Walk into The Cannibal in Culver City any day of the week and don’t be surprised if you see a gaggle of bicyclists sipping frosty pints and eating pieces of pork ripped from a hog’s head sitting atop their table. The Cannibal is a butcher shop with cuts of meat and sandwiches for sale, and a restaurant that incorporates the whole animal into the menu. The bar has 500 beers on the menu to choose from and you don’t have to drink and drive since there’s a bike valet outside.
KCRW “Good Food” host Evan Kleiman: I would love to hear the story behind the restaurant name.
Christian Pappanicholas, one of the owners of The Cannibal: I have always had this secret passion for cycling … It’s 1964 or 1965, the Tour de France, and Eddie Merckx, who’s arguably the best rider of all time, once again blows away the competition. [Merckx’s] biggest competitor’s 14-year-old daughter was quoted in L’Equip Magazine saying, ‘That Belgian doesn’t even leave you crumbs, he’s like a cannibal out there.’ So his nickname became ‘The Cannibal.’ When we talked about this butcher shop next to the Belgian restaurant, we didn’t ever think that we were going to build a Belgian butcher shop. We didn’t consider ‘The Cannibal’ Belgian whatsoever. But I said, ‘It’s funny because we can just name it ‘The Cannibal.” Everybody said “Well, that’s a bit literal, don’t you think?.’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘not because of the meat. We’ll name it after Merckx.’
EK: Have you gotten any hate mail yet?
Francis Derby, executive chef at The Cannibal: I got one letter — not since we’ve been out here though. But I got hate mail before we left New York from a vegan group.
EK: This idea of a butcher shop and a restaurant: is it a thing at your locations in New York? Or are you breaking new ground in Los Angeles?
CP: It was really the butcher shop that came first. At our first restaurant, Resto, which has been open 10 years, we started this whole animal program 6 months after we opened. We got to a point where we just hit critical mass. We didn’t have any way to fabricate them so when the ground floor apartment next to the restaurant became available, we said, ‘We should open a butcher shop that can be the place where we can actually fabricate this stuff and have room to do the production. We can sell some meat wholesale, run a small menu of charcuterie.’
EK: Is part of the way you approach making your fresh charcuterie — like the root beer cornbread sausage on the menu — informed by the background you have that is more Modernist cooking?
FD: Yeah. I was one of the opening cooks at WD-50 Restaurant by Wylie Dufresne. The way that we approached food there and that style is definitely the way I approach food to this day. When I think of a dish, it’s [often] something that reminds me of childhood. That’s kind of the root beer and cornbread sausage. It’s like, ‘I want to put cornbread in a sausage.’ What are we actually going to flavor the meat with? What goes with cornbread? Jalapeño? That’s easy. Me and my butcher at the time were bouncing ideas around. We were like, ‘Root beer, I love root beer when I’m eating cornbread.’ It’s got that whole Southern thing going on and then we serve it with smoked cauliflower puree, so there’s your smoke. It’s basically barbecue.
EK: Was getting more space one of the reasons you moved out to LA?
FD: The Cannibal in New York was built to be a butcher shop with maybe a couple pâtes on the menu. And then you throw me in the kitchen and now I just want to make it a restaurant. We just kept going and going and we just outgrew it … I was asked this question not too long ago, ‘What are some of your equipment hacks?’ Jesus, I’ve run hamachi collars through a conveyer belt toaster oven and picked up quail on the panini press at just the right temperature — which actually comes out phenomenal — but those were the kinds of things we were doing. And it was just the best I could do because I didn’t have fire.
The Ole 96-er photo (top) by Kevin O’Leary.