February 13, 2014

Fat and happy at Miyake's place

Originally published in the Portland Phoenix on January 30, 2014

The pigs make a racket, squealing and grunting, anticipating another meal, as we gingerly approach on paths of melting snow and ice. I’m in Freeport, where chef Masa Miyake has turned his Freeport backyard into a full-fledged hog farm; farm manager Emily Phillips built paddocks for the pigs and moved them closer to the house for the winter.

“They’re pretty food-motivated,” laughs Phillips. The pens house four different breeds of pigs, all of them eager to sniff us. They crowd against the fence, pressing their round noses against our legs. Phillips points out different breeds as she scratches the back of a fat, black pig named Raisin.

Miyake’s farm is one of many projects keeping the Portland chef busy. In the past six years, Miyake has opened three restaurants — including his Diner which just opened its doors in the original Miyake space on Spring Street — and turned his 3.5-acre Freeport property into a breeding ground for rare and heritage varieties of pigs. Phillips cares for about 15 pigs at Miyake’s farm, breeding them in the hopes of creating uniquely flavored meat. Twenty more of their feeder pigs are being raised by the staff at Wolfe’s Neck Farm, also in Freeport. Miyake’s farm-raised pork is served in all of his restaurants, with Pai Men Miyake using the most of it in their ramen and dumplings. (The pork buns aren’t made with Miyake farm pork, since the farm doesn’t yet produce enough pork belly to supply the popular menu item.)

Miyake started his pork production by raising two breeds of pigs: Landrace and Guinea. Landrace are the typical pink pigs that are bred to be lean and muscular; Guinea hogs are a smaller, rare breed that is unique to the United States. These pigs were frequently raised by homesteaders attracted to their small stature, high fat content, and their rooting behaviors, which helped till garden beds. Phillips says chefs have grown bored with Landrace pigs and are attracted to the high fat content and flavor of Guinea hogs’ meat.

Phillips is looking forward to the birth of three litters of piglets in March. She successfully bred two Mangalitsa pigs, a curly-haired Hungarian breed that’s frequently referred to as the ‘Kobe beef’ of pork. Raisin, a Guinea hog, bred with a Ossabaw Island boar, so her piglets will be a unique hybrid. Phillips’ goal is to establish a strong breeding stock, which is a long process. In the meantime, she’s busy with the daily care of the animals and managing the restaurant’s office operations.

Restaurant co-owner and manager Will Garfield explains that chef Miyake started raising the pigs to provide his customers with a meaningful story about their food. “You can find pork anywhere,” Garfield says. “I can pick up the phone and get six different types of pork from different purveyors. But we wanted at least to be moving in a direction where we could say, this is Miyake farm pork.”

Miyake and his partners aren’t looking to reinvent the wheel with their farming endeavors. They recognize that they are first and foremost a restaurant group and will never be able to farm on the same scale as full-time farmers.

Phillips and Miyake are instead looking to differentiate themselves in the market with their unique pork and produce. Phillips says, “We live in such an amazing place with so many knowledgeable and efficient local farms that produce really quality stuff. So we’ve been trying to envision how we can dig out our little niche within that.”

Phillips took a year off from growing produce on the farm, but is planning to plant Japanese vegetable varieties this year. With her care in the fields and on the farm, and Miyake’s talent in the kitchen, the food at the Miyake restaurants is in good hands.

Find Miyake farm-raised pork at Pai Men Miyake | 188 State St. | 207.541.9204 | miyakerestaurants.com/pai-men-miyake