Let’s talk about meat

In light of today’s announcement of the chef lineup for the exquisite Baconfest I thought it an apt time to make a grand announcement: We have perfected our bacon recipe, are happy with it, and are going 100% house made on all of our bacon, starting with Gunthorp Farm pork. This is the big piece of the puzzle and we are now working exclusively with whole hogs from Gunthorp Farm for all of our pork. This is the culmination of more than a year’s effort during which we have been buying whole hogs from Gunthorp Farm, using them for some things, and buying a few parts from Niman Ranch, then juggling the whole array of pig parts to put forth what we thought is the best food we can. This big change offers a chance to explain to you all the considerations that go into selecting meat suppliers and how these products arrive on your plate.

I need to pause and let our loyal vegetarian friends -  you know who you are – know this doesn’t mean that suddenly there is going to be pork in everything. We will continue to cook as we always have, it is just that our mix of pork offerings is changing to reflect 100% whole animal purchases from Gunthorp Farm. Pork will make up no larger a portion of our menu than previously, and we will continue to cook vegetables as passionately as ever.

Mother and young in the woods on Gunthorp Farm - this is why I feel so passionately about their pork

We haven’t really been trying to keep our whole hog practices secret but we also haven’t tried to publicize them because while we have been buying whole hogs, we’ve also been buying cured bacon, ham, and center cut loin from Niman Ranch in addition. I also didn’t want it to seem like we were jumping on a trend. The truth is, while I probably never would have thought it possible to go whole hog were it not for the whole hog trend sweeping chef-driven restaurants around the country, I made the decision more than a year ago to move in this direction for a different reason.

I thought it would impose a discipline on our kitchen to cook more closely to the time tested and ancient traditions of cooking from a community-based larder, which means using the whole animal. My grandparents certainly did, so did the Cajuns, African Americans across the South, and countless other communities that raised and slaughtered hogs for food. Rail transportation was the beginning of the end of those traditions, and the rise of industrial food processing accelerated the demise of small-scale, whole animal butchering. I wanted to get back to that because I thought it would make our food more honest and true, but also healthier.

We all know the health value of eating whole foods, be they vegetables, grains, fruits, etc. The same is true for animal foods. A whole pig has far more nutritional value than just the chop or the ribs. You have your fatty parts, lean parts, and your organs, which are a treasure trove of minerals, vitamins, collagen, and other nutrients you don’t get just from the lean or fat. You get more complete nutrition by eating the whole animal.

The challenge that was unique for us to reach this juncture was that we offer fourteen meal services every week with the wild card of jamming busy brunch services on the weekend. Yes, you want sweet, salty, delicious bacon and ham at brunch, and some tasty sausage is nice too. We can serve chops, loin, rilletes and whatnot at dinner, but how could we balance the demand for all of these products and move steadily through pig after pig without winding up with a glut of any one portion of the animal? I felt very strongly that I didn’t want to go strictly whole hog just for the public show if there were parts we wouldn’t use or would go in the trash; I’d rather stick with Niman for my supplementals knowing their unused parts would go into hot dogs or some other product, but at least they would be used. It took more than a year of trials and errors but we are here.

Unfortunately, this means we will not be buying much if any pork from Niman Ranch. Some of you may feel like this should make me happy, going even more local than we are already (Niman Ranch pork is processed in Iowa with pigs mostly from IA, MN, IL, MO) but it’s bittersweet. A lot of small family farmers don’t have the means, or the desire, to market their products themselves as do the Gunthorps. For these farmers, who want to do right by their animals and get a fair price at market, Niman Ranch is a great option, the best for pork that I have seen. I still support Niman Ranch as the right kind of company and their animal husbandry standards are the highest in the business. I am not going in a different direction because I’m unhappy with their product – it’s the best of the best. We’re going in this direction because we want to create an honest, community-based dining experience and that means eating the whole hog in traditional fashion.

The Cajun Boucherie tradition is the basis of our program. There are of course fresh cuts such as chops, tenderloin, and ribs. We smoke and barbecue the shoulders, make andouille from trim, tasso from the thighs, boudin and chaudin from the organs, sometimes head cheese and trotter rilletes, although those parts are going into our cassoulet for winter. Bacon from the belly, chaurice from fatty trim (that one is a Creole sausage) and smoked jowls from the cheeks.

Adolescent hogs rooting around on the farm

Beef is another issue. Our burger has been one of our popular items since we opened, as ironic as it seems for a southern restaurant (though folks most definitely do eat burgers in the south.) I’ve never really related why it was on the menu in the first place. Honestly even I thought it looked out of place from the very beginning. There are a couple of reasons we started with a burger, and a few reasons we continue to offer one. Most restaurant customers are unaware how much supplier networks and relationships affect decisions as to what products to use.

Long about 2006, I met the folks from the fledgling Tallgrass Beef at the Family Farmed expo and was immediately excited at the prospect of top-quality, grass fed, grass finished beef. While at Schubas, I was one of the first few chefs in the country to pick up their beef, buying top butts to make sirloins and also medallions for one of our popular brunch dishes, Eggs Rochambeau. Naturally their emerging chef following wanted short loin cuts, hangar steaks, skirt steaks, and the like. Tallgrass needed to move ground beef to move whole animals. I couldn’t make the numbers work for Tallgrass ground beef at Schubas but planned to help them out when I opened my own restaurant. So, when planning the menu at Big Jones, I put a burger on the menu to help Tallgrass move beef. I obviously believed in the product (still do) or I wouldn’t have done it. Over ensuing years they picked up other accounts utilizing beef for hamburgers so I didn’t feel the pressure to stick with them, but I appreciate the flavor and it sold remarkably well so I kept it on the menu, and to this day, it is one of the most buzz-inducing amongst our local clientele.

When Tallgrass switched their distributorship from Meats by Linz to Gordon Foodservice, it was not convenient. Linz is a fairly easy company to use, and while they have a high minimum, ordering and invoicing were straightforward and their service is top notch. They deal only in meat and they had the meat I wanted in Tallgrass. In the meantime, I wanted to put a pork chop on the menu and had been trying to work with Buedel Foods, then distributor of Niman Ranch where we were buying Niman bacon and ham, to bring in Niman Ranch pork chops. Buedel was actually a great company to work with in many ways, and their service was good except one critical point – every time I inquired about buying Niman Ranch chops they said they could special order them for me but I should buy this other product that really didn’t interest me. I couldn’t go there, so we did without pork chops for the time, except for the occasions when we would buy loins from Gunthorp Farm, where we were getting our chickens and more and more of our pork shoulders.

When Tallgrass moved to Gordon, I tried to give it a go but now they too had a very high minimum and few other items I wanted to buy. Consequently, it got to the point where their sales rep wouldn’t even return my calls, probably because I was always trying to barely make the $500 minimum and only ordering Tallgrass Beef.  Not much later, I contacted Niman Ranch offices directly to find out what could be done about the pork chop situation and they said they were now carried in Chicago by Meats by Linz, who was now also stocking their beef. The same company I had used to buy Tallgrass! Now, I could get great beef and pork from one purveyor and the minimum order became an afterthought, since I was always way over. And, Meats by Linz is a top notch company.

I caught some guff for bringing on Niman’s beef for two reasons: it isn’t local and it isn’t grass fed. Actually, it is grass fed. It’s just finished on grain for only two weeks, in large, sunny, grass-lined feeding paddocks with the strictest animal husbandry protocols in the business. It is true it’s not local and that has bothered me, but I have always regarded the life of the animal as the most important factor when making meat buying decisions and theirs are sound. That the animals are raised in a true ranching protocol delivers an environmental benefit that to me offsets the transportation issue. Still, I would have preferred to use more local beef, or Tallgrass, but there are a lot of factors to consider.

Given a very small kitchen and limited refrigeration space that is challenged by a whole hog program now in full swing, bringing in our own local beef as whole animals, halves or quarters, seemed impractical. The recent opening of The Butcher and Larder may provide the needed link. Rob can provide us his expertise and staff to provide us with whole beef quarters, breaking them down into manageable cuts for us, so we will be able to continue offering a great burger, and we’ll also be able to offer as specials and on tasting menus such delectables as hangar steak, flatiron, brisket, (which we will likely corn) and short ribs. And, it will be local!

I’m excited to work with Butcher and Larder because Rob Levitt, more than any other chef, proved to me that it is possible to run a restaurant on nothing but whole animals. I think our motivations are similar but I am definitely the grasshopper when it comes to butchering whole animals. While we have long used whole pigs at Big Jones and I believe my charcuterie skills are formidable, our pigs come from Gunthorp Farm broken into primals, making my butchering job a lot easier.

If these stories about purveyors and suppliers and sales reps and minimums leave anything clear, it should be that for me the obvious answer is to work with local folks in our community of farmers. It’s a lot of work churning out our own bacon (7-day process) tasso (7-days also) andouille (3 days) boudin (blessedly only one day) chaudin (two days) and in a short while our own house ham to premiere (two to three weeks.) But, I’d rather work with friendly people I know and trust. It really is about relationships, and it’s easier to have relationships with people than corporations.