Each morning, Mike Phillips, the most highly regarded salumiere and charcuterie master in the state if not the region, wakes at 4:30 a.m. He's on site at his shiny new northeast Minneapolis meat-curing facility by 5:15. He starts with a walk-through to examine cleanliness and adherence to USDA regulations. Then, this meat master and owner of Red Table Meat Co. is already thinking about lunch. Sort of.
"I like to make lunch every day for the crew, so I get something going that sits on the stove all day."
Production begins at 6:05 a.m. on the dot.
"It's surgical. Every minute counts. We have to do everything during regulation hours, so we stop exactly at 2:30 p.m."
But then it's on to cleaning and paperwork, where he spends about 30 percent of his time. Naturally, he's tired.
"Some days I think I should have my head examined," he says of his decision to make the move from the chef's life to his current calling. And it was sort of a calling, he says. After working with charcuterie and cured meats to great fanfare when he was chef of Craftsman, he traveled to Italy to fully understand the obsessive attention and passion for regional food craftsmanship. He got a mentor, internationally renowned salumiere Francois Vecchio, and eventually moved to a one-pig-a-week operation in the back of The Local. And this year, to this full-on, USDA-regulated 15-pig-a-week production.
It's like any small business, he says. He worries about getting the farmers paid, worries about getting staff paid, worries about paperwork, cleaning stuff, and then about making a good product. Surviving.
And then there are the USDA regulations: USDA agents are onsite to oversee things every single day -- they even have their own office in the building.
A big surprise for him, and for his mostly restaurant-background staff of six, is that while the job is creative, it's a very different kind of creative from the average restaurant kitchen.
"We can't just say, 'Hey! Let's test out this new recipe!'" Everything must be adhered to by strict scientific standards. So he tests those new recipes out on staff meal instead.
The salumi and things he refers to as "cooked products" (ham, speck) are made from pigs that come from a handful of local farmers who Phillips has close relationships with. Serious attention to animal welfare is of the utmost importance to him, and, he says, yields a better product. He desperately wants to make use of the entire animal, but he's finding that it's harder to market bones, heads, kidney fat, and the like, than say, legs, which produce their ridiculously delicious ham.
But if he could, if there were a strong enough market for it, he'd like to make headcheese.
"I was in a Czech market in Toronto. They had a meat counter that was really unreal. I counted at least 13 different types of headcheese. Glorious."
But for now, back to the ham, otherwise known as the Royale: cooked and smoked leg, fermented and cured with salt, sugar, bay leaf, rosemary, garlic, allspice, juniper, coriander, and black pepper, and aged for about a month.
It's the best ham we've ever eaten and we will say that with pure conviction. And Phillips and crew can never get their hands on any because it's so popular. "There's no touching it. Every time we see it go out we go, 'Oh, come on!'"
The ham-maker has no ham.
But they do eat some of the other meats every day, and no, they are not tired of it. There are currently 16 products in the repertoire, with Speck being the latest creation, a dry-cured and smoked ham fermented and cured with bay leaf, rosemary, allspice, juniper, coriander, and smoke, aged about six months.
Those words "dry cured" and "fermented" are what separate Red Table Meat's products, and others of their kind, from the rest of the pork world. Here's why his is healthier:
"It's a long answer, and it's not because I'm trying to be circuitous:
1. There is a process in the pork industry that adds water, creating a rich environment for bad bacteria.
2. We take water away with dry curing and fermentation, creating a healthy microbiology.
3. It may seem counter-intuitive for a meat producer to say, but we [Americans] eat too much meat -- we can't sustain it. So if you taste our ham for instance, you don't need four or five ounces of it in a sandwich. A little goes a long way. That goes for salami too. You slice off just a little bit, and it's enough."
He's right, it's powerful stuff.
"Healthier choices in definition have changed in the last ten years. Now, it's not about eating fat substitutes, or eating low fat. It's about good food."
And good food takes time. So with that, he's back to work.
"I'm that old man who goes to bed at 5 and wakes up at 4:30 a.m. I never thought it could happen to me. I'd love to go out to restaurants, but I fall asleep in my food."
Red Table Meats can be found on many local restaurant menus, as well as at these retail outlets.
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