Secrets of Success from the King and Queen of Pork

Staff Writer
Secrets of Success from the King and Queen of Pork

For the local food nut or swine savant, it’s impossible not to be inspired by a conversation with John Stewart and Duskie Estes, the husband and wife duo that beat out some of the best chefs in the country to win Grand Cochon — The Heritage Pork Olympic Finals — on June 18th in Aspen. 

Stewart and Estes are the proprietors of Zazu Restaurant + Farm and Bovolo Restaurant in Sonoma County, CA, and they own the Black Pig Meat Company, a purveyor of high quality bacon which super chef Mario Batali calls “delicious, delicate, and nuanced with just the right amount of parliament funkadelic.” I dug deep into my memory of many P-Funk shows, including Bootsy Collins’ triumphant return tour with the Rubber Band in the nineties, to try to understand that characterization. Best I can tell, the pigs Stewart and Estes source from Pure Country Pork in Oregon are being finished on Cosmic Slop, which may be the only chink in the pair’s locavore armor.

Their businesses – and the three-acre farmstead where they raise their two daughters, Brydie and MacKenzie, alongside pigs, chickens, and sheep – are laboratories of local food. It wasn’t planned exactly this way, however. After they found out a few years ago that the prized and rare Schiopettino grapes in their vineyard – which went into wines served exclusively at Zazu and The French Laundry – needed spraying to fight a spreading disease, they decided to start raising pigs rather than spread chemicals near their home.

The Red Wattle pigs they now keep, which are shared with other investors as part of a local food cooperative, are fed leftover scraps from Zazu and Bovolo. The restaurants themselves have strictly seasonal menus, relying almost exclusively on local products, including those grown by a full-time farmer on the grounds of Zazu and in space donated by two restaurant regulars.  The importance of this structure goes beyond just the food that people find on their plates.  “What’s awesome about having the connection of a farm and a restaurant is that cooks have to learn about seasons and harvesting,” said Estes. “They gain respect for how long it takes things to grow, and they don’t burn through things as much. We try to make sure nothing goes to waste.”

Both Stewart and Estes learned these lessons themselves over lifetimes spent around food. Stewart grew up in a fourth generation catering family in New York. In the early 1990s, he moved to Seattle, where he wound up working at Palace Kitchen with Estes, who won a series of accolades as the restaurant’s head chef. At Palace Kitchen, she did lots of whole animal butchering and oversaw a lively rotisserie operation, despite the fact that she had been a vegetarian for 22 years. Then one night she found herself at a dinner party thrown by Seattle ingredient guru Jeff Bergman, whom Stewart calls the “best home cook I’ve ever seen.” Bergman served a pork dish with 100-year old Balsamic vinegar, which Estes tried vainly to avoid eating before devouring every speck on the plate.

It was unclear whether the couple’s marriage in Sonoma in 2000 was a direct result of this conversion, but their love affair with heritage hogs blossomed upon the move to California and the opening of Zazu in 2001. Following an avalanche of formal praise for the restaurant, Estes had a memorable run as an intense, sometimes combative competitor on Food Network’s Next Iron Chef, where she was memorably given a whole pig to cook on a beach in one hour. Stewart, a committed salumist, had a brush with fame himself that made me nearly cry with envy: he apprenticed in charcuterie with Mario Batali. I’ve not yet come across another chef in the country who can make the same claim. For good measure, the couple also throws a bacon-themed, bring-your-own-harvest-fresh-tomatoes party every year, during which people gorge on BLTs and other delights at the height of the wine harvest.

Enter Grand Cochon, the Heritage Pork Olympic Finals, which brought together local and regional winners of the Cochon 555 tour events at the Aspen Food and Wine Festival. Estes and Stewart bulled their way through a competitive Cochon Napa to gain a spot in the championship, and the menu they created – from a Red Wattle pig raised by TC Gemmell at Walnut Keep Farm – put them over the top in a field that included chefs Brad Farmerie (Public/NYC), Matt Jennings (Farmstand/BOS), John Sundstrom (Lark/SEA), and other highly-acclaimed culinary figures like legendary chef Jacques Pépin, who judged the event.

Stewart and Estes’ menu perfectly captured all the things there are to love about high quality pork and their Slow Food approach to cooking:

• “Bacon-in-the-Batter” waffle with maple bourbon gelato and bacon fat toffee: “It was like heath bar ice cream w/ bacon fat toffee crunch,” said Estes. “ We modeled it off a gelato in brioche dish that is eaten in Sicily, and we found an awesome silver-dollar sized waffle iron, which allowed us to cook each dish to order (in a competition where four other teams did pre-made waffles).”

I Heart Pork Bun: “We did a pig heart cooked with hoisin sauce, balsamic, and star anise,” said Estes. “We stuffed that and shredded head meat into a taco-shaped bao bun with cilantro, red Kuwari sprouts, and radishes. Our sous-chef saw Jacques Pépin’s face light up when he tasted it.”

When Pigs Fly: “We treated a pig trotter like a buffalo wing, and served it with Tabasco, Point Reyes blue cheese, and baby celery,” said Stewart. “Our sous-chef Tara came up with the idea.” After braising shanks in pig jelly made from cooking down bones at length, the meat was pulled, mixed, and rolled into a torchon before being breaded, fried, and sliced.

Stewart knew things were on the right track with the menu when Pépin said of the When Pigs Fly dish, “this is very good.” High praise coming from a French chef, must less the French chef. Although that might have been enough to make the whole competition worthwhile, Stewart and Estes also walked away from the competition with a coveted residency at Blackberry Farm, the sustainable food resort/mecca in Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains.

Even as they continue to rack up accolades for their restaurants and their competition food, Stewart and Estes remain committed to spreading the gospel about local food. Here are the top five food tips from the Prince and Princess of Porc:

Know the Source: Says Estes, “As yourself two important questions about the protein you are buying: Where is it from? How was it raised? You have to take responsibility for where your money is going and whose pockets you are lining.”

Understand Quality: Says Stewart, “Awesome fat (the key to high quality pork) is the product of an animal that has lived a good life. Large-scale, industrial farms are out for profit, not quality, and they are feeding us cheap garbage in order to reduce their costs. Ask questions at your grocery store and support small butchers and farmers!”

Don’t Use the Affordability Excuse: Says Estes, “You should want to pay more money for your meat, but you should also focus on portions. Part of the obesity problem is that we over eat protein, and we should aim for just nine ounces a day. Eat less, eat better.”

The Best Parts are the Slow (and Cheap) Parts: Says Estes, “The key tenets of the Slow Food movement are make your food from scratch, support local producers, and sit down and enjoy food with friends and family. The most flavorful cuts of pork are the off-cuts, not the loin, and these off-cuts can take a whole day to cook right. Cooking slow has been lost in American culture, but it’s a great way to enjoy food and time with family.”

Sweet Flavors and Acidity Are Key: Says Estes, “Fruits and pickled things go great with luscious fat from good pigs. Try matching something seasonal with what you’re cooking.”

Stewart and Estes mention legendary Italian butcher Dario Ceccini; California rancher Mac Magruder of Magruder Ranch; Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms; and Tia Harrison, Melanie Eisemann, and Angela Wilson of Avedano’s Holly Park Market butcher shop in San Francisco as inspirational figures who embody slow food. If someone asks me for my opinion on the issue in the future, Stewart and Estes’ names will no doubt be on my list.

To find two great pork recipes from Stewart and Estes, click here.

This article originally appeared at