I’VE NEVER SEEN ANYONE so excited about a pig.
We stand in the freezer at the Union Woodshop in downtown Clarkston and gaze down at a 209-pound female. My host is Executive Chef Aaron Cozadd, who is dressed in black pinstriped pants, chef whites and a bandana with a small white pin that has one word on it: meat.
Cozadd and two other men carry the pig into the prep room, hoist the pig onto a stainless steel table and prepare to cut off its head.
That pig will end up on the Woodshop’s Southern Pride smoker, located right outside the back entrance to the restaurant. The pig will be dry rubbed and surrounded in smoke for 12 to 14 hours, producing a smell that leads people to the restaurant like a piper’s pipe. Judging by the crowd milling outside the restaurant—the wait can be two hours on a weekend night—the restaurant is thriving in its second year. And since the Woodshop was named 2011 Restaurant of the Year by the Detroit Free Press, the restaurant’s reputation has spread far beyond Oakland County.
Of course a busy chef doesn’t have time to break down every pig, but once in a while Cozadd takes saw and knife in hand to do the work himself. “The better you know your ingredient in its raw stage, the better you can be in cooking it,” he explains. “Most people see meat as cut steaks in the grocery store. They don’t appreciate that an animal died for it.”
Cozadd owes a lot to the pig. He has built a reputation on his ability to craft hand-pulled pork, Tasso ham, spicy sausage, robust hot dogs and maple-cured bacon. Any meat—pork or otherwise—that is smoked or cured is done by hand in house.
This animal has all the qualities Cozadd looks for in a good pig. Before arriving at the Woodshop, the pig lived at Cook’s Farm Dairy, a family-owned farm just six miles away from the restaurant. There the pig had plenty of mud to wallow in, children to adore him and—best of all—a diet that included the leftover ice cream the dairy is known for. “If you love the ice cream and the pig eats the ice cream, you will love the pig,” Cozadd says with a smile.
Cozadd prefers local pigs over mass-produced pork because he believes local pigs tend to have better living conditions and eat good food themselves. He says that because mass-produced meat has been modified to be leaner with no fat and no marbling, the meat ends up dry with little flavor. He uses local pigs when he can, but is realistic about the economies of a restaurant. Even if local farmers could meet the restaurant’s demand for meat, only a portion of restaurant customers are willing to pay extra for that local meat.
Cozadd relies on local farmers for as many raw ingredients as he can. His weekend specials highlight the seasonal ingredients he buys from local farms. Squash blossoms from Law Family farm in North Branch top a market pie with pickled garlic, fresh oregano, ricotta and olive oil. Kale from White Pine Farm in North Branch is creamed and served alongside pancetta-wrapped hake and roasted red-skin potatoes. Maple syrup from Doodles Sugar Bush farms in Blanchard is the main attraction in the Woodshop maple-cured bacon and the sweet potato mash. When available, the restaurant uses local cherries, vegetables and herbs. Cozadd says that local products simply taste better.
“Ultimately, if you have really good ingredients to start with everybody is going think you are a better chef,” he explains. “The food does 80% of the work. Your job is to just stay out of the way.”
Although Cozadd has built a reputation on meat, he is equally passionate about his vegetable side dishes. He mixes his classical French training with modern ingredients and techniques to create side dishes and appetizers that are good enough to take center stage themselves. His wood-fired pizzas can be customized before preparation with toppings ranging from roasted garlic to smoked shrimp to pickled chilies. He smokes salmon before turning it into a paté and cold smokes cheddar cheese and sour cream for the kitchen and pickles and olives for the bar.
Cozadd has worked in professional kitchens since he was 16. He graduated cum laude from New York’s prestigious Culinary Institute of America in 2004 and then rambled around a bit—backpacking in Europe, cooking in the Florida Keys and snowboarding in Aspen. Eventually he returned to his roots in Clarkston, where he worked as a cook in the Clarkston Union. When the owners of the Union decided to open another restaurant down the street, they offered Cozadd the position of executive chef.
Cozadd’s first executive chef position at the Clarkston Café—which combined a fine-dining supper club with a pizza joint—was short-lived. With an upscale décor and a highly ambitious menu, the Café lasted only two years before Michigan’s economy tanked. In spite of attempts to lower the price tag and scale down the menu, the reputation of “fine dining” stuck, and struggling families turned to cheaper fare.
Undaunted, owners Curt Catallo and Erich Lines set about to reinvent the Café. Cozadd kept busy, and on the payroll, working on specials for the Union down the street. During that time Cozadd honed his skills in charcuterie—the art of preserving and flavoring meat. The team decided to create more than a typical barbecue restaurant and capitalize on the wood-fired oven they had, combined with Cozadd’s hands-on approach. They called it “a hand-crafted, wood-fired joint” and re-opened as the Union Woodshop in August 2009.
Two years later the restaurant is packed, even on a Sunday night, and Cozadd is nearly done cutting up his pig. Members of his staff wander in and out; some ask questions about the process, others make jokes and some shield their eyes and say “gross.” But behind the laughter and smiles is a deep interest in where our food comes from and a genuine respect for the man preparing it. As he finishes, Cozadd proudly shows us that he will use all but a handful of the 209-pound pig.
As humble as he is talented, Cozadd attributes any accolades to the ingredients he so carefully chooses. “It’s really easy to make something delicious out of something delicious,” he says.