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Miyake's way: From Freeport pig farm to plates in Portland

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Miyake's way: From Freeport pig farm to plates in Portland

PORTLAND — Miyake restaurant was on the verge of a dinner rush.

In the exposed kitchen, on the other side of a thick pine bar, chef-owner Masa Miyake was calm. Standing under dim pendant lights, Miyake straightened his ink-black coat, grabbed a ticket and expedited the next order. His staff of attentive cooks snapped into action.

In this stark, metropolitan setting of slate tiles, cherry-wood accents and clinking glasses, it's difficult to imagine that Miyake spent the first half of his day on a pig farm in Freeport.

But that's the reality for Miyake, a 50-year-old Japanese restaurateur who dreams of cultivating each of his entrees from the ground up, in a truly contiguous farm-to-table operation.

Miyake isn't quite there yet. His farm has temporarily phased out vegetable production to focus exclusively on raising livestock. Some of the steps – slaughtering, for instance – occur elsewhere. But the goal of total control over food supply and production is obtainable, Miyake said.

Next month will be a busy one for Miyake. In mid-October, the chef will open his third restaurant in Portland – Miyake Diner on Spring Street, which will join Pai Men Miyake on State Street and his flagship restaurant, Miyake on Fore Street. On Oct. 20, Miyake will announce a partnership with Wolfe's Neck Farm in Freeport.

Miyake is perhaps the only restaurateur in Portland who raises his own food, but the city is teeming with chefs who insist on locally sourced ingredients, which, in turn, has helped make Cumberland County a coveted location for new farmers. The demand for local food, in restaurants and markets, has helped preserve arable land in Portland's suburbs, and even spurred land reclamation.

Amid that growing competition, Miyake hopes to carve out a niche by introducing a range of new flavors to American palates. Pork, in Miyake's estimation, is more than just another white meat.

Life on the farm

It's not easy to find Miyake Farm.

There are no road signs pointing to its location and there's no address listed on the restaurants' website. There are no silos, tractors or barns. The only thing visible from the road is Miyake's light-blue, Cape Cod-style house on Curtis Road.

At first glance, it's difficult to imagine that the humble house serves as home base for one of Portland's most successful restaurateurs – let alone a working farm.

But then you hear it; the squabbles and snorts of 100 chickens and 36 pigs milling around out back.

Miyake moved to Freeport four years ago because the landscape and climate reminded him of northern Japan, where he grew up. Miyake learned to cook when he was 15. In his late teens, he moved to Tokyo. In 1995, he moved to New York. Seven years ago, Miyake moved to Maine with his wife and three children, who are now between the ages of 10 and 18.

Shortly after moving to Curtis Road, Miyake cleared the woods behind his house to make way for the farm. His property is relatively small – about three acres – and only an acre was utilized for farming this year.

The pigs, which are currently the focal point of Miyake's energy, lurk in separate pens under the shade of coniferous trees. In total, Miyake has four breeds, with plans for a fifth.

By the time Miyake arrived in Freeport, he had three decades of cooking experience, but none as a farmer. For his first two years of farming, Miyake raised livestock and vegetables simultaneously, but it was hard work and the demand for water nearly overwhelmed his well supply.

"A lot of working. A lot of mistakes. But people learn from mistakes," Miyake said of the early days. "Little by little, we are growing up."

Miyake is joined each weekday by Emily Phillips, a 26-year-old Maine native, who has assumed the role of head farmer and Miyake's interpreter. Phillips doesn't translate for Miyake, per se, but she knows him well enough to help express his thoughts beyond his limited range of English.

Phillips arrived with some agriculture experience from her childhood days in Blue Hill and Camden, but she was still an amateur when she was plucked from the restaurants' office in Portland and placed in the field.

On a recent sunny morning, Phillips strolled from pig pen to pig pen in high boots and a pair skinny jeans. A green iPhone poked out from her back pocket. She was followed everywhere by Cookie, an excitable black Lab whom Phillips describes as "the world's worst farm dog," because she frequently spooks the chickens.

Despite Phillips' relative inexperience in agriculture, she speaks eloquently, confidently and enthusiastically about pigs. So far, the farm has mostly raised Landrace pigs – the classic, pink American pig – but it's slowly branching into a variety of heritage breeds, including American guinea hogs, Ossabaw Island hogs and Mangalitsa pigs.

Mangalitsa pigs originated in Hungary and are rare in the United States. They're long-legged and are covered in thick, curly fur, resembling sheepdogs.

"They are supposed to be at the farthest end of the lardy-pig spectrum," Phillips said. "Masa sometimes calls it Kobe pork. It's very, very special. Very distinct."

Ossabaw Island hogs resemble wild boars in both appearance and temperament. They're also lean with very dense meat, she said. For that reason, the farm is planning to breed the Ossabaw Island hogs with a fatter variety for a "different and interesting meat," Phillips said.

Crossbreeding has its drawbacks, though. The first generation of hybrids often have what's known as vigor, she said. Sometimes vigor refers to strong health and steady growth. Sometimes it means aggressiveness.

"Considering the temperament of these guys, I'll breed them with some of our very docile ladies," she said.

Bucolic 'burbs

It's tough to say how many farm-to-table restaurants exist in Portland. There are so many that it's like counting the "number of fish in Casco Bay," Dick Grotton, president of the Maine Restaurant Association, said.

"Pretty much any restaurant in Portland that is chef-owned is farm-to-table," he said. "Any restaurant on the peninsula, or in the Old Port, is very careful about where they source their products, and they buy locally wherever they can."

Miyake might be the only chef in Portland who raises his own food, Grotton said, but there are plenty of notable farm-to-table spots, including Back Bay Grille, Farmer's Table, 555 and Fore Street.

That critical mass has helped create stability for nearby farms, said Dave Herring, executive director of Wolfe's Neck Farm in Freeport.

"Something tells me that the farms in the greater Cumberland County area are doing better than farms that are farther afield, because they're closer to the demand for local foods," he said.

Wolfe's Neck Farm, on the edge of Casco Bay, provides support for burgeoning Maine farms through education programs and raises awareness of sustainable agriculture through tours of its facility, summer camps for children and more.

Wolfe's Neck has helped support Miyake and Phillips with supplies and education. Next month, the two farms will announce a new, formal partnership during an event on Oct. 20 at Wolfe's Neck Farm, Herring said. (More information will be available in early October on the farm's website: wolfesneckfarm.org.)

Farming in Cumberland County is growing in popularity, in part due to youth culture in Portland, Herring said. As a result, preserving the remaining agricultural lands in Cumberland County might be an easier task than in other areas of the state.

"We've got younger people who are interested in getting involved in farming, who are working at farms and supporting farmers' markets," Herring said. "So perhaps it's not as big an issue here than it is in Washington County or Waldo County where large tracts of land are in jeopardy."

John Piotti, executive director of Maine Farmland Trust, agreed that farming in suburban locations is desirable, but he hasn't seen any data to suggest that the farm-to-table movement, farmer's markets, or Portland stores like Whole Foods Market or Rosemont Market will save suburban farmlands from development.

"The places where farmers want to be are also the places where the development pressure is the highest and the prices are highest," Piotti said. "More people want to live 15 miles outside of Portland than 40 miles outside of Portland. (Farm-to-table restaurants and farmer's markets) might be an economic check against some development, but I doubt if it tips the scales."

The Maine Farmland Trust is a nonprofit organization that seeks to preserve farmland from development. Since 1999, the Belfast-based group has preserved more than 27,500 acres, according to its website. Its goal is to preserve 100,000 acres by the end of 2014. The group estimates that "400,000 acres of Maine’s best farmland (or about one-third of the state’s farmland resource) will be in transition in the next few years, simply because of the age of the landowners."

Piotti said his group tends to focus on central and northern Maine, where the most acreage is at risk. Those relatively remote, sparsely populated areas, however, can be a tough sell for new farmers, whose raison d'etre is delivering food without the environmental impacts of long-distance transportation.

At the same time, there are opportunities in southern coastal Maine to reclaim land for farming, as was the case for Miyake, Piotti said. Backyard farming, whether raising chickens for eggs and meat or cultivating gardens, is a growing activity in urban and suburban locations, he said. The soil is often good and there is "handy access to markets."

"You can grow an awful lot on a few acres of good soil," he said. "A phenomenal amount."

Pairing swine like wine

The pork that Miyake raises is vastly different from the conventional pork that shows up on most American dinner plates. Pink pigs are predominant on American farms because they grow quickly and inexpensively, Miyake said, which has resulted in a homogeneous supply of pork in grocery stores.

"In Japan, we have so many different kinds of pork," he said. "Here, pork is pork. Why?"

Miyake said his varieties might take some getting used to, but customers of the Portland dining scene are open to new experiences.

It's also a new experience for Miyake, because each meat cooks differently and lends itself to different meals. Part of the fun is discovering how each breed is best served.

"That's my job," he said. "What tastes better? That's what we push for the menu."

Building menus on how ingredients respond to different kinds of heat and preparation is one of the things that Miyake does best, according to Stan Dzengelewski, a line cook at the Fore Street location. Miyake lets the ingredients dictate the dish, rather than conjuring dishes and finding ingredients for them afterward.

"There's a lot of energy in the process," Dzengelewski said of Miyake's approach. "It's very whimsical and always evolving."

Of Miyake's three heritage breeds of pig, he has only served the American guinea hogs – a slow-growing and lard-laden heritage breed – at his restaurants, but he plans to begin culling the other breeds next summer.

Miyake works six days a week from about 6 a.m. to at least 10 p.m., sometimes until midnight. He stays at the farm until mid-morning, then drives to Portland to work in his flagship restaurant. It's a long, tiring day, but he enjoys it, he said.

Phillips picked up where Miyake left off.

"What keeps him going day to day is that he really, really relishes the process of raising these animals. He sees that they're healthy and they enjoy themselves," she said. "When you see that product on the table, it's just an incredible feeling."

For Phillips, who spends about half of her day on the farm and the other half in the restauants' office, raising livestock can be bittersweet. She's feeds them, waters them and serves as midwife when the sows give birth to litters, but she also tries to remain unattached.

"We don't name them, we don't identify personality traits in them or distinguish them from other pigs," she said. "Whenever I get tangled up in thinking about it, I also think about the point of doing this. These are animals whose lives have a purpose. Their purpose is to turn over the land, fertilize the land and feed people.

"When you're out here on a day-to-day basis, it's hard to remember that these pigs are pigs and not your best friends," Phillips said. "I'm out here by myself a lot. Sometimes, I have to step back and think about the bigger picture."

Ben McCanna can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or bmccanna@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @BenMcCanna.