Interview with Brian Wilke, OCI Executive Chef and Director of Education

What exactly is the OCI Pig Project?

Chefs Wilke (center) and Brophy (right) at Heritage Farms

We decided to purchase three red wattle piglets in the spring from Heritage Farm Northwest. “The Pig Project,” as it came to be known, was conceived out of a desire to introduce our students to several concepts at the same time. The first is the concept of sustainability, and how this concept can affect them as food service professionals. The second concept is an awareness of and interaction directly with the local food farm and food purveyor community – not just the pigs, but also the connection with the brewer and the winemaker that we are partnering with. The third concept is from an ethical standpoint – we are introducing them to a way of raising animals that is much different from the way a pig would be raised on an industrial farm. The fourth concept is flavor. All three are genetically almost identical (see next question). We brought two of them to Sweetbriar Farms to be pen-raised and left the other one at Heritage Farm Northwest to be pasture-raised. One current hot button in the food and farms debate is the more common grain fed practice vs. pasture-raised, (which, by the way, is the way all farm animals were raised until the 20th century). We will prepare the rendered product from, again, nearly identical pigs and in the exact same manner — the only differences between the finished dishes will be the manner in which they were raised and their diets. Again, two pigs are being pen raised and grain fed, while the other is being raised the way pigs were raised in the past, roaming around and foraging for food.

What can you tell us about the red wattle pig?

Interviewing red wattle piglets

The red wattle is a “heritage” breed. There are only two registered breeders in Oregon, one is Heritage Farm Northwest, where we purchased these pigs. The folks at Heritage Farm Northwest are on a mission to help make this breed popular again because, in terms of flavor, it is a remarkable pig. In the late 1990’s the breed was down to about 45 pigs. It had fallen out of favor because the breed doesn’t respond well to confinement. Now there are about 1,200 registered red wattle pigs in the U.S. The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy lists the breed as “critically endangered” still. When Jim at Heritage told me this, I was concerned about buying them to be raised for consumption, but he told us, on the contrary, that this is the way to create demand for the breed, ensuring its preservation. If there’s no demand, no one will care to create the supply, and the breed could die out. I believe you can get more information on the breed at www.redwattleproject.com.

How is this project a reflection of the school’s philosophy regarding community and education, and what educational outcomes are you trying to create for the students?

From a community standpoint, our students have made a couple visits to Sweetbriar Farm, where two of the pigs are being raised. They are getting to know the farmers and their standards for raising their animals, as well as some of the business and marketing strategies employed there. Additionally, the farmers from Heritage and Sweetbriar will attend the dinner party at the school when we celebrate the pigs.

OCI students and Chef Brophy at Sweetbriar Farm.

From an educational perspective, there are ethical, technical, and financial outcomes that we are seeking.

Ethically, having the students go to a local farm and meeting the farmers and seeing how the animals are raised should make an impression that stays with them. As industry professionals one day, they will have to make choices about where their product comes from, and we want to make sure that they understand the ethical considerations of such decisions.

On the technical side, the students will be involved in the fabrication and production of the hogs. They will use the skills, various cooking methods, and techniques that we are trying to teach them in school every day. Additionally, there will be a lot of attention paid to “snout to tail” use of the animal in production, meaning that the students will be learning how to use as much of the animal as possible.

And using as much of the animal as possible makes financial sense, which ties very neatly into the third education outcome we are seeking for this project — teaching the students about the economics of food. It is important to me, and to the other chefs here, that our students understand, from an economic standpoint, what it means for a food establishment to get all of their product from within 50 miles. These hogs will be considerably more expensive than what you’d get from an industrial farm. If one of our students wants to go out into the industry and open a restaurant that serves only local or organic product, they had better understand not just the ethical considerations of doing this, but also the financial ones.

Tell us about the dinner.

The Pig Project comes to fruition at OCI on Tuesday, November 9th and Wednesday, November 10th. We will host dinners on both nights, with identical menus engineered by OCI Chef Instructor Josh Blythe. We are getting all vegetables from the Wealth Underground Farm (we did a project with these guys before and really like what they are doing), and Chef Blythe and the students will feature various pork dishes with vegetables that have just been harvested.

In terms of the bigger picture, we are excited to give industry professionals and food enthusiasts the opportunity to taste various pork dishes, side-by-side, from pigs that are genetically almost identical, but raised and fed very differently. “Pen raised” versus “pasture raised,” for me, has only been a theoretical debate in terms of flavor, but now we get the chance to actually test to see if those two farming styles truly make a difference in the flavor. I can’t think of a better way that we could have done this than the controlled environment that we used.

Why did you decide to partner with a brewer and a vintner? How did you choose who to partner with?

Traditionally, in fine dining, it’s normally a winemaker that you’d partner with. But Portland, being the brewing capital of the world (in my opinion, the quality and quantity and diversity of beers supporting this) is as interesting as pairings you might get from a food and wine dinner. There are better pairings in terms of styles and varietals, whether it’s wine or beer. And pork, in particular, lends itself well to both wine and beer.

Our commitment to being as local and sustainable as possible informed our criteria for choosing our beer and wine partners. We brainstormed options for local wineries and brewers that were committed to the environment and sustainability, and consistently produce products of a superior nature. This lead us to Chehalem Winery, and Upright Brewing, both of whom we are really excited to partner with.

Will this be a charitable event? With who? How did you decide?


Yes! We will be partnering with Ecotrust and the Farm to School charitable effort on the night of the wine dinner, and the following night we will be partnering with Chef’s Collaborative. Regarding the “Farm to School” initiative, we believe strongly in educating children about the food chain, not to mention nourishing them with nutritional and healthy foods. The fact that it all supports local farms and farmers makes it a “no-brainer” for us. And the Chefs Collaborative is an amazing organization. All of our chef instructors are a part of it. The Chef’s Collaborative has been connecting chefs to farmers for a long time in Portland now. We are training and educating our students every day to be food service professionals, so we wanted to include industry professionals in this event.

Starting with children and finishing with industry professionals made sense to us.

Any idea what the next food source that OCI adopts in the same manner?

Well, the Pig Project isn’t really the first time we’ve done something like this. In varying degrees of student involvement and execution, we’ve done this with goats, Narraganset Turkeys from Sudan Farms, and line-caught Oregon albacore tuna.

So what’s next?

Maybe reptile charcuterie. Just kidding. We have some ideas, but no big announcements just yet.