Image: Red Table Meat Co. (source)
There was a time in all-too-recent history when beige, watery, and flavorless bologna was considered an acceptable cold cut. The foreign flavors of capicola, pancetta, and prosciutto were reserved for those who travelled abroad, had Western European ties, or lived in the real parts of New York. Ignorance wasn't even close to bliss, yet many of us continued to solely pursue heightened dinner fare rather than the perfection of deli meats. Little did we know that many a Midwestern palate would be unknowingly saved by a brilliant farm boy from Iowa.
Mike Phillips has been studying the craft of salumi -- the general term for Italian dry or cured pork -- for decades. He credits his unparalleled curing knowledge to the time spent under mentor and internationally renowned salumiere Francois Vecchio, the 'Poete of Pork.' Mike -- James Beard Award nominee and an all-around amazing individual -- spearheads the Red Table Meat Company and is championed by Kieran Folliard of 2 Gingers Irish Whiskey.
Salumi and its French cousin, charcuterie, require a refined palate and dutiful marriage to the lengthy creation process. Aging the meat upwards of eight months while diligently maintaining the proper humidity and temperature is no easy feat. Modern machines can’t come close to mimicking this artisanal human technique. Only the most committed and well-educated salumiere crews get the flavor right and execute this old-world art with skill and aplomb.
To meet these high standards, salumieres must begin with outstanding raw materials. That’s where Mike Phillips' standards and friendships come in. Having grown up in rural Iowa, Mike has been a warrior for the small farmer throughout his life. Acclaimed by many as the pioneer of farm-to-table in the Minneapolis food scene, he continues to encourage his staff and customer base to develop a personal relationship with the original providers of their food. These goals are distinct from Red Table’s bottom line. Rather than fight for a larger profit margin, Mike combats for the generations of farmers who have continuously provided quality raw product and maintained an enduring dedication to their land and animals.
Mike’s respect doesn’t begin and end with the farmers -- he also reveres the pigs themselves. Every one of the five Midwest farms that works with Red Table Meats move their heritage-breed hogs over open pasture to feed and wander. Mike believes that by visiting with the pigs, one develops an affinity and esteem for the animals -- bridging the disconnect from farm to market to table. His farm visits raise an uncomfortable truth for many, namely, that to eat meat, one must slaughter. As Mike sees it, if we're already walking this path, wouldn't we rather that animal live the most humane life possible and be sacrificed with honor?
“Those farmers spend a lot of time raising really good animals,” says Mike. “They’re raised in a way that I can live with at the end of the day. For me to take that [pig] and turn it into something that really doesn’t matter – a commodity product - wouldn’t be respectful. It’s a life. Those pigs lose their lives – they get slaughtered. It’s respectful, at the end of the day, for the farmer who has put in so much hard work and for everybody along the path to make the best product that we can make – and of the highest quality.”
Transparency is taken to the nth degree at Red Table Meats. Between 8am and 3pm Monday through Friday, visitors of both Red Table Meats and the FOOD BUILDING may peer through the large plate glass windows and educate themselves about the process, from butchering to the creation of salumi. The staff encourages visitors to honor the pork by guiding them through their methods. People with questions about whether safety and health guidelines are being met can speak with the full-time USDA representative who’s on-site throughout the preparation process.
Over the past fifty years, the American pork industry has lost direction, along with flavor, by mass-producing pork products and adding water to them. Many of us recognize the American public consumes too much meat. Mike’s answer to this loss of flavor, the environmental toll, and the health risks associated with excessive meat consumption is implicit in his process of creating taste.
Mass-produced cold cuts contain as much as 25% water by weight. As Mike explains, “Dry curing, essentially, takes that 25% of water out -- it becomes shelf stable, it becomes safe, it becomes, ultimately, way more tasty. You could slice an ounce or two of our ham on a sandwich, where you would need four ounces of water-added pit ham just so you could taste it.”
Better flavor makes for less consumption. It’s a counterintuitive proposition -- more for less -- but our mouths, our lands, our waterways, and especially our colons will appreciate it.
Asking Mike Phillips to choose his favorite salumi is like asking him to decide which of his beloved bicycles he favors. Everyone’s flavor choice fluctuates with mood, temperature, nostalgia, and season. So let the creators of great food and cultivators of beautiful lands decide. Regardless of their salumi preferences, some of the most respected farmers and leaders in the competitive Minneapolis food scene have already cast their vote for Mike and his mindful approach to making great food.
As Don Saunders, the Chef/Owner at The Kenwood and 510 Lounge & Private Dining puts it, “I have had great experiences working with Red Table at both of my restaurants. Of course, the integrity Mike has put into his process is important. However, the best thing is the end result and how delicious the products are. My personal favorite Red Table selections are the guanciale, pancetta and the Big Chet Salumi.”
Doug Flicker, the Chef/Owner at The Bull’s Horn Food & Drink, concurs: "So...what I love and respect so much about Red Table Meats is Mike. They are really one in the same. To taste any piece of Red Table Meats is to taste the history of salumi in the Twin Cities. Years ago when EVERYONE, including myself, had a charcuterie plate on the menu, it was head cheese, pancetta, and maybe a mortadella. We were just cooking things. Mike, however, was actually taking raw pork and pork fat...mixing in salt..sticking it in some closet, and aging it. He is an essential part of the food history of this city."
Ben Peine, Executive Chef at the Surly Brewing Co. notes that “the values that Mike and the crew at Red Table embrace align with the qualities we value at Surly. They use quality products, support local farmers and vendors, treat the products with respect without over-complicating it, and are committed and dedicated to the process and craft of cooking. Their high quality inspires us. We are proud to serve Red Table Meats on our charcuterie board.”
Marshall Paulsen, the Executive Chef at The Birchwood Cafe is another one of Mike’s fans. “Everything Mike does is done with integrity. His values on sourcing and technique are completely aligned with ours.” The restaurant’s Marketing Director, Megan Swenson, observes that “our customers are always excited to see a new Red Table product on our menu, [and we’re] happy to support a local business and enjoy an artisan product.”
On the farm side of the equation, Eric Klein of Hidden Stream Farm in Elgin, Minnesota, states that "Mike Phillips has been a strong supporter of farms and doing things the right way for a long time. We have been working with Mike in some capacity for 15 years. His impact and support of small family farms, like ours, can sometimes make the difference of being profitable from one month to the next. We are glad to have guys like Mike Phillips and the Red Table Meat Company in the Twin Cities."
Drew French of Full Boar Farm in Boyceville, Wisconsin, is also impressed with Mike Phillips. “Mike is obviously a guy with great integrity. He lives his words and puts in the hours to show it. He doesn't just care about all the different processes that go into his old-world style charcuterie, but also cares about every individual aspect of how the pigs are raised. He cares about how the pigs are treated, what they eat, and eventually how peacefully they are slaughtered. He also cares about the pig farmers. He pays us a premium for what we do. I like to think that we the farmers, he and his crew, and the slaughterhouse employees are all working together in a synergistic circle - trying to create the best possible scenario for artisanal foods in the Midwest."
And Eric Kreidermacher of Pork & Plants Heritage Farm in Altura, Minnesota says: “Mike Phillips has been one of my best and longest standing supporters of my farm and my Red Wattle pigs. We both have always had a great understanding and appreciation for the purpose of creating healthy food for people from using healthy/humanely raised animals. Mike and Red Table Meat Company are truly committed to making sure their farmers receive a 'living price' for their pigs that supports the type of sustainable, holistic farming that they practice."
While we commiserate our previous deli meat selections as one reflects upon their Junior prom attire -- we must also recognize that we have graduated from that dark unthinking void. With the help of Mike Phillips and the team at Red Table Meat Co., we move forward with better flavor upon our tongues. Holding the animals and farmers in higher regard, we now look past the matrix and see the foundations of our food -- adding emphasis, understanding, and assistance where needed. We thank you, Mike Phillips, for that which you gifted to society -- proper meat -- in principle, in conviction, in taste, and in sheer morality.