Farming by Design: Furniture Makers Left the City and Now Live High on the Hog

During a transitional period spent upstate, Raven & Boar struck gold with the use of what many regard as an agricultural waste product: whey.

Ruby and Sather Duke never set out to become pig farmers whose prized whey-fed pork graces tables at restaurants like Gramercy Tavern, Blue Hill, Bar Boulud, Maysville, Estela, Otto and Roberta’s. In 2008, when they bought a 200-year-old house up in Old Chatham, they knew just about nothing about farming.

Necessity brought them from the city to this corner of Columbia County — that and the desire to let their children run free. Sather was recovering from a life-threatening illness, their first daughter Kestrel (known as Kes) was nearly a year old, and Ruby had recently lost her father. Plus, after a successful decade as sought-after interior and furniture designers at hiveminddesign inc. in Brooklyn, work began drying up as the recession hit.

They needed to pare down and find a place to recover and spend time as a family. It was what Ruby calls “our year of transition.”

Shifting gears after wasn’t easy. “We’ve been working people for so long,” Ruby says, “having time off was really weird.” They didn’t know anyone and were living off savings, trying to figure out what came next. Farming happened by accident, in part thanks to little Kes, who unwittingly steered them to nearby Hancock Shaker Village.

Ruby and Sather had visited often to see the renowned architecture and furniture at this former Shaker community in the Berkshires, now devoted to preserving the utopian sect’s legacy. The Shakers’ unique philosophy prized hard work and quality, meshing art and craftsmanship with agriculture. But Ruby and Sather had never paid much attention to the farm part of the operation.

Before long, the family was visiting two or three times a week. As Sather recalls, “Kes started a little love affair with their farmer, Billy Mangiardi, so he got to know us.” Next thing they knew, with Billy’s encouragement, they got chickens, a few lambs and rabbits and some pigs. Sather and his dad dug out a garden next to the house.

At first, Ruby figured “Let’s just see what it takes to make our own food.” But soon she realized, “Hold on, if we bought four pigs, we could sell two and then our food is free!”

Ruby picked up the phone and called her old pals Mark Firth and Andrew Tarlow, who a decade earlier had opened Diner, the restaurant that ushered in Brooklyn’s farm-to-table ethos, where Ruby bartended their first year. Today Firth farms in the Berkshires and runs Prairie Whale restaurant in Great Barrington, while Andrew’s ever-growing empire encompasses Marlow, Roman’s, Achilles Heel and Reynard at the Wythe Hotel.

“We designed our first line of furniture on Diner’s paper tablecloths,” Sather recalls. Little did they know that a decade later, they’d be asking Mark if he wanted to buy two pigs. He did, and Raven & Boar was born. Almost.

As 2009 dawned, Sather wanted to get 25 pigs. “I said, ‘No way,’” Ruby recalls. “‘I’m not going to have 25 pigs on this property unless I know they are all sold by spring.’” Falling into their respective roles with Sather doing the more physical farm labor and Ruby handling the business end, she got to work finding buyers and building relationships.

“I spent that winter and spring doing research into [which chefs] had in-house charcuterie programs and would be interested in whole animals and getting commitments from chefs to buy our pigs in advance,” says Ruby. “Mark bought five for Diner. Tom Mylan was just about to open the Meat Hook and got some. Ryan Tate who was then at Savoy and doing charcuterie was on board. That’s how it started.”

Having run with a well-connected crew before decamping upstate didn’t hurt, but in the end, it came down to the quality of their pork. Which was impressively high.

Initially the pigs foraged in the woods, supplementing their grain diet with roots and nuts, like the pastured pigs of many farmers who sell at the Greenmarket. But the emerging Raven & Boar struck gold with the use of what many regard as an agricultural waste product: whey.

The eureka moment came when Ruby remembered reading about how Italian farmers in Emilia Romagna have long fed whey, left over from making Parmesan cheese, to pigs whose cured legs are then transformed into the region’s fabled prosciutto di Parma.

As luck would have it, Old Chatham Sheepherding Company, one of the largest sheep dairies in the country, is a stone’s throw from Raven & Boar.

“We became friends with the cheesemaker, who gave us their whey, which they were struggling to get rid of, so it was a wonderful opportunity for both of us.” Today they use goat whey from Coach Farm, soaked with local corn, that the pigs eat along with foraged clover, orchard grass, acorns, turnips and an old variety of beet called “mangles.” This varied diet and the protein in the whey has a dramatic impact on flavor.

Trevor Kunk, former chef de cuisine at Blue Hill, now at Press in Napa Valley, heard about Raven & Boar in 2010. After meeting them and learning about how they raised and fed their animals, he committed to buying a whole pig, sight unseen. “It was great tasting,” Trevor recalls, and the restaurant signed on for a pig a month.

“That made it real,” says Ruby.

Next she reached out to Gramercy Tavern. Paul Wetzel, who heads their charcuterie program, found the pork exceptional and soon began buying a whole pig every other week. Suddenly a couple of newbie farmers from Brooklyn had standing orders from the most renowned farm-to-table restaurants in the country.

“The animals Ruby and Sather raise are beautiful and super healthy,” raves Wetzel. “Their diet gives the meat the kind of fat deposits and marbling that imparts incredible flavor, and good fat is really important for making sausage or terrines. If you are making salami and other cured meat, you’re hanging the meat to cure for several months, and pigs fed only a diet of corn or soy just aren’t going to taste good.”

While the pigs’ diet is central to their meat’s flavor, their breed matters, too. Although Ruby and Sather initially started with Berkshire pigs, soon they were cross-breeding for the best flavor. “There is more intermuscular fat, and the meat is rosier,” says Trevor, “with a clean taste that isn’t greasy or fatty, so we like to serve it with as much of the fat on it as possible.”

Raven & Boar don’t “farrow” (have their sows give birth), but instead cultivate a close relationship with a breeder who works with a mix of heritage breeds like Tamworth, Red Wattle and Gloucestershire Old Spot, delivering around 20 weaned piglets a month, who in four to six months will be ready for slaughter.

Many farmers drive hours each way to have their stock slaughtered, but as luck would have it, Hill Town Pork, a USDA-certified processing facility, is only a 15-minute drive from Raven & Boar. Each Monday morning, pigs are loaded on a truck, driven straight to the facility and “processed” immediately, minimizing stress that comes with long travel, said to negatively impact flavor. The pigs are hung overnight and Ruby delivers to restaurants the next day. It just doesn’t get much fresher than that.

By the summer of 2010, they had plowed an upper field and hired a full-time employee to grow unusual varieties of vegetables, herbs and edible flowers, primarily for chef Olivier Quignon at Bar Boulud. Sather also put up a greenhouse for the pigs’ winter quarters. It was a “real eye opener,” he told me.

“It never stopped snowing, and we were on a steep learning curve.” As a former skier and snowboarder, Sather used to associate snow with fun, but that year, all he could think of was his animals: “Keep them warm and dry, keep them warm and dry,” he repeated to himself like a mantra. “I realized that managing the farm was straight up and really fucking real.”

Unlike other farmers who spend years interning and apprenticing before venturing on their own, Ruby and Sather’s MO is to just dive in. “You have to risk everything and believe in yourself and just do it!” Ruby says.

As young, second-career farmers, they’re not bound by convention, and their land isn’t a traditional farm. “We don’t have existing structures or expectations for how it should be done, so it leaves us to create what we think it should be,” says Ruby. “Our decisions are based on passion,” adds Sather, “not a rational decision-making process.”

That approach, coupled with an understanding of product design and fabrication, gives them a unique sensibility. For Ruby, “Raising animals and designing furniture is the same thing. We are trying to make the best, most beautiful and high-quality products for both.”

Their furniture business surged after the recession and 2012 ended up being one of the biggest years for hiveminddesign; now some of their pieces are featured in DKNY stores all over the world. Last year their gossamer pendant was on the cover of Interior Design. And, in a collision of their worlds, when chef Peter Hoffman learned they were also designers, he asked them to design and build the custom millwork, bar and seating and tables for what is now Back Forty West. Says Sather, “We walked in the back door with a pig and ended up designing the front of house.” It’s only natural that they soon got interested in charcuterie. “Having experience with a design process, you can’t help when you have exceptional raw material to see its potential,” says Sather. They experimented with pâtés and terrines and started curing and aging meats in their basement to share with friends and family. Soon they thought, why not develop a line of products from parts of the pigs like hearts, tails, heads and trotters?

Not that Ruby wanted to take on another project.

“Why would I want to do it myself?” she says. “I have a farm, a furniture business and two kids!”

So she contacted top cured-meat producers in the East Coast like Salumeria Bielesse, Salumeria Rosi, Larchemont Charcuterie and Virginia-based Olli Salumeria, where she hoped to send her fresh pork to be processed under a private label. Unfortunately, most were not scaled to deal with a small farm, and there weren’t any area kitchens with the required certifications where they could make the product themselves.

There is a reason they call making charcuterie an art. That’s where François Vecchio comes in. A Swiss-born “charcutier, salumiere and wurstmeister” in his 70s now living in California, Vecchio specializes in traditional European methods and has become a mentor passing along his lifetime of knowledge to many budding charcutiers sprouting up in restaurants and butcher shops all over the country. Two of them happened to be Paul Wetzel and Andrew Dorsey, now at Reynard, who both attended a seminar with Vecchio three years ago where they processed 1,000 pounds of pork using authentic German, French and Italian recipes.

When Ruby wanted to go whole hog, Dorsey and Wetzel encouraged her to go to Alaska and take Vecchio’s seminar.

“I had never even broken down a whole pig before,” Ruby confesses, “but they gave me the guts to go for it.”

Still, not just anyone can make charcuterie commercially. Europeans have been curing meat for centuries, but good luck telling a USDA inspector that you’re going to hang raw meat above 40 degrees and let it age naturally. Even if you have pricey equipment like walk-ins, grinders and fermenting chambers, you’re in for a painful amount of paperwork. The prohibitively expensive and time-consuming certification process is why so few kitchens, upstate or down, can legally make charcuterie.

But once Ruby got some experience under her belt, she and Sather rolled up their sleeves. They spent two years planning what would become Hudson Valley Charcuterie and launched an ambitious Kickstarter campaign last September to raise $60,000 to build and outfit a certified kitchen on the farm. Perks like a farmer’s breakfast at Blue Hill, an on-farm butchering demo and a limited-edition cookbook didn’t hurt. One month and 347 backers later, they met their goal.

Now under construction: a certified kitchen and fermentation chamber where they’ll produce their own line of charcuterie, as well as custom products for chefs. There will also be an adjoining kitchen for classes and events, all slated to be completed by spring.

In the meantime, Sather built a test kitchen outfitted with new equipment like an Italian Celletta fermenting chamber and American Biro meat grinder, where they’re developing recipes with chefs like Wetzel while they wait for the official kitchen to be finished. He spent a day at the farm last spring, breaking down a pig and filling the Celletta with salami, lardo, pancetta and mortadella.

“It’s pretty cool to be able to hang out with someone like Paul, who has years of culinary experience and the palate of someone who tastes the best product,” Ruby says. “It’s priceless.”

A couple of years ago she asked Wetzel if he and some cooks wanted to come up for dinner. He said, “How many can I bring?” Thus began an October tradition — celebrating the harvest with a big dinner for family, friends and neighbors. Last year, Paul brought up seven cooks from Gramercy who spent two days helping put up a greenhouse and cooking up a storm.

“It was great to have extra hands,” Ruby says, “but even more important was to take the time to relax and celebrate the season’s labor by eating and drinking together.”

This fall, 13 Gramercy Tavern cooks piled into a van on Friday after lunch service and drove up to spend the weekend on the farm.

“It gives them a deep appreciation to see where our meat and vegetables are coming from and to understand the care that goes into raising them,” Paul says. “It creates a really strong bond and gets the cooks really excited to come into work and do what they do.”

I was lucky enough to be there on Saturday night for what could only be called a feast. Every surface was covered with overflowing food harvested and prepared that day at the farm. Paul was in the kitchen carving a pig that had been roasted all day in a custom metal contraption Sather had welded on the spot — and then customized when Paul requested a drip pan to catch the juices. (Paul loves this rig so much he uses a photo of it as his screen saver.)

In another room a rabbit, which met its fate at the hands of two Gramercy Tavern cooks that day, was being sliced into rounds. There was also deboned lamb, rubbed with garlic and herbs and slow-roasted over the fire. Bean and pork stew. Beets that had been braised with onion, red wine, thyme and coriander. Fingerling potatoes cooked in drippings from the roasting pig. And a steaming pot of ramen broth on the stove flavored with pork bones and aromatics and surrounded by a constant stream of supplicants waiting to fill their bowls.

People overflowed inside and out, plates mounded with food and kids running around. Ruby and Sather see the chefs not just as clients, but as collaborators on a shared creative endeavor.

“All of the chefs we work with have a similar understanding and appreciation for the animals we raise. Our goal with Hudson Valley Charcuterie is to extend the creative process,” she says. Now, in addition to designing furniture, they are crafting artisanal products like salami, soprressata, saucisson, coppa, lonza — even prosciutto.

What began as an experiment six years ago is now a self-sustaining operation with big plans. “This farm fed our family. Supported our family,” Ruby says with tears welling up in her eyes.

“It really carried us through and gave us a way to be creative and passionate.”

“And it’s super fun!” adds Sather with a grin on his face. “There are days I think: I get paid to do this?”

Photo credit: Ashley Sears

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