Ever wonder what makes some of Little Rock’s food personalities tick? Food Insider takes a look at individuals who are helping change the landscape of our city’s culinary scene. Whether they’re in the kitchen, managing a storefront, farming land or running a food truck … we’ll delve into both the professional and personal side of these dynamite people. This week, it’s Brandon Brown, chef and owner of Hillcrest Artisan Meats.
“I hate school, and you can do this without having to do school.”
That’s the answer Brandon Brown gave me for how he got started in the meat and charcuterie business. It’s the kind of answer I’ve come to expect from Brown, a bluntly honest, down-to-earth perfectionist who doesn’t shy away from speaking his mind. His personality has come to define Hillcrest Artisan Meats, a cozy, homey business that demands excellence from every product it puts out.
Brown‘s passion for fresh meat started in Oregon, at King’s Estate Winery. Brown worked in the estate’s kitchen, but quickly found it wasn’t for him.
“The winery was the last place I worked, and it’s probably the place I learned the most. The chef there was amazing, he saw me struggling and unhappy as a line cook, so he picked me to help open his brand new charcuterie for the restaurant.”
Brown worked in Oregon for 20 years, honing his skills in charcuterie. In that time, he met his wife Tara, who was from Arkansas but going to school in Oregon. The two got married and had two children, both girls. However, Tara and their two kids suffered from severe allergies in Oregon, and soon the Brown’s were looking for a new place to live.
“We spend a few months traveling around the country,” says Brown. “We’d stay in a place for a couple of weeks, and it turned out Little Rock was one of the best places to help with their allergies. It was also where Tara knew some people, so we packed up and moved down here.”
After working for six months at Boulevard Bread Company, Brown struck out on his own and opened Hillcrest Artisan Meats in 2011. While HAM was somewhat well known, especially in the Hillcrest neighborhood, it was still a niche business. That changed in a massive way in July 2012, when La Quercia held its Ham Independence contest, asking for fans to vote for their local La Quercia retailer. Little Rock responded in a huge way, sweeping the vote and making HAM the winner two years in a row. The prize? A stunning Berkshire acorn prosciutto that ranks as one of the best things I’ve ever eaten in my life. And instead of selling it, Brown gave it away a slice at a time to anybody who walked in.
“People able to come in here and see a whole ham like that, and to be able to give it away to people, that was a special thing,” says Brown. “I’m not sure how many people would just give away a $1,700 ham, but we wanted everyone to try that.”
Today, Hillcrest Artisan Meats is much more popular and beloved. The biggest reason people stop by is for HAM’s lunchtime menu, which offers up some of the city’s best sandwiches.
“We have five or six sandwiches that are always on the menu,” says Brown. “A lot of the times, we just look around and see what we have. That’s a cool thing about us, for a fresh meat company, we hardly ever throw anything away. That doesn’t mean I’m selling you garbage, but I can tell, if we have a lot of hanger steak in the fridge, we’ll do a hanger steak sandwich. If we have a lot of chicken, we’ll do a chicken wing sandwich. And we have a few we keep up our sleeves if there’s nothing else going on, like our H.A.M. muffuletta or our bresaola sandwich.”
If it’s not the sandwiches or the Friday burger day, chances are it’s something in the meat case that will bring you into HAM. Brown’s exacting standards apply here as well. Thankfully, Arkansas meat producers have risen to the challenge.
“Things have come a long way since we opened with the producers, with their quantity and quality,” says Brown. “There are way more animals, and quality has also gone up.
The only problem we have is beef. There are plenty of pigs, but there isn’t very much beef in Arkansas. We’re buying beef from Southern Natural, outside of Knoxville, Tennessee. Everything we’ve bought from them is amazing.”
And if beef, pork and chicken just aren’t sophisticated enough for your special night, Brown is proud to sell some of the finest rare charcuterie products that money can buy.
“I don’t think you can find foie gras anywhere else in town,” says Brown. “Duck confit is another one that people are blown away that you can come in here and buy a leg of duck confit. We sell a lot of duck ham. And then there’s good prosciutto. You can buy it pre-sliced somewhere else, but we’re the only ones I know of slicing it to order from the whole ham.”
As for what’s next for Brown and HAM, he’s working on a way to bring his true passion to Little Rock. Brown wants to create a salumeria at HAM where he would create and sell his own salami, coppa, bresaola and other cured meats. However, you shouldn’t wait for that to happen before you try HAM for yourself. The love and attention to detail Brown has for everything, from the food to customer service, is something that is worth the drive in and of itself.
“We care here, we really do. I teach my staff the technique for everything because we want to give our customers the best experience. That’s one of those things you can find here, we care about giving you the right thing every time.”