• PorkStar Nino Zoccali
    PorkStar Nino Zoccali

In 2005, a campaign that would change the face of pork in Australia was rolled out across the country. Ten years on and pork has reached its zenith, as Yasmin Newman reports.

About seven years ago, Mitch Edwards caught up with a prominent New York food journalist and friend. The two chatted and, as is want to happen between a journo and the marketing manager for Australian Pork, the conversation naturally turned to the comestible.

“There’s a cut you must keep your eye out for in Australia,” says Edwards, recounting his friend’s excited words. “Pork belly.” A smile makes its way onto Edwards’ face.

Of course, the friend believes she’s giving him a hot tip from the bright lights of NYC when, in fact, the trend came from little old Down Under. 

Australia and pork didn’t always go hand-in-hand. Just a few years before that, you were hard-pressed to find the protein on Australian restaurant menus.

It was around this time that Edwards joined Australian Pork Limited, the producer-owned body for the Australian pork industry. Meat sales were struggling. And he was stumped about the poor uptake. Chefs, he learned, loved the protein.

“The guys I talked to [at the time] had great international experience,” says Edwards of esteemed chefs like Nino Zoccali. “Overseas, pork is a staple.”

The meat features prominently in a number of traditional European and Asian cuisines, including Australian favourites Italian and Chinese, and is cherished in the US.

“But the chefs’ hands were tied,” says Edwards of the crux. “The perception of pork was poor from the consumer angle.” Market research revealed pork as ‘conservative’, ‘old-fashioned’ and ‘daggy’.

Chef Massimo Mele, who has been one of pork’s biggest advocates, agrees: “It wasn’t sexy or appealing to diners”. He says consumers’ experience with the meat was pretty much roast pork, which was often overcooked.

Consequently, it wasn’t popular with chefs. “Obviously, you want to cook dishes that please your customers.”

At this point, Edwards came up with PorkStar, a campaign that would subvert traditional notions of pork. “It was provocative and in your face, but we needed a drastic new message,” he says.

The approach was two-pronged. On the advertising front, a print campaign ran in top-tier food magazines across the country. The slick, black-and-white chef portraits sported a simple tagline, Famous PorkStar. The message was certainly thought provoking. It was also resoundingly clear: pork is cool.

A series of dining events, also called PorkStar, would roll out across the country, too. Edwards attributes the long-term success of pork to the very first PorkStar dinner, which rallied the country’s top chefs to the protein’s cause.

“Nino Zoccali shared my vision and was the vital link to getting that event up and running,” recounts Edwards. “He had a feel of what was going on around the country and called every chef on the invite list to encourage them to come and give it a go.”

Stefano Manfredi, now one of Australia’s Italian masters and a star back then, was secured as the kitchen talent and headliner.

The event brought the house down and resolved a generation of chefs to showcase pork in restaurants, but it would still take some time for the protein to go ‘mainstream’.

Zoccali describes the next watershed moment: Peter Gilmore’s pork belly with scallops at Quay Restaurant. “It came out when Australia was on the cusp of celebrating pork belly and became this real iconic dish.”

In one striking surf and turf creation, Gilmore had successfully catapulted pork belly – and the pig – into the Australian consumer’s imagination. Years later, Gilmore’s pork jowl with faux maltose crackling would become another seminal pork dish.

It wasn’t long before every restaurant and its dog was serving up their own take on pork belly and it remained the cut du jour for years.

It was, really, the perfect piece for the job – its rich, fatty, tender sweetness could convert any pork naysayer into a full-blown pig lover.

Today, much like Pirelli tires attracts top models and photographers for its annual pin-up calendar, PorkStar’s once-controversial print campaign has become a yearly event featuring a new batch of Australian culinary talent.

“It’s a thing now to be part of the campaign,” says Edwards, who has seen more than 60 chefs lend their names and faces to the promotion. PorkStar’s pork-centric dining events, which tally over 100, attracts constant hordes of diners, too.

As PorkStar's campaign celebrates its 10th anniversary, excitement for pork has reached its zenith. In 2014, we saw pulled pork on almost every canteen, cafe and casual restaurant menu.

“You’d never see a fresh pork cut as the primary hero of a plate,” says Zoccali of how far we’ve come. “Now you expect it to be at least a main option and often find it in every course.”

The chef says it’s usually the biggest selling item in both his renowned Sydney establishments, The Restaurant Pendolino and La Rosa wine bar.

Mele says he uses pork in some shape or form in every section of his savoury menu. “There is such a variety of pork cuts and a diversity of things you can do with them,” he says.

At a recent PorkStar dinner, the chef served o pere o e musso, pig tongue and cheek with goat’s curd, a mod take on traditional Neopolitan street fare.

The dish highlights some of the secondary cuts and offal now making their way into food pop culture, but even the classics are enjoying a new lease of life as chefs get creative with the protein (e.g. bacon in desserts), work with producers to refine the product for their kitchen needs (loin, cutlet), or source top artisan renditions (salumi, ham).

“Pork goes with almost everything,” adds Mele.

Venerated chef Ian Curley, another long-time pork champion, is similarly bowled over by the incredible breadth of cuts Australians are now consuming.

“We’re eating jowl, tails and ears. People aren't eating lamb or beef ears. It takes a lot of effort to get there.”