When Tony Baker was a kid, on the drive to his grandparents’ house in southwest England, his parents would often stop at a butcher shop along the way. One of the things he remembered them buying was back bacon. This was not an unusual type of bacon to find in England decades ago. Back then, it was usually not a smoked product. Today, it’s not as common to find back bacon in England, and if you do find it, it is usually an injected product.
Years later, Baker dreamed of bringing this favorite food from his youth to America, to his adopted home in California.
When he grew up, Baker went to culinary school in England and worked as a chef in fine dining establishments. They were great places to practice your craft but kept one to a grueling pace, Baker found, working from 8:00 in the morning until 11:00 at night, six days a week, and not making any real money.
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 called the “Rio Grill.” In California today, Baker is part owner of sister restaurant Montrio Bistro. And now, he has been able to bring to fruition his other dream – dry-cured back bacon.
Bringing back Bacon
Baker met Steve Sacks of Prime Smoked Meats in Oakland, California, 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, Baker was looking at taste, color and presentation first. Then came work on yields and costs.
From the processing perspective, Sacks said dry cure is tricky, working out the curing ingredients and spices. A wet cure is traditionally done in 600-gallon tanks. Bellies then hung for half a day and then went 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. The smoke generator was built to his specifications, using maple and applewood. It uses a real fire and generates lots of smoke, he says. 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 says. Baker’s Bacon single smokes the back bacon but double smokes its regular cut bacon.
Baker’s is a low sodium product (160 mg.), because that was the amount of sodium needed 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. Ten to 12 slices per pound is about right for dry curing, he says. 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, Baker says. From the time the pork comes in until it is ready to ship takes two weeks. The double smoked regular cut is smoked with applewood the first time and then gets a cold maplewood the second time. It gets a full 12 hours in the smokehouse.
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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 says. 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, drops the back bacon chop in the sauce and it’s ready to go.
But what surprised Baker was how the back bacon has been received in bars and taverns. He recalls walking into a bar in Arizona, thinking there was no way this place would be interested in his high-end bacon. How wrong he was. The place is now one of Baker’s best customers. The cook puts his hamburger patty down on the bun, puts the loin portion of the back bacon on top of that, the other fixings on top of that, puts the bun on top of that, brings the tail of the back bacon around over the top of the bun and pins it with a tooth pick and voila, a whole new menu item.
Sacks adds that upscale buffets like the back bacon to offer something different. There is a donut shop putting their bacon on top of a maple glazed donut.
Sacks says even with his decades of experience with everything from inspection to equipment to process and experience in sales, it can be a challenge to get in to see chefs. Baker is a chef, so he gets in and interacts with the chefs easily, as they speak the same language. They open up a box and start bouncing ideas off each other.
One thing that was important to Baker when creating his bacon was having a clean label. The bacon includes sea salt and a “natural” brown sugar and spices. He uses sodium nitrite because safety comes first, and the celery product some processors use instead of sodium nitrite doesn’t work well with a dry cure.
His last challenge was pork supply – Baker 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 six to eight slaughter plants in California, one from only two blocks away. 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 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.”