2014 Kentucky-Tennessee Rising Star Artisan Jay Denham of The Curehouse
6705 Preston Highway
Louisville, KY 40219
The son of beef cattle ranchers, Jay Denham has an ingrained passion for the pastoral life. But for a time he abandoned the fields to pursue a career in cooking. The Maysville, Kentucky, native worked his way up the kitchen ranks, eventually taking on the executive chef role at Park Place and Browning’s in Louisville. When the recession hit in 2008, both restaurants closed, leaving Denham jobless—and with the opportunity of a lifetime.
Denham had started curing programs at both the restaurants and, with nothing to lose, traveled to Italy to refine his skills and fuel a growing passion for charcuterie. Among other stages, he studied under Massimo Spigaroli, a renowned master of prosciutto di Parma.
Back in the States—and back in the business of farming—Denham became part of a trio, including Nick Heckett and Chuck Talbott, that would create a new standard for dry-cured ham in the United States. Together they raise Ossabaw hogs in the mast-rich Appalachian foothills, giving the animals the singular terroir of the American Ham Belt. From their Woodlands Pork, Denham produces artisan meats and dry-cured hams with modern climate-controlled curing and a distinctive American heritage at his exemplary The Curehouse in Louisville, Kentucky.
Interview with Kentucky-Tennessee Rising Star Artisan Jay Denham of The Curehouse – Louisville, KY
Caroline Hatchett: How did you get your start curing?
Jay Denham: I'm a chef by trade, and in all my restaurants I had curing programs. It started when I worked garde manger and the cold side, preserving meats, fish, and vegetables. I also started working with Nancy Newsom and Allan Benton. It was my passion in the restaurant business. There’s an Old World tradition in Kentucky with country hams and meat that old timers would hold up in their barns. I kept learning, getting more passionate, and talking to old farmers, meat producers, and country ham producers. In 2008, when economy tanked, I decided I wanted to do it as a full time profession as opposed to serving it in restaurants.
CH: How did you transition from kitchen work to full-time curing?
JD: I decided to move to Italy and work with ham makers there. The biggest thing I learned in Italy is the products, seam butchery, and pulling different muscles to be cured. Curing itself is pretty much the same across the world—the practices, nuances, and seasonings are just different in different parts of the world. The curing aspect is pretty much the same universally. The amount, time, and humidity change the product. I learned more techniques, butchery, time, temp, and humidity controls.
CH: How did you start your business?
JD: Bob Perry from the University of Kentucky introduced me to my business partners, [Nick Heckett and Chuck Talbott. At that point, Nick’s initial idea was to import the best hams from Tuscany that you couldn't find in the United Stares. Most imported hams are the bottom of the line. He went [to Italy] and figured out to do that, he would have to open a USDA facility in Italy. Then he started studying more about the main reason Tuscan hams and Spanish hams are set apart, is food source. Then he studied the Appalachian Mountain range. It’s the largest mast-producing forest in the world. Why can't we produce just as good or better hams in the United States. We already produce cured meats in the States that have been brought down through generations of immigrants.
There are two businesses: Woodlands Pork is all the [pork] in here. This building and new facility is called The Cure House, which will be processing the pork. The pork business is Nick, Chuck Talbott, and myself. Pig Perfect was written about Chuck, who has a PhD in genetics. Chuck has farm in West Virginia, and it was an ideal location for starting the project. We started a forestry program to cull trees that don’t produce mast. We started counting nut drop and fruit production. We started with a dozen or so Ossabaw boars as an experiment.
CH: How much of the Woodlands Pork pigs do you process?
JD: We cure nearly the entire animal. We pull out the ribs, heads, tenderloins, and few fresh muscles. We sell 3 percent to 5 percent of the pig fresh. We set up our slaughter dates and pre-sell all the fresh meat to restaurants, so we can package and get it to them as quickly as possible. Otherwise we cure the whole ham, shoulders, loin with back fat (back acon), pork chop with what Italians know as lardo (50 percent lean meat to 50 percent back fat).We do coppa, which is an extension of the loin in the shoulder. [Coppa] is typically found in American cuts in the Boston butt. We also cure the jowls.
CH: How many hams do you have curing at The Cure House?
JD: Each rack has 25 to 30 hams. There are close to 1,000 hams going back to 2010, with a few left over to 2009. Hams come from the back two legs of a pig, so 1,000 hams come from 500 animal.
CH: What makes your hams so special?
JD: We raise all pigs in West Virginia, and they’re finished on fall mast. Our animals are finished on acorns, walnuts, hickory, pawpaws, persimmons, grasses, roots, and scrub. We spend as much time on our forestry program to produce the right trees for the right mast to open up the canopies. The most important thing in the process is terroir of where a pig is raised. The food is very important because it gives flavor to end product of ham. Our product only has pork and salt. If we start with substandard pork, we'll never have a great ham. There's nothing we can do. We take great pride in our work. Chuck Talbott creates the best pigs possible for the end product. We typically do 60 to 100 pigs a year, harvested between October and January. We try to harvest pigs at 300 to 325 pounds. The average in America 250 pounds. Our pigs gain weight at a slower rate; they're running up and down mountains, driving the fat to intramuscular fat that gives flavoring and marbling. There's great detail in the raising of the pig.
CH: What’s your five-year plan?
JD: I see the Cure House producing a range of products, all locally sourced from high-quality animals—and a range of products that’s double what we have now. We would like to have different lines of spring-finished pigs, finished on spring grass, barley, wheat, and different food sources. To produce these hams, we need a good source of pork from all over the range, as well as breeding facilities. We are working on contracting with local farmers who can raise and increase our pig production. Woodlands Pork will remain fall, mast-finished pigs from the Appalachian Mountains.