about your meat company. I want to know about it." During that conversation, he eventually asked, "So can you produce bacon for Canyon Ranch Spa Resorts under contract?"
Did you say yes? Could you handle that at the time? I said, "I'll get back to Denver, and give me a week and I'll let you know." And that's kinda the impetus. Later, he also asked me, "Can you produce a duck breast prosciutto?" and I said, "Well yeah." I started production and literally the first duck breast off of a drying rack was the Gallo family award-winning piece. Eventually it started becoming cost prohibitive to outsource the production of it. And we were talking about doing it ourselves when I decided to open Il Mondo Vecchio with my partners. Unfortunately, I think, at the time, I didn't have the individuals that were supportive – not to speak negatively of my partners Adam or Gennaro – but the support team was not operationally in place for me to really do both full-time Johnson and Wales and Il Mondo Vecchio. So there came a point where I just had to really make a decision where I wanted to put my full energy into. And I figured after ten years at Johnson and Wales it would a worthwhile, albeit difficult, undertaking.
You closed Il Mondo Vecchio a year and a half ago. What do you miss most about it? I miss showing up at the plant at five-thirty in the morning with my production manager Owen, who I miss tremendously, and getting ready for the day. And I used to have a Lavazza machine in the office, a Lavazza pod espresso machine. And I'd have about four to five double espressos between five-thirty and six as we'd set up for the day to produce anywhere from 500 to 2500 pounds. We'd have various music playing at the cutting table as we would just slam through pork butts to make salami. Literally, I could cut about 250 pounds of boned pork butts in about 12 minutes.
What's one thing you totally don't miss about it? The lack of... How do I say this without putting it negatively? The lack of openness and true understanding of the meat production process. I was playing by the rulebook. My frustration came in that every time I'd point out that we were following this regulation or that one, all I would get really was head shaking. At the same time, I have respect and understand the work of the USDA. I just think that the interpretations of the regulations are complex and always changing. I think it's more of a frustration than a disappointment. But I really appreciate the USDA's willingness to have the dialog and allow me at some point to facilitate a challenge study and choose the process. So there's positive and negative.
Tell me about the Rocky Mountain Institute of Meat. The seed was planted by a longtime industry friend and mentor who simply said, "You should consider the Rocky Mountain Institute of Meat." The name stuck, and I came up with a logo. I had been away from Johnson and Wales for probably about six months now at this time and I needed a fix for my teaching. So I started the whole hog series of classes. And through that, we branded it as the Rocky Mountain Institute of Meat and my long-term goal was, through piloting these recreation classes, coupled with my knowledge of the meat industry and knowing and understanding the need, to fill a segment of industry that needed some skilled employees, be it food service or be it meat processing or whatever.
How did it grow into what it is today? Through one of the whole hog classes, Terry Freeman, formerly of Cook's Street Cooking School, approached me and asked me what my plans were for this. And I told him that I wanted to develop the Rocky Mountain Institute of Meat into a professional program. I had the template for it. At that point, the Rocky Mountain Institute of Meat was a book proposal with a publisher in New York that fell through. I had put that on the back burner, at some point knowing I would bring it forward again. Four years later, Cook Street and I worked out a deal where I became state-accredited in a collaboration with them – my course, my curriculum, my intellectual property. It has since grown tremendously and I can't even… I have to pinch myself at times.
What is your role in it now? Since September, I took a step back on operations since coming up with Sysco full time. I am in more of a founder role, and have mostly handed things over to Jason [Nauert]. We are engaged in several projects in the Greater Denver or state of Colorado. We've got some clients in Wyoming. We're working out with people out in Illinois. And most recently, I can't speak too specific of it, but the Rocky Mountain Institute of Meat, under the direction of Jason, secured a contract to train the United States military.
How cool is that?! What is the plan for it? Well, again, I can't speak to specifics because of the nature of who we will be training exactly, but it is the military. We will be teaching them field slaughter, butcher, and process techniques. That project starts in August and in January we will probably start doing this at multiple bases across the country.
Where are you going to be in ten years? Hopefully I will still be with Sysco in my corporate role, or something either here specifically in Denver or as more in a corporate or regional position as a trainer. My official role now is Center of the Plate product specialist and there's one other here in Denver. I will hopefully be doing that and watching what the Rocky Mountain Institute of Meat does in the next five-to-ten years. For me, providing education is so important, providing somebody with the means for themselves to be successful. It's really powerful. Maybe in ten years I'll be semi-retired.
Speaking of retirement, there's still people who hope the shutter of Il Mondo Vecchio was just a temporary hiatus. Will it ever come back? You know, it will. In what form, I don't know. I was very fortunate to be featured as part of a 28-page legal article, written by Baylen Linnekin, called "The Attack on Food Freedom." And I just found out this morning that he is also authoring a book which that will be featured in as well. And it's kind of a step in working towards reopening Il Mondo Vecchio. I have been in dialog with a production facility that is very interested in manufacturing, and if I go to do it, it would be some form of partnership, but I would not be physically there. I wouldn't have my own physical operation; it would be a completely private label with the right people. We're looking currently now at a process that is vertically integrated, meaning that they have access to their own animals. I can't put a timeline on it, but we have been speaking, and if it all goes well, in the next, I don't know, year to two years, we could easily see at least, at minimum, whole muscle products – the duck prosciutto, the bresaola. Maybe then we will facilitate a challenge study to approve the process on all the dried salamis and hopefully get that back into production again with some lapchong, soppressata, pepperoni, and two or three others. It could be on that scale or it could start back up on a much smaller scale with the primal concept that Jason and the team have been working on. We'll see.