Pork Moves Front and Center

National Pork Board

With beef prices on the rise, many chefs and restaurants have begun to feature premium cuts of pork as a center-of-the-plate item similar to a prime steak.

These trendy cuts, however, go beyond the belly. This year, the National Pork Board, as part of a new program approved by the USDA, released new nomenclature for different types of pork chops that align closely with well-known beef cuts. Though the new names began in the retail sector, they are being applied to foodservice as well.

In the past, diners might see a pork chop labeled simply as that, with no distinction even if some chops came from the rib and others from the sirloin. Now, pork chops are differentiated between rib chops, or “ribeye chops,” while pork top loin chops are referred to as “New York chops.” Pork loin chops are known as the “pork porterhouse chop” and are similar to a T-bone cut with the top part of the tenderloin on one side and longer loin chop on the other. Other beef-like cuts such as flat iron and Kansas City strip (part of the sirloin) are also unofficially being used for pork.

Though just released this year, the new pork names are catching on. In fact, new cuts of meat, including pork, was the No. 3 trend in the main dishes/center of the plate category on the National Restaurant Association’s “What’s Hot 2014 Culinary Forecast.” New meat cuts took the 14th spot in overall top 20 trends, with 69 percent of the chefs surveyed for the report backing its trendiness.

Cost Incentives

While pork belly and other pork-based small plates have dominated menus in recent years, more restaurants are turning to the new pork chop names to position pork as a premium, center-of-the-plate item. And chefs say there are clear monetary incentives behind these cuts.

Retailers had been approved to use these new cuts as a way to sell more pork, increase margins, and offer greater value, and now restaurants can do the same. In 2012, beef prices jumped 7.42 percent, while pork prices increased just 0.78 percent, according to FreshLook Marketing. The math is easy: lower-cost pork chops plus higher menu prices equals more profit.

“Restaurants can charge at least $3 more per plate for a pork porterhouse versus a simple pork chop,” says Justin Brunson, owner and executive chef of Old Major in Denver. Diners seem to gladly pay the price, viewing a pork porterhouse in the same vein as a prime, aged steak.

Michael LaScola, chef/owner of American Seasons in Nantucket, Massachusetts, shares a similar view. “The Porterhouse is a much larger cut than a regular chop because it incorporates the tenderloin, and this heft is reflected in our ability to charge a bit more,” says LaScola, who serves a Berkshire pork porterhouse that he brines for 24 hours and then cold-smokes at 100 degrees for three hours, finishing the steak on the grill. Using bones from the pork, LaScola also makes gravy for his Carolina “rice middlins,” a grits-like dish with mustard greens, black-eyed peas, and pickled peaches.

While many fine-dining restaurants have eagerly embraced the pork porterhouse and other elevated pork chops, even more casual restaurants are adopting the trend. Outback Steakhouse, for one, features a grilled pork porterhouse alongside its more traditional steaks, and it’s not a far-off notion that other casual-dining restaurants and chains might follow suit as these new chops become more accessible.

Just like steaks, pork chops can be grilled or char-broiled over high heat for that nice, crusty sear and juicy center. Some chefs choose to take the flavor extraction one step further, brining the meat first and slow-smoking or roasting bone-in versions. The National Pork Board recommends cooking and resting these chops to 145 degrees Fahrenheit for perfectly cooked, medium-rare doneness.

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