Marco Canora has long been a chef's chef, turning out seemingly simple dishes that require years of training to prepare consistently and well. He's received wide-ranging accolades for his restaurants, including Hearth in New York City's East Village. Yet today Canora is achieving new fame for a food that takes almost no skill to make, uses no fancy ingredients, and is completely unglamorous: bone broth.
Bone broth is exactly what it sounds like: a pile of animal bones, covered in water; some vegetable scraps; and often a bit of cider vinegar -- all boiled until the bones crumble. But despite -- or because of -- its simplicity, bone broth is having a moment. It's long been popular among some athletes and the paleo crowd, but now, thanks in large part to Canora, it's going mainstream.
As a chef, Canora has been sipping bone broth for years, which may have been the only healthy part of a diet that until recently consisted largely of bread, butter, cigarettes, and alcohol. Like many chefs, he describes his early years in the business as "a boatload of stress and no sleep and no exercise."
While he grew up with a Tuscan mom who made sure the family ate well ("our house was not filled with sweet cereals and soda and Eggos or any of that crap"), as a 25-year-old starting out in the restaurant business, Canora's health was hardly a priority. As a line cook at New York City's Gramercy Tavern and then executive chef at Craft, Canora embraced the stereotypical lifestyle of a chef.
"Do you think I had one iota of thought about what it means to eat well?" he asks. "Give me a f--king break. I was sucking down cigarettes and and drinking booze and staying up until 4 a.m. and eating whatever."
The results were predictable: "I was hitting my early 40s, and I was a f--king bloated mess. Just fatigued and tired and not well." Then the results of a detailed blood test encouraged him to clean up his act. He quit smoking, and started making broth a more substantial part of his diet.
Meanwhile, Canora had been eyeing a pastry window at Hearth, trying to figure out what he could possibly sell out of it. He had also co-founded Terroir wine bar, the first outpost of which is just around the corner from Hearth; it, like Hearth, started as a collaboration with sommelier Paul Grieco. The former business partners, who earlier opened the Michelin-starred, now-shuttered Insieme restaurant in New York City's Michelangelo hotel, split at the end of last year. Canora now runs Hearth exclusively; Grieco has taken over Terroir.
In November, Canora put a bright orange awning over Hearth's pastry window, christened it Brodo, and started selling bone broth. A small cup of organic chicken broth in a to-go cup costs $4. A large gingered beef broth with bone marrow and garlic is more like $10.50.
"I though it would help a little bit," says Canora of Brodo. "I thought it would be a cool supplemental side thing" that would give a nice boost to the notoriously low-margin business of running a restaurant.
Instead, it blew up. Between 200 and 400 people come by the window daily, and the average ticket is close to $15. Bone broth made the front of the New York Times dining section a few days before my visit, which ended when a video crew from Today.com showed up. German television arrived a week later.
Now, Canora says that Brodo has become "a bit of a beast." Bone broth, ridiculously easy to make in family-size portions at home, is a different proposition altogether when made for hundreds in a tiny underground restaurant kitchen, where Canora boils 40-gallon batches.
"Those bones are heavy to get in the door raw, and they're heavier getting out of the pot," he says, crediting his daytime sous chef and porter with taking on most of the literal heavy lifting. "You're lugging 150 pounds of hot wet bones." Then each 40-gallon batch of broth -- weighing about 320 pounds -- has to be cooled and brought upstairs to the tiny pastry window. That will undoubtedly be a problem if Canora wants to expand the operation, but he won't say how, or if, he plans to address it.
Now, Canora has become the high priest of broth. "I find myself preaching a lot lately," he says. "I'm really happy to be part of this movement toward food as...medicine is not a sexy enough word. But I love this notion of food needs to do more than just taste good. Of course it's got to taste good. But it should feed you in a way that is not just taste buds."
Bone broth perfectly epitomizes this, he says: "I drink it every day, and it's delicious. The health benefits are just the icing" on the (paleo, liquid) cake.
Advocates say that broth's benefits include better gut health, reduced joint pain and inflammation, an improved ability to fight infection, and more lustrous skin, hair, and nails.
That's a lot to ask from a pile of bones, necks, and backs, no matter how long they're boiled. And Canora readily admits that the research into the health benefits of bone broth is "a little thin," although there's no doubt that the boiling releases the gelatin, chondroitin, and glucosamine in the bones.
But there are plenty of believers. In 2012, Dr. Cate Shanahan, a consulting nutritionist for the L.A. Lakers, started giving the players bone broth to aid joint health and recovery. Sally Fallon, co-author of Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook That Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats, which sold half a million copies, in September published Nourishing Broth: An Old-Fashioned Remedy for the Modern World. Bone broth has also been a big hit with people on the paleo diet, which eschews caffeine. In October, organic food maker Pacific Foods launched a line of shelf-stable bone broth.
Canora is emphatic in his belief that bone broth is more than a passing fad. He absolutely wants to expand, but won't talk about his plans, saying only that "I want to do it as smartly and strategically as I can." He says bone broth is going to be huge -- bigger, even, than cold-pressed premium juice, which has become a $3 billion business. Like juice, and like coffee before it, a high-end broth like Canora's costs much more than its plebeian predecessors -- and, at least so far, customers seem happy to pay up.
It remains to be seen whether Canora's business -- premium prices and labor-intensive ingredients included -- can really be scaled beyond the hipster, wealthy, food-obsessed enclave of downtown Manhattan. But Canora has already started preparing to market his broth to a larger audience, even trademarking some slogans ("Rethink your hot beverage" and "The world's first comfort food.")
That's probably a savvy move. After my visit to Brodo, I stopped by Everyman Espresso, then a Starbucks, and finally a Panera looking for a place to sit and work. Inside Panera, I was greeted by a two-foot-high sign that said, "Introducing Broth Bowls."
If Canora wants to remain at the forefront of his new craze, he'll have to move fast.