Cookin’ Up Somethin’ with Syd Meers

Chef Syd Meers and the Team at Syd’s FishPig Cafe
Chef Syd Meers FishPig Cafe

Classes at James Beard Foundation semi-finalist chef Syd Meers’ FishPig Café are about good people who love to eat and learning a few tricks that’ll “knock their socks off.”

By Eric Wallace

Imagine standing with a dozen others in one of the state’s most celebrated restaurants, huddled around one of the South’s most celebrated chefs, sipping wine as he points out the superlative marbling of a fresh 30-pound ham and gives it a slap. 

“Now, round here, these farmers slaughter at about 200 pounds, which means their pigs are only about six months old,” says 2016 James Beard Foundation Best Chef semifinalist Sydney Meers in a sassy Mississippi drawl. “Well, in my world that’s a piglet. These guys need time to roam around under the sun, do their thing, eat a buncha good stuff, and get nice and ripe.”

This ham, says Meers, came from an Idaho farm where heritage breed pigs free-range like they do on the Iberian Peninsula, foraging on acorns, root veggies, berries and bugs for about two years. The time-tested method produces taller, more slender and muscular legs with a much higher concentration of intramuscular fat—which in turn delivers succulent, tastebud-bombing flavor.

But this is more than a lecture. 

Participants will spend the next five or so hours in Meers’ 36-seat, downtown Norfolk FishPig Café taking a private crash course in meats. They’ll work together in the restaurant’s open kitchen and beautifully eccentric bar area to do an initial salt and pepper cure for country hams; make and smoke pork roulade; prepare rillettes from duck and chicken livers; craft pickled corn beef; slow roast beef short ribs; and more. 

Each segment features a guided tasting of Meers’ finished preserved meats and dishes, and a quick wine pairing lesson. When the cooking is done, participants take home a custom recipe book and anything they didn’t already eat.  

“It’s intense, hands-on, and demanding as hell, but I said, ‘You know, if we’re gonna’ do it, we ain’t gon’ do it halfway,” laughs Meers. “These people come here because they love my cooking and I wanna give ’em something special. My goal is to show ’em a whole buncha stuff they can take home, mess around with, and hopefully bring a little more fun and excitement to their time in the kitchen.”

Meers offers a class every third Sunday of the month throughout the year aside from June and December. They’re grouped into thematic five-course ‘sessions’ that cover meat, artisan breads, dessert, seafood, produce and wine. Curriculum for each session is different—and subject to the whims of the chef. 

Chef Syd Meers’ art is as famously eclecitc and creative as his food. (Photo by Dave TV)

This March’s dessert class, for instance, centers on all things cacao and tips a hat to Meers’ early mentor and Death by Chocolate best-selling author, Marcel Desaulniers. Attendees will taste top-tier chocolates and learn to differentiate between cocoa percentages. They’ll then use various mixes to craft decadent tortes, coconut pecan custards, made-from-scratch butter and scotch pudding, and a classic Mississippi mud pie. 

April’s fish class starts with an exploration of locally available fish varieties and some of the best ways to prepare them. It covers skills like cleaning, deboning, and fileting, then proceeds to increasingly interesting culinary territories. Participants will learn to salt cure tuna; pickle shrimp; preserve lemons to use in otherworldly crabcakes; craft a kalamata olive, caper, and tomato relish with lemon crème fraiche—and much more.  

“Look, this isn’t something I have to do, it’s something I want to do,” says Meers. “I’d get bored just repeating the same old thing over and over, so I look back, think about what I’ve done before, then go, ‘Hmmm, wouldn’t it be fun to try such-and-such?’ And we make it up from there!”

Meers held his first cooking classes in 2008 at his famed 32-seat Portsmouth restaurant, Stove. Friends and longtime patrons “were always asking how I do this and how I do that, and I thought, ‘Well, if I get a bunch of ’em in here all at once and show ’em a few things, then I won’t have to answer the same question 50 times.”

Jokes aside, Meers quickly came to cherish the classes as a way to connect more intimately with customers. Many attend full sessions and return year after year.  

“Truth be told, I’m not a big fan of teaching — it’s a pain in the ass,” says Meers, referring to the give-or-take two years he spent as a Johnson & Wales University lab instructor during an early 2000s sabbatical from restaurants. 

“But this is different. It’s about getting together with good people who love to eat, sharing some laughs and wine, getting to know one another and sendin’ everybody home with some tricks that’ll knock their friends’ and family’s socks off!” 

For those that prefer to simply have the chef and his team cook for them, we hear ya. Syd’s FishPig Café is open for dinner Wednesday through Saturday and brunch the first Sunday of each month.

Learn more at fishpigcafe.com.
See us in the pages of the 2024 Food Issue.

Syd Speak, A Primer

By Marisa Marsey 

Celebrated local chef Sydney Meers, whose legendary restaurants like The Dumbwaiter, Cowboy Syd’s, Stove and now Syd’s FishPig Café, have helped define creative cuisine in our region, is known for his idiosyncratic artwork and colorful personality almost as much as he is for his irreverent and ingenious twists on Southern comfort food. And anyone who has spent any time around Syd or in one of his restaurants knows he also speaks his own peculiar patois. We asked our writer Marisa Marsey to do her best to create a “Syd Speak” primer for the uninitiated:

There’s no Duolingo for Sydney Meers’ singular vernacular. No Google Translate to decipher his “Ole Miss Spellings.” Part Southern, part sass, un petit peu French-kissed, they’re solely Syd.

Cowboy Syd A name he calls himself –ORIGIN “Cowboys herd cattle across the country, eating something different wherever they stop. I’m still on a journey, too.” –POSSESSIVE
His Port Warwick restaurant (post-TheDumbwaiter/pre-Stove).

DoToNo Downtown Norfolk, home to his current restaurant –vis à vis
PoNo (Port Norfolk), site of his prior restaurant Stove.

Dry Martini January Syd’s Dry January rebuke.

Fluffy Dog, Elvis The (also Ebbis) Born 3/31/93. A Jack Russell Terrier first painted for a d’Art Center exhibition in conjunction with Norfolk’s erstwhile annual April Fool’s Doo Dah Parade presided over by Grand Poo Bah Syd. Oft depicted in his artwork, Elvis is Helga to Syd’s Andrew Wyeth.

Great crue (sic) Loyal staff including Cat, Jimmy, Byron, Keith, Michael and, at first-Sunday-of-the-month brunch, Terri Wayne.

Gumbo Week Syd’s answer to Restaurant Week.

Instagrham (sic) fishpig café The restaurant’s Instagram (he thinks).

Ledgebly (sic) How Syd requests you print when you jion (sic) his email list.

Louise 1. An endearing name deployed when Syd can’t remember your real one. 2. A suffix appended even when he can. 3. Middle name of many women in Senatobia, Mississippi, his hometown.

Miss Thing 1. A drag queen. 2. A derogatory interjection as in, “Bitch, turn down that fire. Or do you want me to slap you into next week, Miss Thing?!?” 3. What Syd calls his cats. He’s currently on Miss Thing #5.

Not Hot Sauce One of his bottled sauces. –ORIGIN “I got it down to a science to work better with foods than the supper (sic) stupidly hot sauces.”

Our Glorious Non-Sweeten Pig-tilly Crème Whipped cream.

Pork o rama An array of ham (see Smoochie Bear), sausage and other pig products Syd crafts. –ORIGIN “It’s like the thrill of bowl-o-ramas and shit like that.”

Reserve u’rself Reservations recommended.

Salestrons Waitstaff. –ORIGIN Portmanteau of sales and the 1982 movie Tron.

Sextuple Truffle The dessert guests have most fun requesting. (Despite innuendo, the modifier alludes to the tart’s six different chocolates.)

Smoochie Bear What Syd calls the ham he cures (see Pork o rama). –ORIGIN Inspired by the nickname
bestowed by staff because he’d plant a kiss on their cheeks during preservice lineups.

Syd’s Poisson~Cochon Café (also Syd’s FishPig Café for “those no-speakin French folk”) His current restaurant.

Marisa Marsey Headshot
Marisa Marsey
+ posts and articles

Marisa Marsey is a food, beverage and travel writer whose awards include 1st place Food Writing from the Virginia Press Association. A Johnson & Wales University representative, she has sipped Château d'Yquem '75 with Jean-Louis Palladin, sherpa-ed for Edna Lewis and savored interviews with Wolfgang Puck and Patrick O’Connell.

Eric J. Wallace Headshot
Eric J. Wallace
+ posts and articles

Eric J. Wallace is an award-winning lifestyle journalist based in Staunton who has contributed to WIRED, Outside, Reader’s Digest, Atlas Obscura, Best American Food Writing, All About Beer and more.

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