Sunday, May 04, 2008

Pork 101

May 5
I love being in a room with people who aren’t grossed out by watching a pig carcass being dismantled. I’m at the Barona Valley Ranch Resort & Casino in Lakeside, Calif., which would be San Diego County if it weren’t a Native American reservation.
I’m here for the Taste of Elegance, an annual cooking competition by the National Pork Board.
It’s a big deal among a certain set of people, the culmination of a two-part competition, in which chefs from all over the country compete in state or regional events. The winners of those contests — 22 this year — then head to the finals.
In years when the event is held in pork country, often Des Moines, they have been preceded by farm tours and such, but this year we made do yesterday with an overview of pork, given in the banquet hall where the gala celebrations will be held tonight.
It started with quite a good PowerPoint presentation about pork production, including facts like no pigs are given growth-hormones, no matter what you hear, and that pasture-raised pork can’t be guaranteed to have a vegetarian diet.
“I’ve seen them eat birds,” one farmer said.
And it ended with the butchering of half a pig, with an explanation of its component parts.
Here’s another interesting fact: the belly, not the loin, is currently the most expensive primal cut of pork, and has been from some time.
After Pork 101 and some downtime to gamble, nap, update your blog, what-have-you, was a reception for chefs, media, pork producers, judges etc. So I got to know some of them.
Pictured here are Jason Santos, on the right, and his old friend Michael Marino, who was a chef but now is a waiter in Las Vegas, making more money and having a good time.
Jason seems to be enjoying himself, too. He’s the chef of Gargoyles on the Square. That would be Davis Square in Somerville, Mass., near my alma mater of Tufts University. Gargoyles used to be a Mediterranean place, but now it’s whatever Jason wants it to be. A native of the Boston area, he’s having fun experimenting with flavors and textures — puréeing birthday cake and making it into blinis, etc.
Michael’s at Barona helping him prepare for the contest.
“Your helper,” I suggested to Jason.
“My bitch,” he said.
“Hey, this is going into a national magazine!” Michael said.
Well, one of its blogs, at any rate.
I would have let the “bitch” thing go, even though chefs do use famously salty language and I don’t see any reason to shy away from that, but Jake Robinson (in the middle of this picture), said the same thing about his old friend Dave Rensi (on the left).
Dave and I go back years and years, because he’s almost always at the Taste of Elegance, often as a finalist, but this time as Jake’s bitch. Jake’s main job is working for Chartwells in Ann Arbor, but during Taste he’s representing Pacific Rim, an independent restaurant in Ann Arbor where he also works. They funded him and clearly taught him a lot about Asian food.
On their right is Mary Kelpinski, executive director of the Michigan Pork Producers Association.

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