You wouldn’t know it today, but Anthony Armstrong didn’t always sport a white chef’s hat and tout his membership in the American Culinary Federation. No, this is actually a second career for this native Hoosier who now combines his passion for simple food with his zeal to educate consumers about new ways to think about food, including one of his favorite loves — pork.
After a 10-year career as an accountant, this
Taking a short break from his vast duties as executive chef at the Omni Severin Hotel in Indianapolis, Armstrong shares his insights into what he sees happening in today’s food and restaurant scene, and how pork producers and the entire industry are doing in providing consumers with his favorite meat.
What issues are most important to you as a chef?
Food quality. The ultimate goal is customer satisfaction. If customers don’t come back to this restaurant, then nothing else matters. We try to fill seats by ensuring that the food’s quality is excellent. Hopefully, a good quality product creates a quality dish to serve guests that also offers us a profit opportunity.
Tell me more about your approach to food quality.
For me, quality is the freshness and integrity of the food product. If it’s tomatoes then they must look, feel and taste right. Sometimes during the year they don’t; consequently, I would rather not serve a product if it doesn’t meet my standards. I also consider the time it takes for a product to reach my kitchen. It may be advertised as fresh, but is it really?
I look for consistency. If it’s an 8-ounce pork filet, I want it to be the same every time. That’s also part of quality to me.
What social issues concern you as a chef, and do they influence your menu decisions? Do they influence your customers?
Animal well-being is a growing area of interest among consumers. Just like organic was very much a phenomenon in vegetables and fruits years ago, that same type of thinking is moving into animal products. People are still meat eaters as much as they have ever been, but they want to know that the animals were treated humanely, so they can feel good about their food choices.
How important is it for a menu to include words like organic, all-natural, free-range?
Those things are growing in importance. If we’re hosting a conference at the hotel, we have people from all areas of the country. We’ve seen that in some areas of the country, knowing if a product is organic, natural and so forth, is more important to them than it is for others. But overall, I’d say it’s a growing trend.
Do producers need to explain their on-farm practices better?
Yes, because the public is becoming savvier about where their food comes from, but when it comes to understanding production, they may not get all the facts right. They use the Internet to find out what happened to their food before it reaches their plate — chefs are doing this, too.
We’re all becoming more concerned about how food animals are treated and how they are harvested. So we look to producers and others in the pork chain to tell us what goes on at the farm level and beyond. Because as chefs, we don’t just cook food anymore — we’ve become food educators, as well. People are looking to us to bridge their knowledge gap about how food reaches them.
How has pork performed on your menu?
Pork has always been one of the standards. We currently have pork tenderloin and pork chops on the menu. Sometimes we serve something more unusual such as pork cheeks. In the end, it’s fair to say that if we took pork off the menu, I’d probably lose my job. It’s a go-to item and a great seller for us.
Are there any other new pork items that you see on the horizon?
For the restaurant business, the “new” item is the pork belly. However, a chef really has to know how to prepare it properly. My experience is that once consumers try it, they think it’s great; so this is an example of a dish that chefs need to educate people about. Customers already know about chops, ribs and loins, but these specialty “butcher’s” cuts can allow some innovation to the pork menu.
What trends do you see in today’s dining?
We’re seeing more tapas dining coming from
This is a change for Americans because for most of our eating history, we’ve gone out to eat versus going out to have a dining experience. This new trend lets people sample, experience and try new things. In the end, such trends could prompt us to use more pork.
What challenges do chefs face with today’s pork?
While consumers don’t want to hear the word “fat,” to me it means flavor and cooking ease. So, chefs would like to see a bit more marbling put back into pork. It’s always been a lean meat, but even as home cooks you need a certain amount of fat for successful cooking.
For example, pork loins are always easy to cook, but I hear from consumers how easily they overcook. Even allowing for cooking error, I think the lack of adequate intramuscular fat contributes to this outcome.
What has the pork industry done well?
Educating consumers and foodservice about pork’s lean profile. Pork: The Other White Meat campaign helped reintroduce people to pork. They’ve also heard about different pork cuts. And efforts to reach out to younger generations with pork’s health message have been good.
Where do you get inspiration for new recipes and ideas?
All over the board — from TV, other chefs, cooks, cookbooks, the Internet. I tell new cooks to read everything. Print publications such as Bon Appetit to television programs on PBS are good. I prefer no-nonsense programs, but you can’t underestimate the public’s fascination with The Food Network, Fine Living Channel and others over the last decade. They’ve been quite influential in urging consumers to use local food sources and to become more educated about where their food comes from.
How would you describe your cooking?
I consider my cooking simple French. It doesn’t use as much cream, butter and bacon as traditional French. I try to use the approach of having very simple food prepared and presented in an unpretentious way. It must have eye appeal, but in the end it’s just food.
I also want my guests to be able to pronounce everything they’re eating and for it to be familiar to them. In the end, if it doesn’t taste good, it doesn’t matter how pretty it looks on the plate.
What’s your takeaway message for producers and the industry?
Overall, I’d like to see more help in educating chefs about on- and off-farm practices. This starts with how animals are and aren’t fed. From there, we need to know how the packer, processor and wholesalers handle the product during their part of the chain.
The bottom line is we have to answer to our consumers, which means we need as much information as the pork industry can offer us to get the facts out.
What kind of pork dishes do you cook at home?
I love pork. I grew up with it as a center-of-the-plate item, as well as an ingredient in other dishes. Today, I tend to stick with pork tenderloin that’s quickly seared and then finished in the oven. I don’t use too many sauces, but I do like pairing my pork with relishes and chutneys.
For me, pork is definitely a comfort food that I still enjoy.