On the stainless steel table in the middle of Cure's Lawrenceville dining room in is a 260-pound "naked" pig.
Chef Justin Severino introduces himself and begins a talk about the hows and whys of hog butchering, a Sunday-afternoon lesson which several dozen customers — a mix of regular Joes, foodies and restaurant insiders — have paid a special price to attend.
Severino occasionally strokes the pig's tail and grabs the head, pointing it in the direction of his audience. And over the next two hours, he deftly butchers the pig using just his hands and a knife. The audience, which has been warned about the "splash zone," listens while sipping on beer or wine and snacking on cured meats and cheeses.
The Sunday hog-butchering demos include a special pork-themed meal and are held roughly once a month at the restaurant at 5336 Butler St. (Check the www.curepittsburgh.com for upcoming dates and reservations.)
Severino does offer butcher's tips, such as explaining that a cut of meat with an inch of back fat means the pig led a happy life and will be tastier than a similar, leaner one. But the demos lean more toward a philosophical discussion of food sourcing and treatment of animals, both in life and in the course of making their way to our plates.
"Seeing pork that is actually a pig, something that has eyes on it … knowing that an animal had a soul or a heartbeat, I think that is the most harsh reality," says Severino afterward.
The presentation — a whole uncooked pig laying in front of diners on a table — and the subsequent conversation are part of Severino's effort to build a community in Pittsburgh around food by making it more approachable.
As a chef at other restaurants, he had wanted to experiment with dishes and food preparation, but "the response from my employers was, ‘You can't do that in Pittsburgh,'" says Severino, 34.
His restaurant, launched in early 2012, and events such as the hog-butchering demos are ways of challenging that perception, he explains.
"There is nothing fancy about what's going on here," he says. "We are cutting large hogs into small pieces."