By Emeri KrawczykHow does an Irishman from Philadelphia wind up making Hungarian sausage in Buffalo?
For Joe Kennedy, it boils down to a desire to create great food. But don't boil his smoked sausage for too long. It's one of his pet peeves.
"When you boil the daylights out of it, it takes out all the flavor. It's cooked twice already. Just warm it up," advises Kennedy, who is clearly passionate about his craft.
How this self-taught chef ended up on Amherst Street making a variety of international sausages is a story about links; about how one life experience links you to another.
Cooking around the Buffalo restaurant circuit, Kennedy knew he wanted his own business someday. He also knew how tough owning a restaurant can be.
It was then that friend and well known Buffalo chef (current owner of Sea Bar) Mike Andrzejewski suggested to Kennedy that he take up sausage making.
Eric Spar, owner of Spar's European Sausage, was preparing to either close or sell his business. Andrzejewski encouraged Kennedy to go for it.
But Kennedy said he really just wanted to cook great food for people, to which Andrzejewski replied, "What do we do? Go there and make food."
So now Kennedy makes food — really good food that links people to their heritage.
Fresh and smoked Hungarian, German bratwursts; fresh and smoked Polish; Spanish chorizo; Italian Calabrese; fresh Swedish; North African/Moroccan-style merguez; smoked Ukranian; Cajun Andouille — Spar's sausage list reads like a map of the world.
"For me it was all about moving from culinary chef to sausage chef. It's virtually the same thing. It's all about bringing people around the table. Taking sausage is just a means to the same ends," says Kennedy, who quips that Saturdays in his shop can sound like a United Nations' convention.
"Everybody's got a sausage. I wish I had more case space. I would love to give everybody every last thing they want," says Kennedy, admitting that he's close to maximum capacity for production.
But since quality and control over his flavors are at the heart of his operation, he doesn't want to expand.
His links of love come from some research, a combination of recipes and Kennedy's own experience as a chef.
"My creativity is just limited to the space in the case. I'd love to have more, but most importantly, I want people to say, didn't know that sausage could be that good,"' he adds.
There is no mystery to his sausage. He doesn't use "trim" meat, just whole muscle meats and imported spices. All smoked products are done on the premises in the giant brick smokehouse. And while his sausage is more expensive, it's also a more exclusive product.
"People love us. All kinds of different people Crowds are getting younger. People care more about what they are eating," he explains.
Kennedy is still serving local restaurant patrons, albeit behind-the-scenes. Several of his customers include local chefs who use his sausage
He hopes to pass the business on someday; but for now, he and wife Beth, who manages the business, keep busy doing what they love.
But the big question remains — which one does Kennedy love the most: smoked or fresh?
"I switch all the time," he says diplomatically. "I like each and every one of them. A lot of people pigeonhole themselves when it comes to food, or [they] limit themselves. My God, look at all those things out there," says Kennedy, pointing to his meat case.
Which would be a good place to start.
Like most structures in Western New York. Spar's European Sausage on Amherst Street has an interesting history. Once a bar (weren't they all?), then, as far as Kennedy knows, it became a meat market called"Walt's" or "Walter's"during the 1940s and '50s.
it was during this time the incredible indoor brick smokehouse was built. Deep and dark, its walls are coated with layers of dark soot (or "love"), as Kennedy calls it.
"Modern-day equipment is stainless steel and can be run by a computer. There's no soul or heart, and certainly no love like this," he says.
His sausage is either "cold" (80 degrees, smoldering ash, no fire) or "hot" (fire plus 160 degrees) smoked in the brick beast using granulated hardwood, which burns longer.
Kennedy's newest "love" is a giant 60-year-old meat grinder he purchased. And just like his old restaurant days, Kennedy is happiest in his kitchen making his links. Funny that some things about a chef never change.
Spar's European Sausage —
From the Old World to the New
In 1989, Eric Spar, a native of Augsburg, Germany, opened Spar's European Sausage on Buffalo's West Side. Once a "Metzger" (butcher apprentice) in his homeland, Spar felt that Western New York's deep ethnic background would help his business succeed.
When Spar contemplated retirement, he really didn't want to close and leave his loyal customers hanging. "He'd been making sausage since he was 15; he was a master," says Joe Kennedy, who purchased the business in 2005. During the transition, Spar worked for Kennedy a few days a week before officially retiring. Kennedy says that Spar still stops in to say "hello." Once Kennedy and his wife Beth were on their own the long hours kicked in, but it's paid off.
"It killed us in the beginning. There was a big learning curve," says Kennedy. "Now we are used to it. It's really our store. We put our mark on it." It's apparent that Kennedy is the right person in the right place at the right time. He understands the history of sausage — really a poor man's food — and respects it. "There was no waste in the old days. The origins are from peasants," he explains. "What was left [of the animal] is what they got. They weren't eating pork chops. Quite frankly, they did a really good job making sausage. The stuff has been around for a really long time for a reason...