Expensive Things Explained…Iberico Edition

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Seamus Mullen’s Tertulia, which I named 2011’s best new restaurant for Bloomberg New, is where New Yorkers go to sate their expensive addictions to Jamon Iberico. With spider-like marbling and nutty, floral aromas, it is the Kobe beef of ham.

Tertulia’s Iberico used to cost $25. Now it starts at $36. I shot Mullen a quick email asking him to explain the increase, and he took 1,168 words to respond. Here’s what he had to say:

“We increased the price about 5 months ago, but we also increased the portion size proportionately. The sad reality is that we still lose our shirts on the ham, it’s so incredibly expensive (it’s by far the highest food cost item on our menu). I figured that by increasing the size and the price I would sell less of it and would really only sell it to the people who know what they’re getting themselves into. With the increased price we also now include a half portion of pan con tomate and our house marinated olives, neither of which are cheap.

The price increase has helped discourage the folks who might not understand the value of the product and concentrated our sales to the people who have an understanding of cost of the product. We’ve actually had far fewer complaints since increasing the size and price. I still think that given what it costs us on a per ounce basis, we offer very good value, even at $36 a portion.

 

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When we opened I kept the price as low as I could possibly keep it for the Cinco Jotas Ibérico Puro de Bellota…After a while we were selling so much ham (we were literally carving 1-2 legs by hand a week, you can do the math on that one, but that’s a LOT of money out the door for me) that it became a “lost leader” i.e. high volume, low margin which is simply not a recipe for a successful business. That’s the really, really hard thing about this [expletive omitted] industry, the margins are so small, the rents are so high and it’s all about a balancing act.

That’s why I get so pissed off when people gripe about pricing. The reality is that good food costs a lot of money. Meat shouldn’t be cheap and frankly, we shouldn’t eat it all that often, we’ve been conditioned into thinking that meat should be cheap, when the reality is, something like Ibérico, is EXTREMELY expensive to produce. The real estate where the pigs are raised, the dehesa, is amongst the most highly valued real estate in all of Spain (there only 4 geographical locations that can be considered dehesa, or “sun-dappled oak grove” as I like to translate it). Add the cost of leasing the land, and the producer has to sit on his product for almost 5 years before he can sell it if you factor in raising the animal, sacrificing it, curing it and aging it…Given that - at a place like 5js where they do it properly- each leg is taken down once a month, checked in three places with a cata, a thin bone skewer that is inserted and then smelled by the ham master to check to make sure the ham isn’t developing bad bacteria and going foul, it’s then coated completely with sunflower oil to keep it moist and keep it from going rancid, this is a very labor intensive, lengthy process. 5Js has a whole team of people who do that all day long: un-hang a ham, check it, grease it, weigh it, document it by number and hang it up again. It’s costly.

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With something like Ibérico, there are so many factors that drive the price up. It begins with the bloodline of the animal. By Spanish DO law, the animal needs to only be 50% Ibérico breed to be labeled as Ibérico. Very few producers actually use 100% pure bred pigs, but rather cross them with Duroc and large white and Serrano pigs to yield larger and faster growing (hence cheaper) hams. Labeling is more strict regarding the notion of “bellota” and a ham can only be called “bellota” if the animal is never fed anything other than acorns it forages for from the Holm (Encina) Oak tree and any other roots or grubs it can find. As you can imagine there is a lot of “brand value”…in calling a ham “Ibérico,” particularly in markets like the US, China and Russia where producers can take liberties with how the hams are labeled. An animal that only eats what it can find (and is also genetically predisposed to being a smaller breed) takes a lot longer to grow to “market size.” Most producers don’t own the dehesa where the pigs are raised, but rather lease it…the slower the pig grows, the longer you need to lease the space, the more expensive the ham. The next step in the incremental uptick in the cost is how the animals are processed, or as the Spanish prefer to say “sacrificed.” This is all done by hand still and takes longer than the modern, conventional process…again, more man-hours = more expensive product.

Any way you look at it, it’s virtually impossible at the final point of sale (the restaurant) to make much money on the ham. We simply don’t have the cultural reference point to truly understand the costs associated with the production of the finest ham in the world.

Please excuse my rambling, it just happens to be a delicate subject and one that is very near and dear to me and, obviously, something I feel very passionate about. I hope this helps answer your questions…

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On another note, I’m not sure if you’ve been in lately, but we have a lot of new, delicious things on the menu…I’m particularly fond of the Arroz de Pato, the duck rice. We cure and braise the legs and age the breasts…the flavor on the breast is insanely good, best duck breast I’ve ever had. It’s a hard thing, in many ways I feel like we’re cooking better at Tertulia than ever before, yet since Sandy we’ve seen our business go down without recovering fully. It doesn’t help that we’re not brand new any more, but we haven’t quite settled completely into that “neighborhood” joint as people still have the perception that it’s impossible to get in here, when quite frankly, if you come before 7 on nearly any given night (more so than ever if it happens to be a Jewish Holiday!) you will, in all likelihood be seated right away. That’s part of the curse of being perceived as being impossibly busy.” (Seamus Mullen).

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