Tony Baker knows all too well the sinister spell that bacon casts on weak human flesh.
"It's meaty, it's chewy, it's salty. Just the smell of it can make you drop everything and run to it," said Baker, the executive chef at Montrio Bistro in Monterey. "Bacon is magic."
Yes, bacon is a sacred institution in this country. Each year the average American eats nearly 18 pounds of the delectable pork. The salty, savory goodness tempts cardiac patients on the mend, Catholics on Friday, and is the "gateway meat" for wavering vegetarians.
The problem is, much of the bacon we consume is overly fatty, injected with salt, chemicals and liquids, and mass-produced by large corporations that ignore sustainable practices.
Enter Baker, a 39-year-old British import, who wanted desperately to change how Americans' felt about their beloved bacon. So, earlier this year he founded Baker's Bacon, which this month began selling small-batch, artisanal, dry-cured, sustainably sourced bacon made in the English style.
"It's an idea that's been fluttering around in my head for years," Baker said. "Really back from my childhood."
Born in England, Baker grew up eating what his countrymen call "back bacon." Traditional American-style bacon comes from the underbelly of the pig, creating meat streaked with fat. Similar to Canadian bacon, English-style bacon is derived from the leaner back of the pig — the loin — providing a nice balance of sweetness to salt, with a smoky,
Baker's idea really took root a few years ago when he met Steve Sacks, whose family has owned and operated Prime Smoked Meats in Oakland for the last 53 years. Sacks became the "cure" for Baker's malady — an inability to find a small, artisanal, regional smokehouse to help him produce his bacon on a larger scale without sacrificing quality.
The process starts with naturally raised Berkshire pigs fed a barley diet and given no antibiotics or hormones. The back-and-upper-belly portions are hand-rubbed with a blend of sugars, kosher salt and a secret concoction of spices — a recipe Baker devised after dozens of hours experimenting and tasting with Sacks and his bacon-loving wife.
The "rub" after the rub? Baker and Sacks do not inject water into the meat after curing. Mass-produced bacon almost always includes an added brine-like substance to equalize the weight lost during the cure.
"This means we lose 24percent of our product (and profit) immediately," Baker said. "But it's worth it to us, absolutely. This is a different idea."
After curing, the meat spends 20 hours in Sacks' stainless steel, fabricated smoker (it holds 11,000 pounds of bacon), with applewood chips providing the telltale smoky sweetness.
The bacon produces far less grease, and cooks up faster than conventional bacon, Baker said.
"It takes me back to my English roots," said Baker. "I can just smell it. Now it's a matter of re-educating chefs and the public."
The difference becomes apparent upon first glance. Baker's Bacon is sliced thick (10 slices to a pound), with the wide, meaty back-bacon narrowing into the thinner, fattier belly.
"It's the best of both worlds," said chef Marc Jones, a consultant and chef-liaison for Baker.
Baker's Bacon comes in three styles, an American-style bacon ($9.99 per pound), double-smoked bacon ($10.99), English-style back bacon ($11.99 per pound).
The product is already in the kitchens of several local restaurants, with the public buying it through www.bakersbacon.com (delivered fresh in insulated cooler). It's also available in three-pound packages at Wild Thyme Deli in Marina, whose chef-owner Terry Teplitzky added to the menu the Pig Out grilled sandwich, a tribute to swine featuring slices of Baker's back bacon. It's also part of the menu at the wildly successful Bacon Bacon food truck in San Francisco, where they pass out T-shirts that read: "You had me at bacon."
Local chefs on board include, among others, Cal Stamenov at Bernardus Lodge, and Todd Fisher at Sticks restaurant at Spanish Bay.
"The bacon rocks," said Fisher. "For me the English-style cut is so unique and makes for a fun presentation. The flavor is great but it's the texture that's fabulous. It's almost like a ham steak. That big medallion of loin is a beautiful thing."
Fisher said he lies awake at night dreaming of cooking with bacon.
"We're hearing great feedback from chefs who are finding new ways to use it," said Jones. "It's great in sandwiches. Chefs layer it on top of pork chops, use it in carbonara instead of pancetta."
According to Baker, the possibilities are endless
"The cost is higher, but the product has so much integrity," he said. "Some ask, 'How much? For bacon?' But it's not like any bacon they've experienced. It has multiple applications, a standalone protein or a complementary item."
Baker suggests cooking the back bacon very quickly (about one minute on each side) on an extremely hot griddle or cast-iron pan.
It will not be as crispy as American-style bacon (what the Brits call "streaky bacon"). It should have a little color on each side and be tender but toothsome.
When he describes it, Baker can almost hear the skeptics in his head, but he knows he needs just one thing to alter tradition.
"One bite," he said. "Just one."