It’s not hard to find a photograph of Chef Rob Nelson in a Hog hat. He’s “a Razorback through and through,” he told us, and he estimates he’s got about 25 such caps in his collection. What he didn’t know when he started acquiring them, though — back when he was a political science major at UA Fayetteville, of the mind to “go off to D.C. and change the world” — was that he’d end up making his living from the very sorts of beasts emblazoned on those hats, and that hogs would end up being the medium through which he’d connect food and community.
At Nelson’s flagship American brasserie in downtown Bentonville, Tusk & Trotter, there’s a king-sized mural on the wall that greets you when you walk in the door. You can’t miss it — a line drawing of a pig segmented into six sections: butt, shoulder, belly, trotter, ham and loin. On the opposite wall is a blackboard that catalogues the farms from which Tusk & Trotter sources its ingredients: Ralston Family Farm, Bear Hollow Ranch, 44 Farms, Osage Creek Farms, among others. If you’re the kind of person that prefers their protein to resemble the animal from which it came as little as possible, you’ll still find plenty to eat, but you might also risk missing the point. Tusk & Trotter serves meat with an origin story, and what’s on the plate is meant to highlight, rather than mask, the qualities of the animal you’re being offered. Like its namesake, the menu is full of earthy Arkansas notes, protein and otherwise: Fried pig ear chips serve as the base for a “nacho” dish. Smoked loin and jowl dot a flatbread. Ground wild boar provides the base for a burger. There’s fig, muscadine, local greens, sorghum syrup, pickled watermelon rind and sweet tea-brined smoked catfish.
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“We’re very responsible and sustainable in the methods we use in our cooking,” Nelson said. “That’s the heart of it.” Being able to get ingredients from a small geographical radius, Nelson said, means you’re getting a taste not only of the herd, but the Ozark Mountain terrain on which its members grazed. “It makes it more true to the area,” Nelson said. “We’re very unique in the Ozark Mountains with the different types of nuts and everything that [pigs] can forage on. Like, with Bansleys [Berkshire Ridge] Farms out in Harrison — they let the hogs out there kinda just free range and do their thing, and they develop a unique flavor because of what you can find in that vicinity.”
That blackboard list also represents decades of relationship-building on Nelson’s part. Before he opened Tusk & Trotter in June of 2011, Nelson worked in kitchens across Northwest Arkansas, and his years at Bentonville’s River Grille Steakhouse served as a springboard for his connections with Ozark Mountains farmers and ranchers. He’d visit operations like Ewe Bet Farm in Cave Springs, get to know the farmer and their operation, and observe how the animals were treated. “If it was a small farm,” Nelson said, “I would buy a couple of heads, three or four heads at a time. And hopefully that would make them motivated to start growing their herds a little bit more at a time, and to be able to grow their business as well. That’s kinda been our blueprint since then.”
And, fortuitously enough, it’s an approach to food — and to pork — Nelson would see further affirmed during his time in Avignon, France, at the La Mirande cooking school, a capstone of the culinary school education he’d received at the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts (formerly Culinary School of the Rockies). In France, Nelson said, “food is their focal point of life. It’s how they celebrate. It’s how they mourn. This is how they come together as a community. … It was really pork-heavy where I was at,” Nelson said. “So, pork was king, and I learned how to cure it and how to treat the entire animal, and I took what I learned in France and brought it back.” Part of that education, he said, was learning how to waste less and utilize more of the animal. Farmers are “very passionate about what they do in their craft, and they would hate to see their animal not used in the correct way. … If you can just buy it on the hoof, where you buy the whole animal and you break it down yourself, you’re able to not only get inspired with what you want to do with what dish — and with what part of that animal — but you get to use the entire animal, bones and all, from stock making and soup making all the way to charcuterie, curing the meats.”
For Valentine’s Day at Tusk & Trotter this year, he’ll offer pig heart — his swift answer when we asked him to name the most underrated part of the pig. “I’m gonna treat it like a piece of charcuterie. It’s actually gonna be smoked, but it’s gonna go under a sodium nitrate cure, and be dry-cured. I’m thinking of going the Vietnamese route with it, with some Vietnamese flavor profiles. The heart’s a hard-working muscle, and a lean muscle, so it needs to be treated a little differently. Curing it will help keep it tender.” Those slow methods aren’t restricted to pork, either; Nelson gives the brisket treatment to Arkansas catfish for Tusk’s undersung Catfish Pastrami Reuben, curing the cutlets, then air drying and smoking them before encrusting them with coriander and peppercorn.
In 2009, armed with a formal education in food, Nelson and his wife, Sarah, began looking at places to settle down — New York, maybe, or San Francisco — though any of those options would mean their house back home in Northwest Arkansas would have to sell, a prospect that seemed dubious in the wake of the housing crisis. “And all of a sudden,” Nelson said, “Walmart Corporate came calling back — my wife had worked there before we left — and they just offered her a job that she couldn’t refuse, and that brought us back.”
Now, with Tusk & Trotter approaching a decade in business, Nelson’s expanded his operations. Exponentially. He and his partners operate a catering and test kitchen called High South Culinary, an ’80s-themed ice cream joint called Trash Creamery, a forthcoming Bentonville gastropub called Burg Der Gustropub, and they’re adding new locations for both Trash Creamery and Tusk & Trotter in the First Orion Building in North Little Rock. Set to open their doors in June, the Argenta outpost will mirror much of what’s on the plate at Tusk’s original location, with some variation based on what sorts of ingredients Nelson can secure. “Central Arkansas, the Arkansas Delta, Southwest Arkansas all have unique things that they grow and they raise,” Nelson said, “so we definitely want to showcase that. And it’s Little Rock, so cheese dip might come into play, who knows? And tamales are big in the Delta, so I can see a couple dishes like that being spun around Tusk & Trotter style.” But, he says, 90 percent of what Tusk’s second location does will be “the tried and true. We’re gonna stick to what works, and what got us to this point.”
A Quick Bite with Tusk & Trotter Chef Rob Nelson
Pantone Color Institute has the Color of the Year every year, and Merriam-Webster has the word of the year. If they’re asking you, what’s the ingredient of the year in 2020? What are chefs in the region gonna be talking about, and maybe scrambling for?
It’s wintertime, and I’m using them a lot, so I’m gonna go with the gold beet. It just has a milder earthy tone than the red beet.
What, if anything, would not be on the menu at Tusk & Trotter if you hadn’t spent time studying in Avignon, France, at La Mirande?
The charcuterie board for sure. That charcuterie board focuses on about 3-4 different types of charcuterie that we’re doing at a time, and it’s basically the backbone of what we do at Tusk.
What are two or three of your favorite spots to eat at (other than Tusk and Trotter), and what is it you like about them?
For barbecue, Wright’s in Johnson. I haven’t had a bad meal there yet. You should see my credit card receipts; I go there a lot. I have a 10-year-old daughter, Emma, who just loves pizza, so we go to Gusano’s Pizzeria. One of my good friends — pledge brother, best man at my wedding, Ben Beisenthal — owns Gusano’s Pizzeria, so we show him support and that’s been a staple for us in our family for years. And for fine dining, Jason Paul at the Heirloom is really doing a great job in Rogers and really helping with that scene. And Yeyo’s for Mexican food.