Broken pieces of horsehair plaster line the floors of Ohio City Provisions. Chef Adam Lambert slowly chips away at the crumbling drywall giving life to the earthy bricks behind it. Beneath the dust is a rough outline of where appliances — dairy coolers, hoppers full of grains and produce, a charcuterie cooler and fermentation locker — will go for the butcher shop and grocery market hybrid he plans on opening with Fresh Fork Market's Trevor Clatterbuck later this year.
"I really think I like that exposed brick," says Lambert as he runs his hands along the front wall. "I really, really like the design of the art deco 1930s butcher shops and stuff like that."
While the renovation of the former Ohio City Writers storefront on Lorain Avenue has been trickling along since June, the vision to provide fresh foods, smoked and cured meats, sausages and charcuterie goes miles beyond these four walls. Clatterbuck, whose company offers a popular weekly Community Supported Agriculture program, has a working partnership with the 200-acre Wholesome Valley Farm in Wilmot, Ohio, and has started growing produce and raising livestock to supply his CSA as well as Ohio City Provisions.
"This is an opportunity where we can control everything from start to finish," says Lambert. "Not only as a chef but, more importantly, now moving into a butcher role, and also as a father, it's really important for us as a family to know where all of our food comes from."
It's a lesson Lambert, a self-taught chef whose first cooking job was at the Mountain Jack's in Middleburg Heights as a teen, has learned throughout his 19-year career.
He sharpened his skills spending mornings at Michael Symon's Lola Bistro doing prep work followed by dinner service at Bar Cento with executive chef Jonathon Sawyer. It was Sawyer's laser-focus on local produce and quality meats that sparked Lambert's passion for butchery.
"You start to realize that food — not only local, but in the peak of growing season — you don't have to do anything to it. Just try not to f--k it up, you know?" he says. "So from there, it's just been down the rabbit hole. Just keep digging down into it."
And dig he has. Lambert and Clatterbuck have been experimenting with animal husbandry — the science of breeding animals — on the farm. The two have traveled to Kentucky and Illinois over the past summer with a 30-foot trailer hitched to the back of Clatterbuck's Chevy Silverado purchasing breeding stock.
A mix of espresso, blonde and caramel cattle playfully trod along the backfields with hay hanging from their lips. Pens fenced off with chicken wire dot the rolling hills of the farm. Inside, 200 pigs — breeds such as Mangalitsa, Berkshire, Mulefoot and Red Wattle — scamper, scurry and lazily feed on the pasture and troughs filled with barley.
"It's unbelievable the difference between them, even on the same diet," says Lambert. "I don't have it completely figured out yet. It's all an experiment for us. We keep track of what's crossed with what, and what everything is weighing, how old they are, how old they are slaughtered at, how thick the fat back on it is."
The decision to leave Bar Cento in 2013 after two years as executive chef came when Lambert found out his wife, Kelly, was pregnant with their second child.
"I remember coming home and just being frustrated, sitting on the couch," he says. "I was like, I can't work hundred-hour weeks. I can't be a father and be a chef at the same time."
But he was determined to find a way to make both work. While searching YouTube videos of butcher shops, he came across one of Avedano's Meats in San Francisco.
"It was just a video of them and what they do and how it changed their lives," he says. "It was just one of those moments that clicked for me. I think that night I wrote the whole mission statement [for the butcher shop] in under three hours."
He also started cold-calling butchers such as Vince Bertonaschi, the owner of the popular Vince's Meats inside the West Side Market, and asking them for advice. He read a book by restaurateur Daniel Boulud, old French cookbooks and whatever else he could get his hands on.
"You see that it's an art," he says. "They put pates and terrines together that look crazy."
After talking to potential business partners about opening his butcher shop, he spent the summer of 2013 working at Fresh Fork. One night he had dinner at Clatterbuck's Gordon Square home.
"We were just BSing back and forth, and we started crunching numbers," Lambert says. "He just said, •Let's do it.' "
That partnership has helped Lambert explore the art and science of butchery like he never imagined.
Inside the Amish-built farmhouse at Wholesome Valley Farm, Lambert is at once giddy with joy and a straightlaced scholar. While showing off the industrial-sized meat grinders and sausage stuffers, he spouts facts about casing and curing meats and the tedious process he goes through.
"We take the sausages we make and dry them overnight," he says. "They go into a freezer because if you don't, they might pop out of their casings."
While he and Clatterbuck continue renovating Ohio City Provisions, Lambert crafts meats such as kielbasa and duck hot dogs for Banter, the new beer-and-bottle shop where he serves as consulting chef. Lambert and Banter partners Matt Stipe, Tom Owen and Adam Gullett decided to center the menu around poutine, the Canadian dish of fries and cheese curds covered in gravy.
"Our first order of business was a poutine trip to Montreal," says Lambert with a laugh. After 2 1/2 days of eating 23 different poutines, the group had plenty of ideas on how to elevate the classic.
"We sat there after a couple of beers and rattled off poutine commandments," he says. "We could all agree every poutine, every dish that hits this menu, needs to be its own creation. So you know if we have a rabbit one, it'll use rabbit stock."
Banter features 10 versions of poutine, such as the farm poutine made with a fried pork pate, sunny-side farm egg, relish, cheese curds and gravy. It also offers eight different sausages including duck hot dogs, a corn dog and the Banter hot dog made with Red Wattle pork, smoked cheddar, mustard and relish.
The side project gives Lambert an opportunity to test different breeds from the farm, play with new techniques and fuel his creativity.
But he's most excited about making an impact on the city's dining scene with Ohio City Provisions. When it opens, he plans to host Sunday cooking classes that will teach folks how to make pasta or stock their pantry. And he wants to partner with other neighboring businesses such as the Grocery and Platform Beer Co.
He's fully aware that his original business plan is now rooted in a deeper culinary mission — and that's OK.
"It's a little more than a butcher shop," he laughs. "It's been a journey for sure. I didn't think I'd end up walking through fields of pig shit every day — but it's awesome. At the end of the day, it's about providing people with really good food."