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How Sara Jenkins Became New York's Porchetta Queen

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Photo: Daniel Krieger

It's been nearly six years since chef Sara Jenkins opened Porchetta, the small New York City restaurant where she serves one of the city's most iconic meat dishes. Porchetta's menu is simple, consisting of porchetta plates, sandwiches, and a few sides. The restaurant showcases the herbaceous roast pork dish popular on the streets of Rome: Traditionally, porchetta is [a] piece of pork that has been seasoned intensely with flavors like garlic and sage, and slowed roasted in a wood oven until the skin is crispy. More recently, she has opened a second restaurant, Porsena, just a few blocks away where she serves classic pastas paired with all sorts of hearty meaty ragus and house-made sausages.

Jenkins spoke with Eater about the challenges of running a restaurant dedicated to a single meat dish, and how porchetta surprisingly lends itself to dishes outside the Italian tradition, like banh mi and tacos. She also explains why "rabbit is challenging for people," reveals what animal she stopped eating because of how it's raised, and shared her thoughts on sourcing meat: "I think it's important to not think your meat comes in a styrofoam package."

Why open a restaurant focused on just one meat dish?
I love porchetta and there was none in New York. I grew up in Italy and I always grew up eating porchetta. There's a porchetta stand in Rome next to the train station. I used to stop at it sometimes on my way out to the airport to get food for the plane and I loved it. There were three tables. There'd be a train conductor sitting there with a glass of wine and a plate of porchetta at 9:00 in the morning. I thought it was so cool and precise.

Originally, I thought we would have to have lots and lots of different condiments to compliment the meat. But we just have hot sauce because we ourselves really like hot sauce and we also offer kimchi. I thought that was an awesome condiment with porchetta. Because the pork is so fatty and the kimchi is astringent and sour and spicy, it pairs really well.

What are the challenges of running a restaurant centered on a single item?
Keeping it relevant. Originally, we opened and we did only porchetta. Last summer I was like we should make porchetta tacos because we have the pork and we have Mexican employees on staff here. So we have these porchetta tacos now. This summer I added a porchetta banh mi because it just seemed again so easy. I definitely want to eventually do a porchetta Cubano. In Italy they would just roll over and die at the idea of using porchetta [in fusion dishes]. They're not very experimental eaters.

Probably when we talk about challenges, [keeping the menu relevant] is the big challenge. Looking at what other people in other countries are cooking is a great way to get ideas. I organized a trip this Spring all around the porchetta festival in Umbria and that was amazing. There were all these porchetta makers from all over Italy and I took a group of eight people over and we ate and learned a lot. I find interacting, eating other people's food, surfing the web, reading cookbooks are all ways to get ideas.

How have people reacted to your non-traditional takes on porchetta?
They really liked it. If I were serving this in the center of Rome, nobody would touch it with a 10-foot pole for so many reasons. We were so open here to different flavors and different tastes and different cultures and all of that.

I would say that probably 75% of the people who go into that store don't necessarily know porchetta, what it is, so they don't walk in with a preconceived notion of what it should be. In fact, my favorite criticism of all time of Porchetta was that it was the worst pulled pork sandwich somebody had ever had. I was like yeah, that's because it's not a pulled pork sandwich. Some people don't get it necessarily, they didn't all grow up in Rome.

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[Photo: Porchetta]

Have you had any Romans come in and try the porchetta?
Definitely and a lot of them really like it. We do things a little different. Actually, I was sort of fascinated with this at the porchetta festival, [the porchetta vendors] were all holding their porchetta cold because when I was a kid, it was just ambient temperature. Now with EU health regulations actually make ours look downright lax and so it all has to be held cold.

When we were opening Porchetta, I went back and forth like, "What do I do? Will I hold it cold and heat it up or do I hold it hot?" I made the choice to hold it hot, and I always felt that that was a really great idea. It's so nice warm and all of it pretty much is tender, and the fat is more smooth, not like blobs of congealed fat. In Italy, it's either cold or ambient temperature.

Was the restaurant's size a large problem when opening such a meat-centric place like Porchetta?
Size was a big thing for me to wrap my head around when opening Porchetta, because in Italy the stores typically use a whole pig, so how was I going to do that? I can't have a walk in with 18 whole pigs in it and an oven to fit a whole big pig in it. That's why I came up with the loin wrapped with the belly around it, the abbreviated version as it were. In Italy they have plenty space and they have a whole pig, a 200 pound pig, that's boned out and roasted. When you go to the market, it's a whole pig with a head on it. I can't do that here.

What does a good piece of porchetta have to have?
It has to have a lot of garlic, rosemary, sage and wild fennel pollen for sure. That's just sort of the trifecta of flavor, but I also think you have to source your meat right. You have to get good meat.

Would you ever introduce other meat-chettas? Like a duck, done in the style of porchetta?
Not really. I was originally going to do chicken with porchetta seasonings, but it seemed to complicated when I was opening. Ultimately I went after this Lebanese pressed chicken sandwich with garlic and pickles that I really loved. What I've always wanted to open [is] a sandwich shop that serves the greatest meat sandwiches from around the world like the Lebanese pressed chicken, the porchetta, the Cubano, the merguez you get in Paris with French fries.

What is the most popular meat dish at Porsena?
It's hands down the lamb sausage. The lamb sausage somehow just really appeals to people, so we make sure to always have the lamb sausage on the menu. I also always have a meat ragu. Right now it's duck. It was beef and it might be veal next. [Ed.: Jenkins followed up to add, "Depending on if I can find free-range veal."] We rotate through that. The lamb sausage is what people order. People order a lot of ragu too, but the lamb sausage definitely over and over again.

How has offal done on your menu?
We do it from time to time, but it's a hard sell, always. They have what we call tripe trucks in Florence and it's just this braised tripe sandwich. Some Italian friends were staying with me once and they were like, don't you think New York needs a tripe truck? And I was like no. Americans eat pork but they don't eat tripe. While some do, for most it is a much harder leap.

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Porchetta sandwich. [Photo: Porchetta]

Are people hesitant to order certain meats when you put it on the menu?
You've got a pretty sophisticated eating crowd here [in New York City] but I'd say rabbit is more challenging for people. We didn't grow up eating rabbit here. When you grow up thinking of something as a pet, you don't really want to eat it.

How do you think people should connect and interact with meat to foster awareness and appreciation?
I think it's important to not think your meat comes in a styrofoam package. I think we lost our contact with butchers, and we need to bring that back, and I think it's starting to come back. Where I grew up, you walked into the butcher shop and there was half a cow hanging there with its tongue hanging out after being bled on the ground. You go to the neighbors for a chicken and they grab it and wring its neck and pluck it for you.

I grew up with a real clear sense that that's what meat was. I think people should not keep buying meat at the supermarket and inform themselves. The other thing that drives me crazy is the whole anti-foie gras movement and I'm like, "Do you people know how chicken is raised in this country, the majority of chicken?" I think we're in a bubble because we're so sort of separated from it.

You've previously referred to eating meat as a commitment. Can you expand on that concept?
America is the land of abundance, and is traditionally so meat-centric. In a way with the rise of farmer's markets, we're having much more interest in vegetables and stuff like that. I think meat should be respected. Like the whole story of Thomas Keller killing the rabbit and it screaming and him, which resulted in him developing such a respect for it. [Ed: In the French Laundry Cookbook Thomas Keller told the story of the first time he killed a rabbit.]

I believe we should not waste meat. It was a living sentient being and you need to respect that. I want the whole animal to get used. I don't want just colt or steak because yes, once you take that life, it's a commitment. You don't want to just take that life for nothing.

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[Photo: Porchetta]

How do you choose where you're going to source your meat from?
For us at Porchetta when I first opened, I had a fantasy that I was going to get all of my meat from the farmer's market. The thing is, we use a very specific cut of meat and we need it at a very specific weight. So we actually need somebody who's raising and producing a ton of pork.

I prefer someone like a Niman or a Pat LaFrieda that not only has access to a free-range hormone antibiotic-free pig but also enough of them. This way we can get a consistent sizing in product. Some people want me to source my pork more locally, but I can't actually get what I need from the farmer's market. I could get it maybe once but not everyday. I think I had an image that we would have one pork roast and that would last us the day and when we opened, pretty quickly we were going through ten roasts a day. Sourcing it was huge.

Are there meats you no longer eat because of how they are raised?
Veal is the first animal that I stopped eating because I was so offended by the raising practices of veal. I really miss having access to some kind of free-range veal. I think that's hard to get your hands on. I only eat it if it's free-range or if I know it's not raised in a tiny little crate, fed milk pills and pumped full of antibiotics.

When it comes to foie, I think the foie geese lived so much better or the ducks lived so much better than your average chicken being raised here. I don't have a huge problem. I've gone back and forth on foie I have to say. There are times when I've been like it's a bit much. I grew up loving caviar and I love caviar to this day, but it seems kind of disgusting to me to eat an animal into extinction. I'm challenged with foie on that level. It seems a little brutal. Is that really necessary? But I do really like foie gras.

I work really hard not to eat meat that's a commodity meat. I'm only going to eat my meat from [certain places] and if that means that I eat way less meat then so be it because the quality is going to be better. It's way more expensive and that's a huge issue.

Has pricing your product been tricky because of how it is sourced?
One of the biggest criticisms of Porchetta is that our sandwich is $12. But people don't realize it's free-range antibiotic [and that] I spend a lot. It's not commodity pork. I think that's hard for people to wrap their heads around sometimes, especially because we have such a culture of eating meat on the plate all the time. I also understand when you're trying to raise a family on a budget, it's really hard to justify some of those prices.

· All Sara Jenkins Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Eater Interview Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Five Days of Meat on Eater [-E-]

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