Heaven for Pigs at Hilltop Family Farm

Maribelle's eat + drink executive chef/owner Mike Florea has teamed up with a longtime friend to personally raise the pigs served at his restaurant.

click to enlarge Jason Jones (right) and chef Mike Florea - Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Jason Jones (right) and chef Mike Florea
Until now, if a chef has been seriously concerned about offering his/her guests a farm-to-table dining experience, the process has been a fairly simple one — locating mostly local farmers and purveyors of quality meats, dairy and produce and cooking them up. But in the case of Maribelle’s eat + drink executive chef/owner Mike Florea, that’s just not enough anymore.

In an effort to close the gap between farmer and chef — and actually become the source of the food he serves — Florea and longtime friend Jason Jones have teamed up to raise the pigs served at Maribelle’s.

Jones grew up hunting in the country and had always wanted a place of his own. He and his wife Rebecca purchased a small family farm on 10.5 acres in Hamilton and started Hilltop Family Farm with the idea of becoming self-sustaining farmers. Jones does full-time foreclosure work and had no idea how to farm, and although the two hadn’t kept in touch since their school days, he called Florea for advice.

Admitted neophytes, Florea and Jones envisioned starting small, constantly messaging contacts for the right information, including which heritage breeds to raise and how to care for them. One valuable source of information has been noted farmer Travis Hood of Hood’s Heritage Hogs in Mount Olivet, Ky. 

“He isn’t stingy with his information, although he could be,” Florea says. “We ask him questions until he tells us to fuck off.” 

Florea and Jones settled on raising a cross between large black, red wattle and Hampshire breeds. “I learned from Travis that red wattle produces quality (and) large blacks are called ‘belly pigs’ because they make good pork belly for bacon and stuff,” Florea says.

When the partners were finally ready to purchase animals, they found what they were looking for on Craigslist from an Amish farmer who raises his pigs in a holistic fashion. He even went so far as to grow feed-pumpkins for seeds for their natural de-worming properties. “I went to get one and came home with four,” Jones says. 

One sow, who they promptly named Mama, was pregnant.

The initial plan was to pasture-raise these pigs slowly and carefully on a diet of scraps gleaned from Maribelle’s kitchen. “The idea here is to pasture-raise them, from a humanity standpoint, and to raise a quality pig,” Florea says. “It takes longer, because you could add things to their diet that gets them bigger quicker, but that’s not how we want to do it.” 

Through other community connections, the pigs are now also dining regularly on bread from Sixteen Bricks, scraps from La Soupe, grapes from Skeleton Root and grain from Blank Slate Brewing Company and Woodburn Brewery. “We’re also on the list of Listermann Brewery, MadTree Brewing Company and Braxton Brewing Company in case they don’t have someone else show up (for their spent grain),” Jones says. 

The pigs also enjoy whey from My Artisano Foods. Eduardo Rodriguez, owner of My Artisano, raised pigs in his home country of Argentina and has proven to be another vital source of information. 

From a marketing standpoint, Jones believes it’s important to let customers know who has participated in the raising of his pigs. “Community-raised is cool,” he says. “So when we do farmers markets, we want to tell everyone who’s helped us.”

Florea thought that their original four pigs would be enough for Maribelle’s, but with Mama’s upcoming brood, there would be more than he alone could handle. He began to approach other local chefs that he knew would appreciate the time, care and quality Jones was putting into his product. 

“Salazar was our first restaurant, and Metropole makes a ton of charcuterie from our pork,” Florea says. 

You can also find Hilltop Family Farm’s pork on your plate at Coppin’s at Hotel Covington and Wildflower Café in Mason. These are all restaurants whose chefs show as much reverence to the animal as Florea does. 

“It’s funny,” he says. “Because for me, cooking meat has always been a respect thing. The pigs all have names, like Pork Chop and Bacon. So when I dropped off a pig, it was like, ‘This one was Pork Chop; respect it.’ I think if something dies, you should do whatever you can to respect it. That’s why we use all of it. From hearts to head to tail.” ©

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