When Perfect Pigs Fly

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Miami has more to it than meets the eye, literally. For every square foot of sandy beach, there are square miles of sprawling neighborhoods. For every block of Ocean Drive there are wide flat avenues that run west, away from the sparkle of Brickell towards home. Sure Brickell and South Beach are home to many, but if you are still having trouble finding heart in Miami, it’s because you haven’t headed far enough west. Don’t get me wrong, somewhere between the Deuce and The Room the east side has heart, but out west, there is a culture of family, fueled by Cuban coffee, living the true American Dream, and it’s pork-flavored. So I followed my nose to Medley last week, and to the smell of a pork belly cold smoking in a La Caja China, I learned the story of the Guerra’s.

It started in 1984, “I was in charge of roasting the whole pig that year for the family,” says Roberto Guerra, CEO of La Caja China, “and every year it was a pain. You had to get cement blocks, the grill would disappear from the last year. I was complaining, you know, telling my dad what a mission this was every year, and he said he had seen something in Havana, in Chinatown, that would work. You know the Chinese built the railroads in Cuba.” Just like they did in America. “It was just a wood box with a tin cover, so we started doing prototypes for times and amount of charcoal.”

La Caja China opened as a company in Medley in 1987, named for the people who inspired it. “I got angry I said ‘Cuban bread is from Miami, Cuban coffee is Italian, I’m going to give credit where it’s due! It was a joke!’” At the time Roberto wasn’t serious about the company, “in my mind it was a hobby to keep my dad busy.” But simple products only need to function to grow, and he’ll be the first to tell you what a simple product it is. So much so that they guarantee your first pig will be perfect.

“Imagine, you’re having 20 people over. You’ve never cooked anything bigger than a turkey. You’re colleagues are coming. You’re sweating. It’s so simple, you add charcoal every hour and the ashes lower the temperature. Lower temp makes better pork. When you reach 187 degrees you open the box, score the skin, and flip it over. Then crisp it to your likings. Your guests will be talking about it for weeks. They leave as ambassadors of the box.”

He’s right. To see it in action and to taste the pig is to become a fan. Which is why in 2002 when Douglas Rodriguez, godfather of Latin cuisine, requested two boxes for a dinner at the CIA in Napa, La Caja China found an ambassador in Bobby Flay. Two years later, Bobby told his friend Sam Sifton, then dining editor of the New York Times, how much he loved it. Soon after an article about this family owned and operated company out of Medley, Florida ended up on the front page of the Food section on the Times.

“Back then we were getting about 70 hits a day on our website, that week we got 46,000.” Now, sales are predominately out of the snow belt in what Roberto aptly calls Gringolandia, apart from two weeks in December when the Latin’s come knocking. The boxes are also distributed in Europe, mostly sold to Germany, Lithuania, and Slovenia. “I don’t know how it happened, maybe a little marketing help from upstairs,” Roberto said. His dad still comes in the shop every day, and his son Avian is the General Manager.

“It’s just a box,” Roberto says again and again. And we love nothing more than keeping it simple here in Genuineland, which is why when founder Brady Lowe asked Bradley Herron to participate in this year’s Cochon 555, we only had to follow our noses to The Cypress Room, where sous chef Michael Beltran is part of that western-bred pork-roasting family. And so out of a high school friendship, we are the first outside of the company to use the next generation La Caja China today, a box big enough to fit our 226 pound homegrown pig!

“I always consider them like Cuban cousins,” Michael says of the Guerra’s, and with good reason, his family was cut from a similar cloth. A piece of denim to be exact, with which Michael’s grandmother started a jean business that grew to be three factories in Miami and the Dominican Republic, and why he was inclined to start his own t-shirt company. P.I.G Inc Apparel was born out of a late night after the kitchen was closed, with the idea of combining design with food and creating something fun for cooks and people who love to eat. “I was the class clown,” he said, “I had an eighth grade teacher who told me I ‘d graduate high school when pigs fly, so I thought it would be cool to use the Banksy piece of a floating cow, but make pigs fly.”

Win or lose, we celebrate heritage hogs today, repping the side of Miami that loves them most. Clad in “Notorious P.I.G.” we present to the chicharron-loving, bourbon-slugging COCHON 555 judges, guests, and friends, a La Caja China Berkshire hog, passed from High on the Hog Farms in Clermont to Dale Volkert at Lake Meadow Naturals, then one Genuineland chef to the next from the graveyard shift to dawn, pulled apart and served in each of these forms.

Head, Neck & Heart
caper, anchovy, boiled egg

tonnato, kumquat, fennel, arugula

clam ceviche, crispy lentils

Legs & Shoulders
fermented rice pancake, kale kimchi, herbs

Blood & Liver & Skin
chocolate, peanuts, strawberry

[UPDATED] And the Winner is… Heritage Pork!

Update: This little piggy went to Harry’s Pizzeria…  Winning hog farmer Jim Wood’s Herefords will be front and center on tomorrow night’s Greenhouse Pizzeria menu.  Festivities begin at 7:00 p.m. Purchase tickets now while they are still available, by clicking here.

Hipstamatic is even on the Cochon 555 brandwagon. (photo credit: Ellie Sara Groden)

We are SO friggin’ proud of Michael and chef de Cuisine Bradley Herron for their insane judge’s plate and overall creativity of the entire menu and its presentation, including Godzilla pork rinds, tatts, and all, at last night’s Cochon 555 event in Miami.  A Hereford-at-hanging-weight-sized congratulations to chef Michelle Bernstein, chef de cuisine Bernice Dearaujo, GM Jorge Anaya-Lopez, and the entire SRA. Martinez team on their victory which we are especially thrilled could be shared with one of our favorite local farmers, Jim Wood and his wife Debbie of Palmetto Creek Farms in Avon Park. They, along with our Texan Ossabaw farmer Felix Florez of Black Hill Meats, donated hogs and were in attendance at the Four Seasons Brickell to celebrate and in doing so, support and promote heritage pork. From the energy in the room and the smiles on people’s faces, the message was received loud, fatty, and clear.  Hosted by founder Brady Lowe, Cochon 555 is an annual tour of five cities wherein each compete five chefs using five pigs bred by small, family or local operations, with five wineries and some other really top-notch sponsors of product you want to consume like beers from San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing, Murray’s Cheese, Le Creuset, Rappahannock oysters, and Angel’s Evy (among other) bourbon.

Our judge's pig plate.

From Bradley’s mustard with smoked sausage en croute, to Michael’s BLT which was one of the best ever thanks to our fatty pig, #teamgenuine’s menu was one we and many others will be drooling over for a long time!  A sweet assist from Hedy Goldsmith is never to be forgotten, with her Maple Bacon Peacan Pie (with smoked pecans, housemade creme fraiche, candied bacon toffee, and bourbon chocolate sauce!)  MGFD line cook Jason Aroyo supported by Alex Griffin professionally led the team of helpers from J&W to crank this baby out efficiently and deliciously.  A special shout goes to the incredibly gifted typewriter (a human machine, I kid you not), photographer, and  “Old Pal” pourer Ellie Sara Groden.  Check out her (better iPhone) and my (worse BlackBerry) photos of what went down downtown last night here. Hope to see Brady’s crew descend on The City Beautiful next year, and good luck to team Bernstein in Aspen on 6/17.  We’ll have our own Animals to contend with at Harry’s!

Let The Hunger Games Begin… with an Ossabaw Island Hog

The mighty Ossabaw, courtesy original drawing by Stephanie Voight (DASH 2013)

The highly anticipated futuristic saga hits theaters March 23, but our tournament of survival begins now as Michael and Bradley strategize how to tame a 200 pound hog they have never worked with in the kitchen before: the Ossabaw.

I’m speaking of course of their upcoming entry in the Cochon 555 competition, hitting Miami on April 1 at the Four Seasons Brickell. To satisfy my curiosity about the main ingredient all of which they must use to wow 20 judges and a ravenous crowd, I rang hog farmer and owner of Black Hill Ranch, Felix Florez, a sommelier by trade, but now passionately converted to raising seven breeds of hog, with the perfect hog in the works, on his 10 acre ranch in Houston, Texas. His family had always been into cattle ranching, but it was his work in the restaurant business since about 18 years old that ultimately led him to his calling.

“Because I’ve been in restaurants so long one of the things I noticed is how much product we were bringing from outside, and it never made sense to me why we weren’t using more that was local,” he explains. “So I made up my mind to get a piece of land and put animals on it and do what the best ranchers in the world were doing. I did a lot of studying what they were doing in Spain and Iowa.”

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Did Someone Say Super Porkwich? Game On!

Chef de Cuisine Bradley Herron's daily game plan.

Later today, Hedy, Michael, and Bradley plus the peanut gallery of yours truly and Ellie, will get our pork on as the strategy talks continue for our offerings at Cochon 555, coming to Miami for the first time on April 1. See New York’s recent winner here, and stay tuned to the competition’s website for the announcement of our competitors and ticket sales.

More Bradley game-planning...

Of course it’s only fair that, in honor of the more imminent pigskin faceoff known as the Super Bowl, we share our winning game day pork recipe for your use at home.  I tested this puppy, a new one from Bradley’s arsenal including past winners like Honeycrisp Apple Salad, and it is as easy to prepare as it is delicious.  I used a standard, but no less delicious, ground shoulder from Publix, but you could get fancy with heritage meat if you can find it, like we get for the restaurant from Jim Wood at Palmetto Creek Farms. Try your hand — two are preferable — for a mid-game meal this Superbowl Sunday, and let us know what you think and send us a photo.  Mine was gone before I could snap one!

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This Little Piggy Went… to Miami

Heritage Pork: The un-white meat is marbled with delicious fat.

Come to mama.

Let the games begin!  Cochon 555, one serious traveling competition bringing chefs and winemakers together to raise awareness of the goodness of heritage pork, made the even smarter decision to bring the U.S. tour in its fourth year (finally!) to South Florida. And with bacon as our witness,  WE ARE READY!

Our Genuine Dream Team representing will be chef/owner Michael Schwartz and @MGFD_MIA chef de cuisine Bradley Herron.  As Michael shared when we shot our TV pilot in fall 2010, inspired by working with Jim Wood’s Palmetto Creek Farm Hereford hogs, “I don’t know where this The Other White Meat moniker came from, but it’s not working for me.”  We hope we get a chance to work with his locally-raised and slaughtered product for this event.

As reported by Eater yesterday, “The ten city nose-to-tail event kicks off on January 22nd in New York City, with the winner of each city going on to compete for the title of King (or Queen) of Porc at the Grand Cochon at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen on June 17, 2012.”  See chef Bradley’s reaction when he heard the news, below, and stay tuned for ticket sales to go live for the April 1, 2012 match-up, on the Cochon 555 website.

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