By Brian Murphy, Foodable Contributor
Ask a carnivorous chef what their favorite protein is, and the answer is often “pork.” Flavor aside, the richness and versatility of pork has spawned cult-like followings for chefs and porky menu items, as well as a huge merchandise market.
Advertisements discuss the latest and outrageous pork items while news reports on bacon trends at fairs, restaurants, and festivals. The North American Meat Institute confirms the scale of the pork business with numbers showing that in 2013, American meat companies produced 23.2 billion pounds of pork.
Even taking the fact that a few billion pounds of the pork produced is exported, the number of pounds produced is impressive with a U.S. population of 318+ million. A number that has restaurant guests wondering, and chefs taking note: About 97 percent of the pork produced comes from large factory farms. Many chefs revel in the flavor of pork coming from the other 3 percent of the farms, and find fat content, flavor, and quality to be superior.
The Family Farm
Purdue University reports that 70 percent of pig farms in the U.S. produce 100 or less pigs every year. Family farms that breed and raise heritage breeds are significantly less, yet demand in Southern California is rising as more people are granted access to top-shelf pork. Raising flavor and quality and keeping pigs’ quality of life high is a noble but challenging endeavor, with a host of variables that could make or break the farm.
Farmers and employees need to really believe in their mission and do all they can to spread the word. Cook Pigs Ranch in Julian, CA, is an example of a family business that started small, but believed so strongly in their mission that they have enjoyed acreage growth, the opening of a USDA processing facility and resale store, and are featured on menus throughout the region. The hard work involved has proven successful with clients, as well as at a competitive level. Cook Pigs Ranch was responsible for providing the winning pig to chefs who won the Los Angeles Cochon competition two years in a row. The accolades and growth don’t keep this ranch from staying small, however; one look at their Instagram will offer a glimpse into the family life, daily work with the hogs, and their adorable ranching dogs.
Finding a family farm that raises pork is not always the easiest thing to do, nor is it often the most cost-effective. When commodity pork is available for tomorrow’s delivery nearly any day of the week from a supplier, local pork is going to require a bit more effort in the beginning, and planning moving forward.
Often, raising the pigs is one thing, but another to completely harvest and pack meats, and that is where relationships will have to be forged, requiring precious time chefs may not have, but will pay off in the end. The education chefs receive by working with a small ranch is indispensable. Knowing the family that raised the pork, being able to call the person doing the butchering and perhaps asking to help with the harvest or butchering process, allows chefs to gain a deeper understanding and intimate knowledge of product they would normally not be able to get.
A chef willing to get so deep into a relationship with farmers and an understanding of product is likely not going to churn out mediocre dishes, so perhaps the willingness to do so can be used as a benchmark of a chef’s buy-in to a locally sourced concept. Cost-wise, heritage breeds like Berkshire, Duroc, or Red Wattle are going to provide a bit of sticker shock with costs running upwards of five times (or more) compared to commodity pork, forcing chefs to work even harder to make it all work. This is not a business model that should be implemented without much consideration. Considering all of that, the benefits can be tremendous.
The Difference in Product
A smaller ranch raising heritage breeds, feeding a quality diet will produce a product that will be so promotable, it will help market itself. Millennials (amongst others) love a story, and what better than to work with a small farm that servers can call by name and actually provide an address should someone ask.
Small farms are often transparent about what they feed hogs, so educating staff and guests shouldn’t be an issue. The environmental factors alone are a selling point to conscientious and conscious guests, and the flavor is possibly the best pork a guest has ever had. From the moment local heritage pork arrives, it is noticeably different. The pink, insanely marbled meat is different from the typical cryovac package of pork that arrives. The fat content and quality of the fat is superior, as is the smell of the meat. Finally, the taste is like the best pork dish most of your guests have ever had, but tastier with a better texture, and porkier. Suddenly, the higher price for this dish doesn’t seem so outrageous.
Try Local Producers on for Size
Blindly subbing heritage breeds or local pork for every pork item on the menu would be irresponsible and likely lead to a chef looking for the next gig. First, educate and consider a company or personal mission statement of where the company stands on the subject of local vs. commodity. Once an idea is in place that the rest of the staff can adopt, work with a local supplier to find the right products for the menu. Start small with perhaps a special that servers and social media can sell. Spend a little extra time on cuts that need some extra attention. And turn a project, like curing locally sourced bacon, into a marketable and scalable move in the direction of sourcing local for center of the plate. Once guests try it, they will ask for more.