Q & A with Chris Phelps and Zak Walters: Driving to Napa Valley for Pork + Converting Vegans at Salt's Cure
Chris Phelps and Zak Walters from Salt's Cure
If it's manly to love meat, there are no two manlier men in Los Angeles than chefs Chris Phelps and Zak Walters of Salt's Cure. The two opened Salt's Cure to supply local restaurants with specialty products such as house-made bacon and sausages, but all it took was for them to cook their meats themselves for the rave reviews to begin pouring in. Within weeks of their opening, the LA Times had declared it one of the best brunches in town and Jonathan Gold called their BLT "the essence of late summer." Behold the power of bacon.
Phelps and Walters met while working together at seafood-centric restaurant The Hungry Cat, and years later, it was a shared dream of one day hosting a whole pig roast on the beach that reunited them and eventually led to Salt's Cure, now a restaurant serving brunch, lunch and dinner only using products from California. In part one of our interview, the two discuss how they find their happy pigs and calves.
Squid Ink: There seems to a real focus on the sourcing of your ingredients. On your menus, as opposed to writing down the explanations and descriptors about what it is, how it's prepared, it just says what the main ingredient is. So it'd just say...
Zak Walters: Pork chop.
ZW: We don't want to overcomplicate anything. I think it resembles the simplicity of what it is also. You don't need to say anything.
Chris Phelps: Yeah, even if it's 15 things, it'll say "Sea Bass."
ZW: (Walters points to the menu board) Right here it says "Grilled Cheese Sandwich." If someone wants a grilled cheese sandwich, they can ask. Even if we were to say Nicasio Square cheese someone's going to ask "What's Nicasio Square cheese?" So it helps us in engaging the customer and getting them to ask questions and help them feel safe.
CP: I think it's understated so when you get it, it's a surprise in a good way. As opposed to "Succulent Slow Roasted Pork, Roasted Over a Wood-Burning Grill."
ZW: There's a certain trust. Even if you go to fancy restaurants and modern menus, it'll say "Sea bass, cucumber, salt." And then those things are going to be interpreted . That's what you're reading, but it's not going to just be sea bass, cucumber and salt.
CP: I don't really like reading each time I sit down and trying to figure out what to order. It's much easier to just say, "I'll have the pork chop and the oysters." It takes five minutes.
SI: If we understand correctly, you started as a butcher. How'd it all begin?
CP: Yeah, as a restaurant supply store. Like making bacon and sausage as opposed to having to buy them all from Niman Ranch or wherever.
ZW: Not that anything is wrong with Niman Ranch.
CP: Or the people who buy from Niman Ranch. (Laughter)
ZW: But when that is the best product that the majority of restaurants can find, and that's where they're happy with ending their journey in sourcing, then you can go to five different restaurants tonight, eat that food and it's all going to taste the same because it's coming from the exact same spot.
SI: And you guys are buying these animals whole. Why?
CP: Not only because it's accessible and affordable, but to get the best product that's out there, you pretty much have to get the whole animal. The real ranchers don't break down these animals. If they did, they'd just have a bunch of parts left over. They'd sell all their bellies and chops but be left with all their heads.
ZW: I see a lot of this in San Francisco. When Chris worked at that steakhouse in Baltimore, it was like this. And the steakhouses in Oklahoma. Los Angeles is really the first city we've both encountered that doesn't do this. Los Angeles as whole is really hellbent on how much money they're going to make. Time is money. They want that shit to be fast.
SI: How did the restaurant develop from the butcher shop?
ZW: Creating this kitchen. The second we signed off on doing all that. If we opened up solely as a butcher shop, we would have become a restaurant by now anyway.
CP: That's what we trained for.
ZW: It got to the point where someone would ask for meat once, twice a week. Then once a month. And it just kind of went away. And then for us to supply this place, to do both, we would have to up our operations completely.
CP: We don't have the space for it. We'd have to double our operations.
ZW: And for us to find our products, especially for pork products, it's really, really hard for us to try to go anywhere else. We drive all the way to the Napa Valley for it.
SI: You drive all the way to Napa Valley?
ZW: Well, we fly there then drive back.
SI: Seriously? How often do you do that?
CP: Once every four weeks.
ZW: We're going back in a couple weeks.
SI: How much do you get?
CP: We found that the amount is six pigs and two calves or six pigs and a calf and a steer. That's pretty much like 2000 something pounds of meat.
ZW: So that being said, we've got a very good deal going for where we're getting our products from. There's good product in Southern California, but the price is much higher.
SI: How'd you find your meat purveyors?
ZW: The week before we opened, we had no idea where we were going to get our beef from, and then a friend of ours called.
CP: Three days before we opened, we saw it, and it was perfect. It was covered in big fuzzy mold. It was dry aged the old-fashioned way, and it smelled like... (Phelps takes a big sniff, sighs wistfully, and laughs) And then you cut it open, and it's this beautiful, beautiful purple black meat.
ZW: When we started as a butcher shop, we sold them as New York steaks, and our regulars just couldn't believe how good it was. All the beef is coming from Santa Barbara, and it's raised by one man who has very minimal amounts of heads of cattle. We get product from them once a month. He doesn't give it to us unless it's been aged for 26 days.
ZW: That kind of screwed us also because we know what product we're getting from him.
CP: When he doesn't have beef, we can't just buy some other beef.
ZW: Which is crazy to go into a restaurant in this day and age, and "Oh, there's no beef on the menu." We have those moments where we almost broke down and bought steaks from somewhere else, just to put them on the menu. It was like drug addicts helping each other out. Like, "No, man. No."
CP: Yeah, we had a few menus for two months that was like three pork entrées and a chicken and a swordfish and that was it.
SI: So neither of you are from California. How did this dedication to sourcing begin?
ZW: We just really love California. We wanted to do only California.
CP: Food tastes better the closer you are to it. That's the bottom line.
ZW: You can't even argue the other side of it. Things do taste better when they're not put into any kind of plastic and put into a box and shipped somewhere. The second that protein touches that plastic, for the most part, it just loses a lot of its essence.
CP: And they're sitting there in their own blood, getting all funky.
ZW: They call it "wet aging," which doesn't make any damn sense. You can ask any good rancher, any good butcher. They don't believe in that whatsoever. Everything should be dry aged. Slowly, everything is going back to the way that they were, just because they're finally realizing the effects of DDT and all that fun stuff. It's going to be a slow movement, but I think through the course of the rest of our lives, the agricultural movement that's going on right now in the entire country, especially California, can continue to get better. Unless there's some sort of apocalypse or catastrophe or something.
SI: Have you converted any vegans at Salt's Cure?
CP: Yeah, we've turned a couple of vegans actually. We had one guy who hadn't eaten meat in five years, and he before he ate it, it was like he was about to break the law. "I'm gonna be shunned from my friends, but I wanted a cheeseburger, and I went to the one restaurant where I would get a product that was at least raised correctly."
SI: And you can assure them the quality of these meats because you go there every four weeks and see them.
CP: The pigs play with the families. They're really happy.
ZW: They live like pigs should.
CP: I think they each have like 5 acres per pig. But they form herds because they're in the wild.
ZW: They're raised eating walnuts, old vegetables and Cowgirl Creamery. They're not living a bad life. (Laughter) And they have all these different ponds that they can get all dirty and nasty.
CP: Yeah, they can roll around and make babies.
Check back later for the second part of this interview and Phelps and Walters' recipe for pulled pork sandwihes.
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