Move over bacon, chefs upgrading pork belly to new heights

Arby's pork belly sandwich

From fast food to fine dining, the pork belly is becoming a hot trend among Americans. While most pork belly is cured into bacon, food connoisseurs are getting creative with the belly section of the pig appearing on food establishments’ menus. According to Bloomberg, in 2005 the number of restaurants with pork belly on the menu was less than 1% whereas now it is a healthy 7%, with a steep climb since 2010.

At the Tru restaurant in Chicago, the pork belly is served with pickled kohlrabi, enoki mushrooms, microparsley and a touch of espelette pepper from Spain. It is part of very expensive eight-course tasting menu, valued at $158. Roasted pork belly is a vintage favorite in the deep South. And no one can miss the Arby’s commercial advertising its “bigger, badder bacon” sandwich, marketing a thick pork belly to the masses.

So, what it is the fascination with the pork belly?

Perhaps, it is a simple fact that everyone likes bacon. Therefore, the logical place to start experimenting with new flavors is the raw material of bacon. Honestly, it goes back to the adaptability of pork and its inexpensive price tag. As Kari Underly, Chicago master butcher and author, explains “The versatility of pork is its selling point.”

Underly says it’s about bringing the farm to fork experience to the city and pork fits well into that plan. Chefs learn quickly that pork belly can be infused with many different flavors to satisfy even the finest taste palate. Moreover, it is about bringing fresh new twists to traditional food items.

“Chefs that work for major restaurant chains and manufacturers, they’re out eating and trying to find out what’s next, and they found pork belly,” Stephen Gerike, director of food-service marketing and innovation at the National Pork Board, told Bloomberg. “Pork belly is hyperindulgent — if you want to drive traffic and get attention, pork belly is going to increase same-store sales, because people will want to come and try it.” 

Yet, Underly openly admits that pork has not always been the first choice among adventurous food preparers. Bringing back the fat and utilizing premium pork lines — from certain breed lines as Duroc and Berkshire — attracts gourmet chefs to pork. One thing is certain, the pork belly is returning rich fat back to the menu and consumers’ plates. Given the affordable pork prices, the food establishments’ upgrade to the pork belly is returning a nice little profit.

Still, the latest pork belly craze is a great illustration that pork can fit in well with all Americans’ diets as a nutritious, safe protein. Moreover, the beauty of America’s pig farmers is the diversity in farm sizes ready to supply the world with the desired pork product.

While foodservice — especially fine dining — is only a segment of the pork marketplace, it often sets the tone for future consumer trends. Food preparers like to mimic a dining experience in their homes and chefs around the world may just be inspiring them to rethink the pork belly.

TAGS: Nutrition
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