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Sustainable Chef Will Horowitz: How to Love Meat While Eating Less of It

Oct 12, 2020

Late last year—before the world turned inside out and upside down—we sat down with acclaimed sustainable chef, Will Horowitz. You might know him as the co-owner of Ducks Eatery, writer of Salt Smoke Time, or perhaps as the mastermind behind one of the internet's most famous faux meats: the smoked watermelon ‘ham’. 

Among fishing, foraging, and all manner of smoking and curing, this chef wears many hats. And thankfully, we convinced him to add yet another feather to his cap: creator of our new plant-boosted Masterful Meatballs. Carnivore-approved and full of veg, they’re the perfect example of our shared love for the humble veggie, and a common belief that familiar favorites can be made better through the inventive use of honest, clean, and nourishing ingredients—that’s what it means to be masterful.

Freshly: So how did you get into food? 

Will: I started cooking when I was pretty young. I think where I grew up in New York, pretty much everyone has to spend at least four years working at a pizzeria, and my grandparents owned a Jewish delicatessen in the Bronx. My other grandparents were French-trained chefs and fishers living in Orient, Long Island, which is a small, small colonial fishing village in the North Fork.

And from there...

I actually went to a Tibetan-Buddhist College, Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, where I studied off-the-grid living and primitive survival and permaculture, which is the art of hyper-sustainable farming.

Can you tell us more about that?

I got really into learning about different food techniques, cultures, and farming culture practices from a lot of First Nation groups out there specifically. That was a jumping off point to studying different groups of people and traditional ways of preserving food and agriculture from all over the world.

Is that what you mean by ‘heritage techniques’ in your book? 

Yeah. It's this idea of not letting anything go to waste and really using the whole of everything; working with different ingredients that can become renewable resources. Put simply, I specialize in a lot of fermentation, smoked foods, cured foods and dried stuff...I like to joke around and tell people that I specialize in ‘seasonal cooking’, because that's such a contrived thing to say at this point! But what that means to me is this idea that you have multiple layers to what seasonal cooking is. So if I go to the farmers market, I'm not looking for something to make dinner with, I'm looking for something that's gonna go really, really well with this kimchi that we fermented a month ago, or this prosciutto that we made seven months ago—it's all on this second, third, and fourth-level timeline. And that really is a common tradition to every single culture in the world that figured out how to survive up to now.

In that spirit, talk to us about your approach to meat and vegetables.

So I definitely built a lot of my career being known for smoked meats, and actually winning barbecue competitions and all sorts of stuff like that. But as I mentioned, I started in sustainability. So a lot of that success felt very hypocritical at some level. And so as we got larger and larger as a business, it was important for me to pull in the reins and to say, "Okay, well, I love meat, and I grew up on seafood and fishing and things like that, but I want to continue to eat in a more responsible way, and that has to involve eating less of it.” And so,

"We're in a really interesting place right now with the world, where I think that you can be a vegetarian, even a vegan in some cases, or just a plant-forward meat eater, and even hunter or fisher, or anything like that, and actually all be on the same page." 

It’s about the choices we make and the way that we choose to use agriculture systems.

We’re all about the veggies. Can we dig more into that?

Yeah, so the big thing for me has been that I want to eat more vegetables, but for me as a chef, I find all these different ultra-processed plant burgers and creations unrelatable to me. We’ve been fighting for the last 20–30 years for ‘slow food’ movements and ‘local’ movements and trying to figure out ways of eating less processed food. And so, what I like about the direction I'm in right now, is that we're really just taking whole vegetables and processing them the same way we would meat. So for our vegetable charcuterie, smoked watermelon, or all of these different things that we've done that have gotten a lot of press, we're keeping it very simple in terms of our process. We might have a funny name on it: a watermelon ham or something, but at the same time, we're just doing the same process of smoking, curing, or fermenting. 

"I think that it's a funny reflection on where we're at in society that we have to chop up vegetables and make them look like they're bleeding in order to trick people into eating them." 

I don't think that's necessarily a healthy thing. I think maybe it's a good direction forward and maybe just the first step.

With that in mind, let’s talk Masterful Meatballs!

First off, we're reducing the amount of meat, which to me is the most important part. We also have mushrooms, spinach, spices, oats...all of these things are really developing a more rounded spectrum of protein and nutrition than you would get from eating just meat alone. I think that's the beauty of it—let alone all of the spices that we're using from ras el hanout, which has coriander and turmeric and all these great anti-inflammatories.

"There's a lot going on in these meatballs. And most importantly, they taste really good!"

The ingredients for Freshly's Masterful Meatballs: spices, mushrooms, egg, and beef.
Everything in its place: the mise en place for Masterful Meatballs | Credit: Freshly

Can you describe the flavor?

It still has that beefy taste to it, so you don't feel like you're missing anything by reducing it [the meat]. It's still really that classic meatball taste. The beauty of working with these ingredients is that you're getting an umami, meaty-like taste out of the mushrooms. So I think that's really nice.

So we’re not sacrificing anything?

To me it’s very satisfying. We're adding in not taking away—with really flavor-dense ingredients and herbs. Also, I'm a sucker for the ras el hanout spices! 

A making-of GIF of chef Will mixing, blending and cooking the meatballs.
Chef Will in action | Credit: Freshly

Tell us about ras el hanout. 

It's basically a North African-style curry flavor. So you'll see it from Morocco to Algeria to Tunisia; all of those cuisines. And it's very similar, I'd say, to a Madras curry, but the North African version. So you have a lot of black pepper, nutmeg, coriander, and turmeric, and just really great spices. It’s just a pinch in the recipe but it adds great depth of flavor and richness.

To finish us off...why Freshly?

I love the model of Freshly because it's clearly trying to answer a simple question. How do we make eating whole foods easier, in a way that's honest, clean and accessible. It has to be quick and easy for people that either aren't cooks themselves or are just simply living their life and don't have the time for it. And even for me, as a chef, one of the number one questions journalists like to ask is, 

"'Oh, what does your refrigerator look like at home?' And no matter what a chef says, the real answer is f——g nothing, because they've been working straight nights all week!" 

Empty fridge, too? Sign up for chef Will’s exclusive Masterful Meatballs

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Sustainable Chef Will Horowitz: How to Love Meat While Eating Less of It