Want to keep the Pima County Health Department from dinging your restaurant? Need FDA approval to ship your food products outside the state? That’s a job for Vanessa Moon, lab scientist, GUT chef, and charcuterie master.
Food safety is not the sexiest topic, what with its technical language and acronyms and layers of bureaucracy. But food-borne illness is much less pleasant to discuss and Moon’s engagement with the local culinary community is far from cut and dried (well, except for the charcuterie part).
Moon explained that, in addition to keeping her clients within regulatory boundaries, her role as an Association of Food and Drug Officials (AFDO)-approved consultant helps restaurateurs and entrepreneurs to be creative, to venture outside the established parameters while maintaining food safety. It’s a way to assure the regulatory powers that be, as she put it, “‘Hey, I’m going to closely monitor this. And I have this plan in place to show that it’s going to be okay.’ And that’s when I come in and help them to achieve what they want to do.”
Moon was born in Madrid to a Spanish mother and a father from Georgia, who came to Spain with the United States Air Force. She grew up with the recipes of her mother’s family — including for charcuterie, in the original meaning of the term. The French word, which dates back to the 15th century, once referenced only preserved pork products, but now has been expanded to encompass the meats, cheese, and fruit boards of a variety of cultures.
“My grandparents had a house in the mountains outside Leon, and the neighboring relatives kept cows and pigs and chickens,” Moon said. “You don’t want the meat to spoil, so charcuterie is a very big part of our diet.” Thus Moon became aware of whole animal butchery from an early age, and in a communal setting. She explained, “When you slaughter a pig, everyone gets together to help out. Someone grinds the meat, another person cures it, and you collect the blood to make blood sausage.”
When she was 12, her father was reassigned to Davis Monthan in Tucson, which came as a bit of culture shock. It wasn’t just that a lot of the words in the local Spanish vernacular were different from the language Moon knew; there were also key menu differences. “For me, a tortilla was made with potatoes and onions and eggs,” she said. “It was not a flatbread. So there was also a learning curve around food.”
It was as part of a federal work-study program at Pima Community College that she acquired her scientific knowledge. “I worked for a couple of years in the microbiology lab, and then I had the opportunity to switch over to chemistry,” she said. A few years after that, she made a move to the chemistry lab. “Altogether, I had almost 18 years of microbiology, chemistry, and biology as a laboratory specialist.”
Moon is currently Acting Director of Environmental Health and Safety at Pima Community College.
While working and raising two small children, Moon retained her interest in food preparation, learning about local ingredients and applying them to Old World recipes. For example, she said, “I started making Spanish-style paprika from peppers I grew myself and smoked,” she said. She was also dabbling with making her own charcuterie. But it wasn’t until 2017, when she ran into Chef Gary Hickey of the Si Charro! group, that she really got involved with the local culinary community.
She discovered that Hickey, whom she had known socially years earlier, was now working with the Flores family restaurants. He invited her to a new event, a chef’s contest called Knife Fight. It came as a revelation. Moon recalled, “It was really exciting to see all the passion and all the different foods, just the creativity.”
She began “hanging out with chefs like Janos, Devon Sanner, and Mat Cable,” along with Hickey. They invited her to participate in a GUT dinner, which raised her level of engagement with the local food scene another notch.
“Getting together with the chefs, planning all the different themes, I was really inspired,” Moon said. She began devoting her energies to such things as creating pea flowers that would change colors with pH differences — for example, if you added lemon to a drink — and perfecting her charcuterie skills
Moon brought a refrigerator on Craigslist — actually, a wine chiller, which, at 55 degrees F, turned out to be the perfect temperature for charcuterie meats. She started making products and posting them on Facebook, getting rave reviews. She eventually became an admin for the Salt Cured Pig Facebook group.
The meat-preserving process is very technical, Moon explained. “You have a certain percentage of nitrates and nitrites, and there are inoculants of certain bacteria that will drop the pH.” Her microbiology background made it easy for her to answer questions like, “Hey, I noticed this weird mold, is it okay to eat [my product]?” She started entering charcuterie masters competitions in New York, and placed several times.
At the same time, word got around about Moon’s combination of kitchen skills and scientific savvy. “Little by little I would get requests for HACCP [Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point] plans or variances from different chefs in town, and some from Flagstaff, some from Phoenix. Some were for dry-aged products, some for vacuum sealing or sous vide styles of cooking, others needed guidance for proper labeling of nutritional values, etc.” She taught a class about fermentation processes to some of the GUT chefs.
Among the top chefs and restaurateurs in town who have used her services is Carlotta Flores. Moon helped train the staff at Carlotta’s Kitchen for proper canning techniques and pH testing on the salsas. In addition, she came up with a dry age plan for Charro Steak and a raw oyster plan for Charro del Rey (when they were still separate restaurants).
She is currently working with “Malta Joe” Gauci on his latest venture: creating a USDA-approved kitchen in the former laundromat that he bought in order to produce pastizzi (savory Maltese puff pastry) and ship them across the country. Moon’s many tasks included doing a nutritional breakdown for product labeling.
Perhaps her most mutually beneficial business relationship is with Flora’s Market Run, where she was hired to create a charcuterie program for the fledgling butcher shop. Starting with three basic products, chorizo, braciola, and a simple salami, Moon detailed what the staff needed to buy, including a specific type of monitor. “I had a list of inoculants, casings, butcher strings…you name it.” She also specified temperature and Rh (relative humidity) requirements for the charcuterie chamber. The result: Flora’s Butcher Shop & Deli is the only place in Tucson certified to cure their own charcuterie meats.
Naturally, Moon’s products are sold there.
Moon’s recipes evoke the tastes and experiences of her childhood in Spain — and she is gratified when she can help others tap into their past in a similar way. “People have food memories, based on their heritages,” she said. Moon might be asked, for example, to re-create a blood pudding for a client who wanted one like “my grandmother used to serve to me.” Being able to formulate food to satisfy those heartfelt requests is the part of her expertise that Moon loves best. “That’s where my passion comes from,” she said, “to make someone happy with something I made for them.”
Who says science and sentiment don’t mix?
Contact Vanessa Moon at email@example.com or by calling (520) 829-8626.
Edie Jarolim has worn many hats, including a sombrero on a one-too-many-margaritas night. She earned a Ph.D. in American literature from New York University and was a guidebook editor at Fodor’s (Random House) and Frommer’s (Simon & Schuster) in New...