Jack Mountain Meats at Nell Thorn
The food world undergoes constant movements and trends. It is ever evolving, and since it’s such an integral part of our lives it is, perhaps, fitting that we are always finding ways to innovate it and make it better. We underwent a massive boom with globalization about 30 years ago. With improvements to transportation, storage and refrigeration, we suddenly found ourselves with food from all over the world on our plates.
Now there is an increased desire for local, organic and sustainable foods. We’ve come to recognize the benefits, both financially and nutritionally, of eating close to home. Even with that increased attention to locally sourced products, it’s easy to lose track of where exactly our food is coming from. You get used to buying the same things and working in a restaurant is no different. You become accustomed to working with the same suppliers and depend on them to provide you with the same quality products week in and week out.
To ensure that we don’t lose track of where our food is coming from the staff at Nell Thorn has decided to take monthly field trips to visit with our suppliers and see exactly what is going into our products and how much hard work and care is put into them before they even make it through our doors.
All of the many farms and companies that provide us with ingredients are important to us but it was with no small amount of excitement that we opted to make Jack Mountain Meats our first trip. We have worked with J.M.M. since they opened in March of 2015 but they were on the radar of two of our chefs well before that. Mike Miller, the kitchen manager here at Nell Thorn recalled seeing their products at farmers markets in the area before the facility in Burlington was opened.
“They are doing the right products for what a restaurant needs,” Mike says. “It can be hard to find sources for the volume we do while still being able to adapt it to something that is high quality and still cost effective.” Immediately he starts calculating costs versus profit, not just on our side of it, but for J.M.M as well. “I think it’s about being sustainable and being respectful. About being thoughtful about not depleting things.” Thoughtful is a world that resonates with Mike. For him it’s not about a trend and it’s not purely about the environmental costs. It’s about finding the perfect balance so that the community is happy and cared for. So that J.M.M is successful and given the time and backing to grow into the powerhouse it is destined to be. And ensuring Nell Thorn stays an integral part of the community for years to come. It’s a complicated financial tightrope in an industry that, literally and figuratively, wants to serve people.
Will Rodriguez, the Sous Chef here at Nell’s, also sees the importance of staying local whenever possible. “Being local is very important for our business. That way we know there is a community and people that support it.” But aside from being local (J.M.M. provides products from Bellingham to Tacoma but you shouldn’t expect to see their products on the shelves of Safeway in California anytime soon), their facilities are truly beautiful and the care they take in their work is evident. “Another thing is the quality of their facilities and respect for their stocks.”
J.M.M. is a USDA certified provider of pork products and is expanding that to include beef. Originally beef was being used mostly in-house, the trim being put into sausages and pepperonis, but as the business has grown so has the demand for more products. It’s a unique challenge for a business to undertake. The USDA certification program is a massively complicated undertaking that involved years of research and development as well as a complete remodel of the facilities before they were able to open their doors in 2015.
Chris DePalma, the general manager of J.M.M who graciously provided us with the tour, is a well spoken, enthusiastic and passionate man. He cares about what they do and that care resonates around him like a electric charge. In order to start making the products they wanted to, they first had to jump through all the hoops involved in getting that certification. The first step was establishing a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) plan. It’s a plan to counter any possible avenues of food contamination.
“There is a plan in place to mitigate those risks,” says Chris. Detailed logs are kept of all temperature controls, fermentation, pH levels and an endless amount of other factors. “All of our measuring devices have to be calibrated on a daily basis.”
“Food safety is our number one priority,” Chris says. “Food safety, employee safety and a good work environment.” That fact is emphasized by the sign above the front loading door emblazoned with a “649 days without incident or injury.” Employee retention is high and they are adding on more people as they grow.
In the end though the products speak for themselves. They are high quality, premium products with an emphasis on being “simple and pure,” says Chris. The facility sources it’s pigs from one farm in Central Washington. The pigs there are fed a diet of peas, barley and triticale, an amphidiploid hybrid of wheat and rye with a high protein content. This compared to corn and soy found on so many farms. The pigs have room to roam and ample living space as well as fresh bedding, food and water daily. Pigs are ordered by J.M.M on Wednesdays based on the number of orders they have that week and are slaughtered and delivered the next day. On arrival the animals are brought in the cut into primals and subprimals and from there divvied up based on the orders for the week. Smoked and aged products can be aged for 8 to 10 days. Things like landjaeger, pepperoni and cervelat are also fermented for two days with all natural cultures in highly regulated spaces that monitor pH and moisture levels continuously. Hams and capicola are trimmed, brined in a house blend of herbs and placed in a vacuum tumbler that can handle up to 800 lbs of meat at a time.
The sausage is made by first doing a coarse grind on the meat before placing it into a buffalo or bowl chopper. The benefit to the chopper is that by cutting the meat, rather than using a fine grind, the proteins in the flesh do not break down. “It’s about getting better particle definition,” says Chris. Salt and seasoning is added partway through the process. Travis, the head butcher at J.M.M, tells us that if it is added too soon the meat gets tacky. For those of you who have heard the phrase ‘Don’t want to know how the sausage is made,’ you can forget about it here. The meat is beautiful and pink, marbled with buttery fat and the smell of the herb blend being added is an intoxicating enough cloud that we were ready to put it on the grill before they managed to get it into casings.
After the sausages are bound up in casings (J.M.M. uses either natural casings or collagen depending on the end product) they are wheeled on massive wracks into the walk in smoker. The smoker is about the size of our walk in refrigerator at Nell’s, complete with sensors and computers to continually monitor the temperatures. As for the smoke source J.M.M uses crushed hazelnut shells.
“It’s local and it’s unique,” says Chris. It is also a lighter smoke than a typical hardwood, he explains, although it still burns at a high temperature. Standing near the smoker you instantly see what he means. Where hardwoods can be abrasive and acrid this is sweeter. Headier. Rather than a campfire in full tilt, it is subtler. Softer. More like the embers left the next morning.
Adding beef to their offerings presents an entirely new set of challenges. When switching between two types of meat all of the equipment must be completely sanitized in between. All clothing, gloves etc. must be changed and the rooms themselves are sprayed down with hoses coiled on the walls. One with chlorinated water and one with scalding hot water.
As we are led through the facility of gleaming surfaces and spotless equipment the challenges they face and the length they go to in order to provide us with our products comes into full focus. It’s hard work. It’s a grueling undertaking, but it is paying off. This is a building filled with people who truly care about what they are doing and are excited to be sharing it with their community. In no way was that more evident than when they revealed their secret pet project with us. Hidden away in a drying room is a rack of their take on Bayonne ham. It’s an ambitious undertaking. Bayonne has a massive reputation and a rich history that includes Henry the IV demanding it at his table. The most mature sample they have has been drying in staggeringly controlled conditions for a year and half and Travis is kind enough to shave off some samples from it for us to try.
“What they are doing with the Bayonne ham is nothing more than fascinating,” says Will. “They are trying to do something that has been done for hundreds of years to perfection in Europe. To me it shows their passion for what they are doing and how they are moving forward with their products.”
“It’s interesting that there are qualities and characteristics in the area that effect it,” says Mike. “I would have expected a lower water content. It’s unlike any other cured ham I’ve had. The truffley, mustiness of it. The hint of chestnuts.”
Who knows. In a hundred years we might just have people trying to imitate the Skagit Ham. It’s an exciting glimpse into what this company is capable of and what they can accomplish with the support of their community. Beyond their unbelievable quality it’s perhaps this drive to move forward with new things, to experiment, to push the envelope that makes them the perfect provider for us.
“J.M.M. was chosen as a supplier [for Nell Thorn] for multiple reasons. For their knowledge, passion and, most of all, the quality of their products. At the end of the day customers come back for quality as long as the cost and price is reasonable to their pockets,” says Will.
Perhaps the most exciting thing to see on this trip for the rest of the staff was seeing Mike and Will collaborate with Chris about future products and deciding what else we could add to our rotation. Mike, at first glance, is an intimidating, imposing figure in the kitchen. Quickly you find he is usually soft spoken, funny and has a massive intellect that can unfurl an encyclopedic knowledge of food as well as the business aspects of running a restaurant. He is comfortable in the background, where he creates unique and beautiful specials, but can slip seamlessly to the foreground when things start to go wobbly in the kitchen, as they so often do. There he acts as a rudder, putting us back on track and giving us a steadfast touchstone to lean on.
Will is the yang to Mike’s yin. While Mike is mercurial, Will is a solid wall of fiery passion. His vehement demands for perfection are tempered by a quick wit and gregarious laugh. It’s impossible to not feel Will’s presence when he is in the building as he pushes us. Pushes for better. Pushes for faster. He’s the drill sergeant who besieges us. But it is like an itch you long to scratch. You start to crave the approval and the delicately doled out compliments.
Seeing these two culinary powerhouses put their heads together with another innovative mind to create bigger and better things is inspiring. And by the end of the day Mike is already in the kitchen making his own Washington sweet bread buns for bacon dogs...yup. I said bacon dogs. A day doesn’t really end any better than that.