When he got older, Baker went to culinary school in England and worked as a chef in fine dining establishments in England. They were great places to practice his craft but the hours and pace were brutal. Chef Tony discovered the norm in the industry typically meant working from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., six days a week with underwhelming paydays.
In 1994, he came to America for a vacation and visited his uncle in the Carmel Valley of California. His uncle’s favorite restaurant was the “Rio Grill.” Tony is still in California and today, he is part owner of sister restaurant Montrio Bistro in California. But now he has been able to bring to fruition his other dream — offering dry cured back bacon.
Baker had met Steve Sacks of Prime Smoked Meats in Oakland at a Culinary Institute of America event years ago. Touring Sacks’ plant, he asked him if he had ever made back bacon. He hadn’t. Back bacon is cut with the loin portion still attached to the belly section.
Years later, they met again and the back bacon idea came up again. This time they decided to see what they could develop. What followed was months of testing. From the chef’s perspective, Tony was looking at taste, color and presentation first. Then came work on yields and costs.
From the processing perspective, Sacks said dry cure is a tricky process, including working out the curing ingredients and spices. A wet cure is utilized in 600-gallon tanks. The proven recipe and application of cure and injection is followed by bellies being hung for a half day and then put into the smokehouse. For a dry cure, they had to work out how many days for the cure and then test smoking techniques. It took a while to get color and flavor figured out.
Sacks’ smokehouse is a one-of-a-kind unit built 60 years ago but the smoke generator was built to his specifications and is fueled with maple and apple wood. It uses a real fire and generates a lot of smoke, Sacks said. When working out the smoking, time is only one factor. His smoke is heavy enough it takes three stages of air cleaning to get it ready to leave the facility.
Sacks said lots of processors double smoke bacon these days but only a few use dry cure methods. “Almost no one does both,” he said. Baker’s Bacon single smokes the back bacon but double smokes its regular cut bacon.
Perfecting the product
Baker’s is a low sodium product (160 mg.), because that is where things worked out right to get the color right. Color was the first target, the driver in the process. Then they adjusted the spices to get the cooked flavor right. A 10-12 slice-per-lb. cut is about right for dry curing, according to Baker. While wet cure bacon comes back to green weight or a little less, the dry cure bacon shrinks to about 78 percent of the initial weight. Too thin a slice and the dry cure tends to overcook too easily, he said. From the time the pork comes in until it is ready to ship takes two weeks. The double-smoked regular cut is smoked with apple wood the first time and then gets a cold maple wood the second time. It gets a full 12 hours in the smoke house.
One thing Tony wanted was as clean a label as possible for his bacon. His is a green certified restaurant. So their cure includes sea salt and a “natural” brown sugar and spices. He uses sodium nitrite because safety comes first, he said. And the celery product some processors use instead of sodium nitrite doesn’t work well with a dry cure.
His last challenge was a pork supply. He couldn’t get enough of what he needed in California,so his pork is raised, cut and trimmed in Iowa. Sacks’ plant used to source bellies from as many as eight slaughter plants in California. Now it’s difficult to get supply and every packer’s friend, Rosemary Mucklow, helped him find a new supply from a small packer in Oakland.
Baker’s original thought was that at the price point for dry cure, his product would fit better in high end restaurants. Plus, chefs there would allow more careful attention to the slow cooking this bacon requires. But he’s finding more chefs already slow cooking bacon. And he tells chefs to think of his back bacon not so much as a side but a center-of-the-plate item they can design a meal around.
“We’ve had great success with chefs coming up with creative ways of using the back bacon,” he said. One of his restaurants uses it in a BLT salad, with one slice of back bacon. One chef takes the thicker back bacon chop (sliced about 3/4” thick) and tosses it in the deep fryer, makes his adobo sauce in a wok and then drops the back bacon chop in the sauce and it’s ready to go.
Sacks added that upscale buffet operators like the back bacon to offer customers something different. There is even a donut shop putting Sacks’ bacon on top of a maple glazed donut.
Baker said in his “home” restaurant, an entrée involving the bacon chop, a fruit reduction sauce and crispy macaroni and cheese finished on the flat top grill is his number two seller, outpaced only by a beef short ribs entrée.
Baker’s distribution, for now, runs from Chicago west, with heavy distribution in California. His retail distribution is limited to California for now, with nearly a dozen locations. They’ve only been able to push the bacon hard the last 18 months but are selling 300 to 400 cases a week of a premium product.
It’s taken many years for Chef Tony Baker to bring the bacon he was born and raised on from southwest England to the western US. But he and Sacks have figured out how to do it right. In fact, their slogan is “bacon the way it’s supposed to be.”