I love pork. Well the truth is I love almost every food product, but pork is indeed wonderful. It’s versatile, tastes great cured, roasted, and fried, and bacon tastes so good that I often chide my cooks that adding bacon to a new recipe is just lazy or cheating. Very few things taste bad with bacon. Actually I personally can’t think of anything that tastes bad with bacon, maybe caviar? But if I remember correctly I think the general Law of Bacon translates to:
Bacon > (meh)
(meh) + Bacon is always = or > (Good) and sometimes = Awesome therefore:
(meh) < (Anything) +(Bacon), which is either always = or > (Good) and quite possibly (Awesome)
Fortunately for me I’m not the the only one who feels this way and people as a whole have loved pork for quite sometime. The fact is that Pigs are one of the earliest domesticated animals in our history, and as with any product that is continuously bred for our tastes, the pork that we enjoy on our tables is constantly changing. A clear example of this is that the pork that we readily pick up at the supermarket today is 30% leaner than what people were able to enjoy as recently as in the 70s.
Luckily for us who fall under the banner of “a leaner pig is a less tasty pig”, there has always been a stubborn and small group of renegade farmers resistant to the call for ”[an]Other white meat”. Refusing to allow what we now consider heritage breeds to fall to the wayside, these farmers have continued to raise pigs based on flavor rather than other values, such as the ability to be quickly brought to slaughter or the procurement of a leaner meat. In the past decade or so the demand for pork with the old flavor has surged, and it’s encouraging to see a growing group of farmers dedicated to this movement, like Faith’s Farm.
One of the perks of owning a restaurant is that you get invited to some pretty amazing events. Recently the Ruxbin crew was invited to Faith’s Farm for their 3rd Annual Butcher & Booze event. The purpose of the event was to get like-minded restaurants together to share their thoughts on farm to table products and the local food movement.
A quick note on Faith’s Farm. Faith’s Farm is one of those stubborn farms that decided to raise an old-fashioned pig, and in their own words, proudly and rightfully, proclaim “All our livestock is raised the old fashion way: on free-range pasture that is not chemically treated….. They are raised with a gentle and humane hand. ” Faith’s Farm, located in Bonfield, IL is a 90 minute drive from Chicago, two hours away if you’re prone to getting lost like I am. It’s run by a woman named Kim, one of the most hospitable and strongest-willed people I’ve met. Kim turned her back to a white-collar job and willed a succesful farm into existence with basically no experience and what I presume must have been an amazing combination of grit, gumption and determination. If you’ve ever read a Michael Pollan book, imagine one of those ideal bucolic farms he profiles that are sustainable and hell-bent to be the opposite of so many of the nightmarish factory farms in our country, and that’s what Kim has been able to create with Faith’s Farm.
At the farm one of the main events was the live slaughtering and butchering of both a lamb and a hog. Watching an animal slaughtered can be a harrowing experience and there is little joy to be found in the macabre event. Even so, the organizers felt that witnessing a slaughter first- hand was important because it has the ability to bring a much greater appreciation and understanding of how food products that we’re so familiar with, under the best circumstances, reaches our table, I agree.
The hog that was chosen was a magnificent animal. A crossbred Hampshire-Berkshire hog, obviously well fed and taken care of. Taken away from his group for the first time, the hog was clearly distressed. Taking note of this, Kim ordered that the hog be quickly put down, and he was taken down swiftly with a bolt to the head.
Next we saw the pig being butchered. Under the skilled hands of Sam, the butcher, a hog that weighed nearly 300 lbs was quickly skinned and broken down into primal cuts in less than an hour. To put this in perspective, it can take me up to 20 minutes just to skin a large pork belly. The skill and craftmanship of Sam, bluntly put, was breath-taking. After the pork was broken down, we took a tour of Faith’s Farm, had a potluck dinner, enjoyed some booze, made some friends, and at the end of night we were given a very generous parting gift: whatever parts of the hog we would like.
For a restaurant Ruxbin unfortunately has very little refrigeration (no walk-in, reach-ins and lowboys only, in an apartment sized kitchen), and at the time we only had one menu item that used pork, our pork belly salad. I already had a fresh pork belly ready to cure in the fridge and wasn’t sure that if I picked up more I’d be able to sell it before it all went bad. I also knew we only had space for a couple pork-chops and a slab of pork belly. So in the end, that’s what we took.
Sun-burnt and tired from the day’s events we drove home giddy with the pork we were able to take home. The next day, with a clearer head after a good night’s sleep, I was able to take a better look at the pork belly that Kim had so generously given to us. I knew this was a good product, but under the flourescent lights of our kitchen, laying next to the pork belly that I had picked up from another purveyor, it was pretty mind-blowing to see the difference between the two. Kim’s pork belly had more layers of fat and meat. In Korea there is a prized pork belly known as “Heuk Dehji” which is loved for its five layers of meat and fat. Faith Farm’s pork belly made the prized “Heuk Dehji” seem homely, and our other pork belly emaciated.
So for the next week, unbeknownst to our customers, for the same price they were able to enjoy both a product who’s food cost would have nearly doubled what they were paying, and the finest specimen of pork belly that I or any of my cooks had ever worked with. Being able to do this as a cook brought my staff and I a lot of joy. There’s something beautiful about being able to send out a product that you know is wonderful, and allowing a guest to experience it unfettered of any grandiose background. Let the product speak for itself.
As Friday came that week, in the middle of our rush, the last portions of Faith Farm’s wonderful pork belly was coming to an end. I asked Gabe, who was working garde manger that day, how many orders we had left, and he responded “two orders, Chef”. From the corner of my eye I could see that the 2nd to last serving being plated was a generous portion of pork belly, so much so that I was about to have Gabe cut the portion down, but I stopped myself thinking that the end
to such a wonderful product should be celebratory and why not knock their socks off.
Of course that was the first Pork Belly Salad that has ever come back to our kitchen not fully devoured. I grilled the server what the problem was and she explained, with a look that could only be described as confused, that the table had said “the pork belly was too fatty and that they wanted a portion with less fat”. At this point you might expect the kitchen to be angered by such a response, but we found ourselves just laughing and incredulous. How could this be? “And no”, I said to the server “I will not send them another pork belly.” Instead I sent our expediter, Nate, to talk to the table and explain to them the origins of the pork belly we had just sent them, and to maybe clear up any misunderstanding they may have of the product. Maybe they hadn’t realized that pork belly was basically a generous portion of bacon. Minutes later, Nate came back with a grin that resembled a grimace. He informed me that the table upon his explanation responded that not only were they quite familiar with pork belly but they had much finer pork belly at many other establishments in Chicago, and that a proper pork belly should have a ratio of sixty-40, meat to fat. Gabe and I soon had a grin that resembled the one plastered on Nate’s face. This reaction was elicited by the fact that: 1. I, and any of my staff, would swear on nearly anything that you could not procure a better raw product than the one Kim had given us, and 2. neither I, nor any of my staff, had ever heard of this vaunted ratio of sixty-40.
Throughout the rest of service we joked amongst ourselves and even started using “sixty-40” as a punchline. Sometimes the only proper response to a situation is to just try to laugh it off. The truth is I wasn’t able to laugh it off, and later that night I started to wonder how the customer had come up with this ratio. Disturbed by the experience, unable to sleep, I decided to google sixty-40 and see if it had any relation to pork belly. What I found with some quick digging is that it is possible to order pork belly at a sixty-40 ratio, which made me pause and think “maybe that table was right”, but then I started to google Berkshire Hogs and here’s what I found:
A standard Berkshire hog should have 2 to 3 times the amount of intramuscular fat that a standard commodity hog would have, and in general is a much fatter pig than the ones people in the U.S. have become accustomed to.
If that’s the case, then it seems logical that a Berkshire hog’s belly would have a much higher ratio of fat to meat, much higher than the ratio of sixty-40 that our disgruntled table had expected. So what does this mean? I may be wrong, but this is what I believe: Sixty-40 is a standard that may have come about due to the leaner hog. It is not de facto, but maybe should be more correctly understood as the minimum requirement. And yes, maybe pork belly that is sixty-40 is what people have come to expect, but that doesn’t mean that such a ratio is what’s best. As a cook, as a chef, I’ve come to believe that predetermined notions and bias should often be put to the wayside, and a better question to ask when any of us have a particular dish or meal is not whether or not it meets a predetermined standard of quality, but whether or not it is satisfying. Did it make me happy, did I think it was tasty, or maybe even delicious. Food should be enjoyed on a visceral level, and not be judged like a dog show awarding points based on a “breed standard”.
I know in my heart that the pork belly we served was exceptional, that the fat on that once happy pig was cleaner and more unctuous than any other pork belly that I had ever had. And yes, the fat to meat ratio was generously beyond sixty-40, but that should be expected because anything that is exceptional will naturally break any silly standard or mold.
And so “sixty-40” has become a code word in our kitchen, it means “the minimum requirement” and in our kitchen if something is “sixty-40” that means that you better get back at it, because if you just put in the minimum requirement that means you did things half-assed, you didn’t put your heart into it, and you didn’t try your best. One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned working in the restaurant industry is that there are very few things that are meaningful in the kitchen, and in life, that can be accomplished with the minimum requirement.
With the minimum requirement Kim would never have been able to create Faith’s Farm. If Kim strived only to meet the industry standard of quality, if she didn’t push to make Faith’s Farm a place whose own standards were far above the industry norm, her pork and other produce would never have become what it is today: exceptional. In that same way, I hope that everyone at Ruxbin never settles for “sixty-40”, and instead I hope we strive and continue to push ourselves to be, in our own way, exceptional.