Tater Tots and Headcheese: Joe Kwon’s Supper Club
Written by Victoria Bouloubasis, of Slow Food Triangle. Photographed by Leon Godwin
Trampled by labradoodle. It’s what I imagined my death notice would say. For a fleeting moment, I pictured my poor mother spending years agonizing over losing her first-born to a supper club accident at a rockstar’s house, and in a way that wasn’t very rockstar at all.
A labradoodle is not what I expected to gallop out of Joe Kwon’s house. Joe thrashes the cello for the Avett Brothers, North Carolina’s darling Americana band recently nominated for a Grammy award. He’s the guy head-banging during their sets, his seemingly untamed playing style providing a resounding, beautiful backdrop to the banjo-picking and crooning of the brothers. Close-up photographs of Joe’s emotional performances show his long hair tangled in the broken strings of his cello’s bow, the strings themselves curled up like nests of angel hair pasta.
An invitation to his supper club kept me antsy all week. This guy knows food. Aside from Taste on Tour, his food blog showcasing his own delicious photographs of cooking and eating out on the road, Joe has dedicated his spare time to gastronomical pursuits. Among them, whole animal slaughter.
I walked by a small garden in the dark, just kissed by the first frost, before ringing the doorbell. The doorknob slowly turned and the door opened just a crack, revealing a sparkly tiara perched atop Shirley Temple curls. Beneath the fringe peeked out a young girl, about five or six years old, with a discerning look.
“Hi. We’re here to see Joe?” I said, uncertain, wondering if we were at the wrong house.
She darted into the living room, leaving the front door wide open as a massive labradoodle charged straight for us. The dog halted at feet. It was a mere sniff and run. I spot Joe in the kitchen wearing a camouflage hooded sweatshirt – the kind you wear to do some serious hunting. The house bustled with a chaotic familiarity to anyone accustomed to big, warm family gatherings.
Amid a crowd of twenty or so people, including his brother-in-law, nephew, cousins and the children of his best friends from college, Joe is a quiet host. He resumed his post at the kitchen counter, carving roast lamb he doctored up with a Thomas Keller recipe. His knife chiseled through rare meat stuffed with garlic cloves, which dotted the slices to resemble the pattern in mortadella.
“I think there are two topics with Joe and his cousins,” says Emily Meineke, Joe’s girlfriend of five years. “One of them is action movies and the other one is food. It’s pretty normal that for an hour and a half the conversation centers around Anthony Bourdain or where they ate last.”
Out on the deck by the fire pit, we cradled plates from the potluck buffet that resembled edible artist pallettes. Crimson lamb with browned edges, fuchsia chunks of beets, brussel sprouts turned a light jade, golden acorn squash and bell peppers stuffed with quinoa, Southern collards (unassuming in looks, but the colorful flavors pop with every bite, and we all know that).
Joe, along with former college roommate Leon Godwin, reminisce about past supper clubs like they’re family reunions. Their group of friends tries to share a meal at Joe’s once a week, with kids in tow. As one of those kids demonstrates her cartwheel technique for us, Joe and Leon talk about plucking chickens and that time they processed a 1300 lb. cow on their friend’s farm, for personal consumption.
“If I’m going to eat meat, I want to be comfortable with how it all happens,” Joe says. “So I learned how to process meat. Yes, I did this, I killed my own animal, I processed it, and I still eat meat. I do feel better about eating meat now, but it’s difficult even having done that.”
“He was not just a cow, he was our friend,” Emily, a former vegetarian, later tells me.
“Yes, yes he was,” Joe remembers, laughing. “Monsieur L’Boeuf.”
And then there’s the time Joe and Leon decided to order an entire hog’s head from Whole Foods to make a proper head cheese from scratch.
“When the whole animal is there, it’s not as easy as looking at the end product,” Joe says. “I remember when I saw that hog’s head, I thought, “Oh my God, that thing is massive.” The first thing it says to do in the recipe was quarter the head. And we couldn’t figure out how you were supposed to go about quartering a hog’s head that is about 40 lbs. We had a hacksaw. That didn’t work.”
“While you were making head cheese, I was running the Krispy Kreme Challenge, right?” Emily asks. (North Carolina is home to the highly popular Krispy Kreme doughnut. Every year, in Raleigh, N.C., runners embark on a race that stops midway at the Krispy Kreme shop, where they shovel in a dozen doughnuts before running the rest of the race.)
“Leon was taking a picture of Joe. That’s what I walked in on after doing the Krispy Kreme Challenge. Imagine,” Emily says. “With the meats that Joe does, I’m not a part of that usually, because I don’t think I’m ready.”
Supper club conversations are catch-up sessions that always center around food. Most of the participants are growing, brewing, raising it all themselves. The lamb that night came from Stephanie Hall of Sassafras Fork Farm. She brought her own homemade potato chips to dinner.
“We haven’t made an effort to cook local, but it happens that way out of habit,” Joe says of supper club. “It’s very local and it’s more than likely hand-harvested by one of them.”
All local. Usually. Save the midnight snack. One waft from the toaster oven, and the Sriracha and ketchup immediately appears.
“Tots have become a big part of our late-night eats,” Joe says with a smile. “Being on the road we get to go to a lot of places. That was the beginning of the tater tot renaissance for me.”
The scene mellows out. Joe and his friends pop hot tots into their mouths while standing over the kitchen counter, scooping babies into their arms for big hugs goodbye. Leon resumes a hysterical story involving a midnight trip in the hallway that splayed salsa all over the white carpet, waking up his pregnant wife, Bri, to what she thought was murder scene. Joe’s dog, a furry, friendly guy named Buckley, gnaws on a lamb bone on the kitchen floor as the host pours tea for the stragglers. A rockstar family, indeed.