The family, which also traffics in steaks and veal—moving some 250,000 pounds of meat a week, Mr. La Frieda said—has long prided itself on its chopped beef program, but only recently has it attained such a cult following.
“When the burger revolution began about five years ago, we were already there doing it,” he said. “My dad’s always put brisket in, my grandfather put brisket in.”
A variation of the family’s signature blend can be found at Danny Meyer’s burger mecca Shake Shack, whose exact recipe is a closely guarded secret. “We came up with the blend together, between his chefs and us,” Mr. La Frieda said. “We must have done 25 tastings before Shake Shack opened.”
Meat is ground fresh around 3 a.m. every morning, with careful attention to temperature. “We grind at a very low 29 degrees,” Mr. La Frieda said. “It keeps the meat flowing through the blades at a great speed so that it doesn’t overgrind, so you have a coarseness to the meat, and also enables the restaurants to cook medium-rare burgers, whereas a lot of burger places you’ll go to and order medium-rare, and it’ll come out gray inside. The temperature has a lot to do with that.”
Chefs are often “too generous” when Mr. La Frieda drops by to check on his meats in action, he said. “It’s embarrassing sometimes. You’ll ask for a bill. Sometimes they won’t even give you a menu. They’ll just send out one of everything. You’ll need like a wheelchair to get out.”
This Little Piggie …
“We carry our balls around in a wheelbarrow,” said Bev Eggleston. “I say that deliberately because it really describes our risk and our commitment and our beliefs in this whole thing.”
Mr. Eggleston, 42, is the folksy-spoken Che Guevara of pig farming—or, as he puts it, the Bruce Willis in the imaginary slapstick spoof Live Free Range or Die Hard Trying.
For him, the role of supplying only the finest free-range swine flesh to such high-end venues as Gramercy Tavern, Fiamma and reputed pork fiend David Chang’s various Momofuku restaurants is about more than mere haute cuisine—it’s about mounting a culinary insurrection.
“We’re entrenched in the clean food revolution,” Mr. Eggleston said in a recent phone interview. “I’m just a militia member.”
A decade-long vegetarian and self-described “contentious objector” to industrial meat production, the founder of Virginia’s Eco Friendly Farms raises pigs “in an environment that lets them be pigs”—that is, roaming a grassy pasture instead of leading a life of imprisonment in concrete pens.
It’s “a collective, kind of a spiritual shamanic endeavor,” said Mr. Eggleston, who espouses an “intentional vocabulary,” particularly when the time comes for each little piggie to meet his maker. “We harvest animals—we don’t slaughter them,” he said. “Their life was given up—and I’m not just taking that for granted. Matter of fact, I pull the knife 90 percent of the time. I’m willing to take that karma on.”
He compared the plight of pigs to that of slaves over two centuries ago. “This incarceration, this molestation is coming to an end,” he said.
But, in the meantime, so tasty!
“When you do the right thing with animals, they taste fucking great,” said Mr. Eggleston, who relies on his chefs to serve as the actual taste-testers. “Good meat comes from great ecology and great stewardship.”
“There’s much more complexity, there’s a very cool sweetness to the meat both in the smell of it and the flavor of it,” said chef Marco Canora, who serves up Mr. Eggleston’s pork shoulder-blade steaks at the East Village wine bar Terroir. (“There may not be any dish I’ve enjoyed more in recent months,” raved The Times’ Frank Bruni, who also name-checked Mr. Eggleston in his Terroir review this past June.)
Mr. Eggleston’s efforts at sustainable farming don’t end at the plate, either.
“We’re about two weeks away from our delivery vehicles runnin’ off pork fat,” he boldly predicted, explaining, “We take it back from the restaurant, process it, put it in our vehicle to go back to Manhattan and to also give some back to the farmers—they put it in their tractors and their trucks.
“Eventually,” he further prophesied, “our plant will be run on mini-turbines which will be biofuel. We think we can save about six or seven thousand dollars a month in fuel and electricity.”
The Truffle Tsar
“I’m like a drug dealer when it comes to these truffles,” said importer John Magazino, 38, as he prepared to head out for a round of deliveries on a recent Monday
“I’ve got a cooler bag, I’ve got my digital scale, I keep a little counterbalance weight in my pocket,” he said, adding, “I don’t use plastic baggies, though—it’s not good for the truffles.”