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In search of the perfect pork chop in Colorado

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Randolph’s Restaurant at the Warwick Hotel recently set on a mission to find the best pork chop in Colorado. Colorado isn’t exactly hog-farming country. Most hogs in the U.S. are raised in the Corn Belt (Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, etc.) and North Carolina. These pigs are usually raised on large farms and in enclosed buildings to protect the pigs from the harsh climate and disease.

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Colorado’s climate is drier, higher in elevation, and less-conducive to raising swine when compared to the Midwest; which means as badly as Colorado chefs want to locally source their pork, there is just no truly native supply. Chef Jesper Jonsson of Randolph’s knows a little more about hog farming than the average chef from Denver.

Chef Jesper was led out to Meeker, Colorado after spending a few years as the executive chef for a catering company in New York City. Chef Jesper accommodated many meals for NYC’s elite, including a man who splits his time between New York and his Meeker ranch. That same man provided Chef Jesper with a unique opportunity in Meeker. After accepting a chef position at the private ranch, Chef Jesper was out of the metropolis and into the plateaus of north-western Colorado.

Meeker, population 2,200, is thousands of miles, millions of people, and countless food sources away from New York. Meeker is mostly sheep-ranching country doing its part in helping Colorado become world-renowned for naturally sage and anise flavored lamb. Just outside of Meeker in the White River Valley is the Strang Ranch. Tom and Lisa, Stang Ranch proprietors, spend most of their time raising Herefords and Black Angus cows. At 6,500 feet above sea level, it’s necessary to have a hearty livestock to weather such conditions as the wind, dry air, snow, and meager natural vegetation for foraging.

One thing Tom and Lisa discerned after moving to Meeker from the Midwest was that there are no pigs for the local 4-H kids to show. Lisa is originally from Meeker but spent her college years learning about livestock in other states where she met Tom. When Lisa and Tom took over Lisa’s parents’ ranch in Meeker, they wanted to raise a few pigs for the town’s 4-H kids.

Enter Chef Jesper and his children who he currently raises in Meeker. He bought a pig from Tom and Lisa to allow them to take care of the pig as a project. Little did anyone know this little piggie would develop into a long-standing relationship between both families.

In fact, Randolph's currently sources pork from Tom and Lisa’s ranch. Since Tom and Lisa only have a handful of pigs, Chef Jesper knows exactly where his pork is coming from and how they’re treated.

Tom and Lisa’s children take a special liking to the pigs and treat them like pets. The kids visit the piglets often and play tag with them in the barn. Pigs are social creatures and the more you visit them in their pens, the more they eat. If you leave them alone, they nap. The key to allowing a pig to grow quickly without added hormones or antibiotics is to visit them and visit them often. This is what makes Tom and Lisa’s pigs superior to the rest. They are stress-free and naturally eat lots of food making them ideal for gaining weight.

What makes Tom and Lisa’s relationship with Chef Jesper even more special is that they are truly creating the perfect pork chop. Chefs and pig farmers have conflicting ideas on what the perfect pig should be.

Most pig farmers will tell you that the pig litters must be large enough to be worth the cost of raising. The ideal litter is 10-12 piglets and beyond. Chefs will tell you it’s all about the taste, which ultimately comes down to fat content (fat is flavor!) and the heritage. For chefs, Berkshire pigs are the cream-of-the-crop as they are prized for juiciness and tenderness. Its high fat content is ideal for long cooking and high temperatures. Berkshires are a rare breed of pig. That means they are expensive. Their litters are small, averaging 5-6 piglets, making them costly to raise. Chefs like Berkshires, pig farmers do not.

Yorkshire pigs are extremely common in America and are very muscular producing mostly lean meat. Their litters run 10-12 piglets which means farmers love them, but the high muscle content means chefs do not.

Duroc pigs are very different from Yorkshires and Berkshires. They are very docile in temperament and are known for gaining weight quickly. They have a tasty layer of fat between the skin and muscle, but aren’t quite as tasty as the Berkshire breed.

What happens when you cross the three? We’re not quite sure yet, but this is what Tom and Lisa are embarking on for Randolph’s restaurant. Tom and Lisa are currently raising two male Berkshires for breeding. Chef Jesper already purchases 50/50 mixed Duroc Yorkshire pigs from the farm. In collaboration with Chef Jesper, Tom and Lisa plan on creating a pig which will be 50% Berkshire for the delicious taste, 25% Duroc for the added layer of fat and passive behavior, and 25% Yorkshire for the large litters and cost advantages.

Will this be the perfect pork chop? Yes, it will. This cross-breed will be one of the few pigs to satisfy both the pig farmer and the chef’s desires. While none of these perfect pork chops are yet available, Randolph’s is cooking up a pretty mean pork chop from Tom and Lisa’s farm. So far, diners love the meatiness, the flavor, and tenderness delivered by the Duroc-Yorkshire, which means the Berkshire-Duroc-Yorkshire breed will be even better.

It'll be a little bit before the 50/25/25 chop makes its way to the menu at Randolph's. But be assured, the perfect pork chop is on its way to Denver!

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