Elias Cairo is a first-generation Greek-American who makes his living as a salumist. He runs Olympia Provisions, a world-class charcuterie meat processing plant and two restaurants in Portland, Oregon. His processing plant and his restaurants are famous for making and selling charcuterie salami, kielbasa, pork rillette, pate, liver mousse, bratwurst, kasekreiner, ham and capicola, among other artisanal meat products.
But making European-style charcuterie is not all Cairo is famous for. He’s become a celebrity of sorts, not only in Portland, but all over the Internet. Last April, he delivered a “TED Talk” at the Univ. of Portland. These are short, 15-minute presentations about various subjects that are made in front of live audiences and later available to people all over the world online. His talk wasn’t so much focused on his success in the food business, rather the lessons he’s learned on the way about staying grounded, maintaining humility and resisting the allure of entitlement during the journey.
Cairo grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah, and decided early on that he wanted to be in the meat industry. His father did his own meat processing at home. At the age of 17, Cairo was sent off by his father to Switzerland, to become an apprentice in the kitchens of master meat processors there. In St. Gallen, in Northeast Switzerland, he worked with several masters, including the “jaegermeister,” the hunter-master of the local valley. He had a full apprenticeship and remained in Switzerland for five years, learning everything he could about meat processing and especially traditional European processing and curing, before coming back to the United States.
He realized he could apply what he learned in Switzerland in the US and opened a salami plant in Portland, Oregon, where his family had moved. He eventually opened a second plant then merged the plants into a much larger processing facility. First, Cairo opened one restaurant, then a second one. Cairo, his sister Michelle, who was an extremely successful businesswoman in corporate finance and accounting before joining Cairo, and three others all own the business, Olympia Provisions, which has grown from a small processing plant into a large Old-World meat processing plant and two restaurants, all in Portland. And in the words of writers from the New York Times and the New Yorker, Cairo is a “superstar salumist” in the high-end world of charcuterie.
MEAT+POULTRY: Your title is “salumist.” What does that mean?
Cairo: A person who makes high-end charcuterie and sausages.
M+P: And what is your definition of charcuterie?
Cairo: It’s the branch of cooking devoted to making prepared meat products, like bacon, ham, salami, terrines, pates, ballotines, galantines, and confit, mostly from pork. It was originally intended as a way of preserving meat before there was refrigeration. Today, these meats are prepared for their flavors that are derived from the meat preservation process.
M+P: How did this all get started?
Cairo: At the age of 17, my father sent me off to Europe, to the beautiful Toggenburg Valley in Northeastern Switzerland, to be an apprentice meat processor, to learn to make meat products in the old-style European way. My father came to Utah, to Salt Lake City, because someone told him Utah was a lot like Greece. He did everything at home; he did his own meat processing at home; he made charcuterie. He did everything by hand, the old-fashioned way. That’s the way my family lived. So, I decided early on I wanted to be a meat processor.
M+P: What were some of the highlights of your apprenticeship in Europe?
Cairo: I worked in the kitchens of meat masters in Canton St. Gallen. I worked with Jaeger Stumpf, who was the jaegermeister, the hunter-master of the valley. He had a wild game processing plant and a restaurant. He taught me how to do processing and curing. I had a full apprenticeship and spent five years there. It was a wonderful experience. And I learned again there what I’d been taught at home by my dad and family all along – handmade meat is better than machine-made meat.
M+P: How did you end up back in the US?
Cairo: As I soon found out, I could do the same thing back home in Oregon as I could do in Switzerland. I got a call one day from my sister Michelle in Portland and she said, “You can’t stay there forever – you need to get a job. All those things in Switzerland – meats and cheeses we have in Oregon too. We have the Willamette Valley with world class wines.” So, I came back and got a position as head chef of a high-end restaurant here in Portland. Then in 2009, I opened what was the first USDA-approved salumeria, making one product: fermented salami. My products won four Good Food awards, based not only on product quality, but also using sustainably sourced materials.
M+P: How did that early success influence your next steps?
Cairo: At the time, I didn’t have a lot of help in my plant. I had no help, I was the sole employee. Then I opened my first restaurant. I got my pork from a small family cut-and-wrap shop in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. But my main interest was still salami. That came from my experiences in Switzerland. I came back here and looked at American salami – it was nothing like over there. In Switzerland, there’s beautiful fatback, surrounded by the mold. It’s a very natural product. When I went to the store here, I looked at the products – synthetic, with milk powder, not the real thing.
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M+P: Is your old-school approach to meat processing still the compass for your business?
Cairo: Well, I come directly from that background; following tradition, the old traditional way of doing things. I think it was a good move to open my USDA-inspected meat plant and make some salami. I thought I would sell the products at a few farmers’ markets, and the rest of my pate and charcuterie at restaurants. After I won those awards, I hired a second employee, Josh Graves. He came from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and helped me open Olympia Provisions, and he is the plant manager in the meat department. I decided to make products like soppressata, chorizo, and 10 other dry-aged meats for wholesale as well as retail.
Then I opened a second plant and a second restaurant, so more people came aboard, with everyone learning to butcher and cure meat. My idea was to recreate a nearly extinct traditional technique of meat curing that isn’t seen much anymore. But I soon found out, to my surprise, that there was a growing demand for charcuterie. People were so used to cooked products, everything cooked. But people also were tasting these cured products at Dean & DeLuca, Marie’s Cheeses, those kinds of stores. People were very much aware of these kinds of products, which surprised me.
M+P: Did you need help to make the company thrive?
Cairo: Yes, I needed business help. My sister Michelle, who is an owner of the company with me and three other people, has a Master’s degree in business. She worked for more than 10 years in corporate finance business planning, accounting and performance management. Before she left the corporate world to join our company, she was CFO for Opus Solution and director of finance for Pacific Power. She was selected Portland’s best CFO for medium-sized companies. The company has been open about seven years, but the growth has been tremendous. Now, we’re in a 40,000-sq.-ft. warehouse, a smokehouse, making pate and fresh-cooked sausages. Our web store takes us everywhere. We sell at Whole Foods and other stores across the US. We’re exporting to Canada, and now sending products to Japan.
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M+P: Are you surprised that your plan has come together?
Cairo: Not really, but I’m very pleased. And while the growth of the company has been amazing, the most important and fascinating part of the business for me is making the hand-crafted products. I look for the best and freshest antibiotic-free Pacific Northwest pork, butcher it to 100 percent lean, I add pure, soft fatback, sea salt, fresh garlic and spices. I hold the cured meats in natural casings, and I maintain them in organic white mold that protects them.
M+P: Talk about the more sophisticated approach that is required to produce products considered charcuterie.
Cairo: Yes, charcuterie is as much art as science. The cured meats are encouraged to age naturally without being hot-incubated or cooked. We use 100 percent lean leg meat, debone it, with 25 percent fatback, ferment it three days at between 75 and 95 percent humidity. That’s so the pH drops. We take it out and move it to dry boxes. In the dry rooms, we track it and it forms mold on the outside. Regular everyday salami is formulated at humidity of only 58 to 85 percent. Then we do three to four months of aging. And of course, it’s all done by hand.
M+P: During your TED Talk at the Univ. of Oregon, you talked less about meat and more about the ‘entitlement’ mindset and how detrimental it can be. What did you mean by that?
Cairo: I mean we live in a world today where we feel entitled to everything – we feel entitled to success, entitled to a lot of money. Everyone believes they deserve to be pampered. I wasn’t brought up that way. But at one point in my life, I began to feel I was entitled to things. When I lost my father, I began to feel the world really owed me something.
But then one day, I realized nobody can rest on their laurels – that’s not the way the world works. When I look at my family – all my business partners – I realize that nobody is better than anyone else. My mother does in-store demonstrations and takes our products to farmers’ markets. My niece is a restaurant sales person.
M+P: When you talk about your business, the conversation always shifts to family.
Cairo: From my family, I learned a real work ethic. My Dad was very hardworking. He was a home butcher. He used to make Loukaniko, an orange zesty dry salami. So yes, it does. Any success I might have all goes back to them. (Loukaniko is the common Greek word for pork sausage, but in English it refers specifically to a zesty dry salami flavored with orange peel, fennel seed and various other dried herbs and seeds, sometimes smoked over aromatic wood.)