Rey Knight’s easygoing persona serves him well Sundays at the Hillcrest farmers’ market as customers linger to sample exotic spiced meats. In the prepared-foods section, Knight hawks sausage and salami. His white apron, stocky frame, and black hair and beard add to a Mediterranean butcher-shop atmosphere, as though beef and pork flanks might be dangling behind him. He dishes me up a sausage stuffed with smoked Gouda cheese in a French roll. It has just come off the grill, and I can barely keep the melting cheese in my mouth as I bite into the amalgam of flavors.
A day earlier, Knight toured me through the 3000-square-foot facility in Kearny Mesa where his Knight Salumi Co. processes meats. (Salumi is a general term for cured meats.) Knight opened his business in February 2008 after a stint producing sausage for a local restaurant.
We first walked through the refrigerated storage. “On the racks here is sirloin trim that goes into our cacciatore Tuscan salami,” said Knight. He showed me a meat grinder that looked to be the size and shape of a large toaster. “Twenty-four thousand pounds of meat went through that little guy last year,” he told me. After the meat is ground, a hydraulic stuffer forces it into the standard cylindrical salami shape.
In the room next door, the air was drier and the temperature dramatically higher as Knight led me to see the “fermentation stage.” Here the meat is inoculated with bacteria that “will acidify it and set its color,” he said. “At this point we’re taking the meat to the point where all the moisture’s going to fall out of it. During this time, because there’s a stagnant airflow, we get a mold bloom.” We looked at thick mold on the salami that had what Knight called an “angelic powdery look. It’s a combination of a type of yeast and a mold like that on cheese.” Later the mold dies from lack of moisture, and a white papery casing is left on the salami. “You can eat it,” he said.
Knight grew up on a farm in northwestern Montana. His father hunted regularly and brought elk and bear back to the farm, where he and his teenage son dressed the meat and prepared cuts for smoking. Rey Knight later attended the Culinary Institute of America in New York. There he received a chef’s education and earned a bachelor’s degree in business management. He also came under the influence of an important mentor who had been trained as a chef in France. Through that connection, Knight landed a job as a chef at a renowned restaurant in a community just north of Cannes. The head chef was a specialist in preparing meat from the slaughtering stage on. Eventually, the two men began going together to small farms in Provence and northern Italy to slaughter animals for farmers who wanted certain cuts of meat or other products. Knight would climb on the backs of the animals and shoot them in the head with a revolver before he and his partner started butchering the meat. The work involved reaching into the still-warm animal from behind and opening the carcass with a knife pointed outward to avoid cutting into the internal organs. “I’d slaughtered animals at home growing up,” says Knight, “but killing them still made me queasy.”
Knight came to my attention on January 14 when the Wall Street Journal ran a story on chefs who, primarily for learning purposes, have smuggled European meats into the United States. The article claimed that Knight once smuggled a pork shoulder and a fennel-pollen salami from Italy to Miami and, on another occasion, “hid a 4-pound goose-liver torchon from France inside the belly of a salmon.” (There are fewer restrictions on importing fish.) According to the Journal, such practices may fade as the scrutiny of potential terrorists increases in the wake of the Nigerian who, in December, “allegedly tried to set off a bomb hidden in his underpants on a Northwest Airlines flight to Detroit.” The paper then continued, “ ‘I’ll have to come up with more creative ways’ to get charcuterie into the U.S., says Mr. Knight.”
Knight says he’s never heard of jail time for smuggling meat, though fines as high as $500 are possible. I ask him if the Wall Street Journal’s exposure of his smuggling bothered him. Could his admissions get him into trouble with law enforcement? “No,” he says, “because I’d have to do it again. Now I don’t really want to dig my hole any deeper. However, that is the chef culture. The chef’s culture is about buying the best things, the greatest things, and nine times out of ten it’s a back-door deal. The mushroom purveyor, or forester guy, shows up at the back of the restaurant with a truck full of mushrooms. You come out and take what you want, and it’s the best that’s out there. It’s like a drug deal. There’s no need to do that in Europe. But here it’s all about the back-door deal.”
Other foods that might come secretly in the back door, according to Knight, are ham, caviar, truffles, and other delicacies. The items might be out of season or smuggled into the U.S., or the seller might not be licensed to resell. “Here in San Diego,” says Knight, “I could go catch a fish, head to a local restaurant, and trade it for a meal, if it is good quality. It would end up on the plate the next day as a special.
“I don’t have the need to smuggle again,” Knight continues. “I have my business and I’m successful. Now, instead of trying to mimic what they’re doing in Europe, we’re inventing our own. We know a company here in town — White Labs, Inc. — that can grow bacteria for us so that we can experiment on a bacterial plane with our production. San Diego has the best conditions for drying and curing meat. We have the right humidity levels and cool-but-not-freezing winters. We have great parameters here for what we do.”
Europe’s small-farming methods have worked for centuries, and they still follow them. “In the U.S.,” says Knight, “we have need for a healthier product. We put the minimal amount of salt in our products. Some European hams have salt contents upward of 11 percent. Supermarket hams have about 8 percent salt. My ham is at 3, the minimum-required salt for ham.”
Then there’s fat content. Knight says that two years ago he allowed some of his salamis to contain 30 percent fat. “But people don’t want that. And some people like lean, lean sausage. That’s just a product of our environment. So we cater to the American palate.”
Today, the injection of nitrates and nitrites into processed meats has become the hot-button issue. The centuries-old processing methods used on family farms in Europe did without them. And here Knight lines up on the side of those farmers. He tells me that the big meat processors, such as Farmer John, are committed to the use of nitrates because they are the most effective single agent in preventing botulism. But the old method of dehydration, he argues, is just as effective. It uses salt and plain old drying. As long as “water activity” is reduced low enough, the process functions as well as nitrates. “Water activity,” Knight says, “is the amount of water left in a product that allows microbiological growth. The dehydration process creates in the meats an environment that cannot support that microbiological growth.”
Again, the Knight Salumi Co. is responding to growing American sensitivities. Its owner, however, is not totally convinced of the danger of nitrates. “It’s a debate right now,” he says. “Some studies show that nitrates are dangerous, others that they are safe.” The greatest dangers seem to occur when products such as bacon are cooked. Nitrates injected into the meat become nitrites over time, and these can transform further into nitrosamines, which are carcinogenic, raising the risk of certain cancers, especially stomach cancer. Any debate that remains over the safety of nitrates seems to center on what might happen if they were not used in the huge meat-processing operations. Even the European Food Information Council states, “Without preservatives our food chain would not be as safe as it is today. Nitrates and nitrites used in processed meats protect against the deadly Clostridium botulinum.”
Knight tells me he is not an anti-nitrate ideologue. “But some of the organic producers are using creative marketing to lie to people,” according to Knight. He suggests I look in grocery stores for organic products that claim they do not add nitrates. “Nitrates are found naturally in a lot of fruits and vegetables. They’re in celery, radishes, cherries, even wine. The processors take celery, they juice it, reduce it down, and mechanically separate the extract until it meets the same concentration of nitrates as a curing salt has. They put that in their product and say on the label ‘No nitrates’ or ‘No nitrates added,’ while underneath that, in the ingredient list, is celery juice extract. So we say on our website that we cure meat without adding nitrates via chemical additives, curing salts, via vegetable extracts, juices, or any other derivatives.”
As a result, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is suspicious of the processes used at Knight Salumi and similar operations. The department sends representatives to the premises where two-pound samples of meat are tested regularly. Knight has never been written up for safety violations, but “they think what we do is dangerous,” he tells me. “That’s ridiculous.”
Knight and I count the ways that big meat processors are deceptive. Take items that call themselves pork. “Well,” says Knight, “there are plenty of pieces of pork, some of them less appetizing than others. Go pick up the Reynaldo’s brand chorizo. Pork salivary glands and lymph nodes make up 50 percent of that product. Do you want to eat a bunch of filters?
“When it comes to organic labeling of meat, all that’s required is for 70 percent of the product to be organic. That leaves 30 percent that might not be. You can have irradiated spices; you can have a filler, GDL [glucono delta-lactone], which is a chemical acidifier. When you eat pepperoni that gives you heartburn all the time, it’s been chemically acidulated. In a natural process, your body tolerates the meat much better when you digest it and you don’t get heartburn.”
I ask Knight what “fillers” do. I’ve been told they cause problems for people with gluten sensitivity. “We call them sawdust,” says Knight. “They’re made out of concentrated whey protein powder. A glutinous net in the fillers captures moisture, oils, and fat. Bologna, mortadella, frankfurters are all loaded with them. The reason the processors add the fillers is because moisture retention is money retention. Fat retention is money retention. Big processors dry their meat to a 30 percent moisture loss. We dry ours to 48 and 50 percent.”
Is that reflected in your prices? I ask. “Yes,” says Knight. “We’re middle of the road.” Of the two other companies mentioned in the Wall Street Journal story, one prices its products lower and one higher.