James Beard Award-winning chef Donald Link is a busy man these days. Besides guiding his mini-empire of restaurants (Herbsaint, Cochon, Cochon Butcher, and the recently opened Peche) in New Orleans, he also plays a major role in the Fatback Pig Project, a collaboration to support the regional production of heritage pigs and the farmers that raise them. Link took time to speak with Eater about the appeal of Music City Eats, the importance of supporting farmers in small communities, and expanding Cochon Butcher.
So Music City Eats is almost here, and as someone who probably gets invited to a lot of food festivals and events, what makes the decision for you in terms of deciding whether to participate or not?
I've got some friends in Nashville, and I've always liked that city. I've only been a couple of times, but I feel like there is something going on there that is kind of exciting. And Jonathan Waxman and I are on a board for an event we're doing in Las Vegas that the Kings of Leon are headlining as well. The whole Kings connection was a big factor for me. They're my favorite band right now, and have been for some time. I like the combo of rock and roll and food, just the music component to this. You know, I've stopped doing a lot of food and wine festivals, almost all of them actually. This year the only ones I'm doing are Music City Eats and Life is Beautiful [in Las Vegas], and the thing that they have in common is the music angle.
I like the chefs that are going, that's always a big swing factor. The chefs that I know and that I'm friends with, it's a good time for us to get together because we're all so busy. I like the idea of taking food to a different audience than we already have. I know a lot of musicians, real musicians, that really get into food and really appreciate it. I've really noticed, over the last five years in particular, there's just so many musicians that are into food, and I feel like we have a similar lifestyle of being creative and doing something we love. I just think there's a great connection there.
Do you have a background in music, or just a real love for it?
Well, back in college I played in a rock band. Nothing special, just a rock and roll/blues cover band, playing at fraternity parties and bars.
What was the name of the band?
DMZ, as in demilitarized zone. We weren't really great or anything. Well, I was [laughs].
I just saw photos of the new Cochon Butcher 'Pig Slayer' van. Any chance it will make the trip up for Music City Eats?
[Laughs] Yeah, we thought about it. But I'm going to be flying instead.
Recently you were on Bizarre Foods America, and The Fatback Pig Project was featured prominently. In allowing what you are doing there to be so visible, what were you hoping to get across to viewers?
Really just kind of an awareness on small farming and quality hogs and pigs. Fatback started with Nick Pihakis [with Jim 'N Nick's BBQ] and I wanting to put together a barbecue team [Fatback Collective] in Memphis, and we started adding members like Sean Brock, John T. Edge, Ashley Christensen, Pat Martin, and it just kind of became this little group that we formed. We traveled to Uruguay together to try some different foods and some new cooking styles. We do a lot of charity work together, and it's just a way for us to get together as a group and do some things for the community. And out of that came the Fatback Pig Project. Bill Niman was a big influence on Nick and I as far as how to bring farming back to small communities, and to raise really good pigs, but to do it in a way that the farmers make money and try to get these things priced economically, so that it's more accessible to more people. We're also looking at doing a Cochon Butcher expansion and using the hogs from the Fatback slaughterhouse. And we are hoping that this will become a small farm model that will be an example for other areas of the country to follow. It's been a long process, but we're almost there.
So in terms of being an example to other areas of the country, would the plan be to just hand off the template of what you all have done?
My goal was never to be a pig farmer. I know more about it than I ever really wanted to, to be honest. But I felt like I needed to learn a lot to kind of understand what we're doing. But that's not really the business I want to be in, I just want to have this set up for us and for the community, our region. And then we can show others how we did it.
You mentioned expanding the Cochon Butcher concept. Any plans on expanding it to Nashville?
Yeah, Nashville is probably number one on the list right now. Nashville and Atlanta is where we are looking at. We've really just started, trying to find the right space. We're definitely looking for a market that will appreciate all the work we're putting into these hogs and the effort were making to do it right.
So Fatback and the Butcher expansion are really the next evolution of what you're doing.
That's definitely part of it. We just opened Peche, and that's been a huge success. That's really focused on gulf coast seafood, and it's not just New Orleans fish, it's Alabama, Florida, it's gulf coast cooking. And what we're doing there with seafood is similar in concept with what we're doing with the pigs. You'll always have that thread with us, that if we do something, it's going to have some purpose and meaning to it.