When Robert Stout and his wife moved into the Bed-Stuy apartment above Chris Woehrle’s place a few years ago, the two quickly hit it off over their shared passion for good food and good cooking.
Inspired by their chemistry in the kitchen and itching to escape their day jobs, Chris and Robert decided to try their hand at making a new kind of beef jerky – a good one (sorry Slim Jim). They developed an elevated version of the truck-stop favorite, using the highest-quality organic grass-fed beef marinated in all-natural seasonings inspired by the wildly-diverse ethnic cuisines that are so famously woven into the fabric of the streets and kitchens of our fair city.
After months spent scouring the borough for kitchen space, finding a local farmer who could supply high-quality all-natural grass-fed beef, identifying the ideal cuts of meat, testing and refining marinades, and mastering the process of drying beef just right, Kings County Jerky was born.
We met with Chris and Robert at their new pristine sky box-like kitchen digs in Bushwick to get the full story.
Guys, tell me where you’re from and how you came to start King’s County Jerky.
Chris: I was born in Munich, in Germany. We moved to New Jersey when I was a kid, and pretty much lived close to the city. When I was a kid I was always coming into the city. Lived in downtown Manhattan for a long time, moved to Brooklyn about seven years ago, and I’m not looking to go anywhere else right now!
My parents were big cooks. We had a huge organic garden growing up. We were always going to German butchers with great meat, and going apple picking, berry picking. So I grew up with parents who were always really into sourcing out great food and cooking it. I was always into good local food and was always into cooking.
Robert: I grew up in San Fransisco. When I was ten we moved to North Carolina. My family had a restaurant in North Carolina, so food was a big part of our lives growing up too.
I became a photographer. I lived in Atlanta, then in Miami for seven years. I’d just kind of done everything and shot everything down there, and I moved to Manhattan. Lived there for a few years. My wife wanted to move to Brooklyn. She had known Chris for about 13 years. We moved into the apartment right above them in Bed-Stuy.
Chris: It’s right at the border of Clinton Hill. It’s nice and quiet over there. Not much in terms of restaurants or markets, so that’s another reason we cook at home so much!
Robert: It’s a really long walk to anywhere, so we cook.
Chris: When they moved in we started hanging out and cooking together a lot. We both wanted to get out of our jobs and flee our careers, and food was obviously the next step for both of us.
We really enjoy it and are passionate about it, so one day we decided to enter a cooking contest we had heard about. It’s called the Brooklyn Beer Experiment.
We entered the competition. 25 amateur chefs. Sold out crowd of 350 people. We had to make food for 350 people and the ingredient was beer which I hadn’t really cooked all that much with, so it was a huge challenge right off the bat, but we felt like we needed to test our skills in the public arena before we dove into doing something with food.
So the event went on and we ended up winning by a huge margin. It was pretty exciting for us. We made braised short ribs in smoked beer. We found a beer made with smoked hops, made by monks in Germany somewhere. It seemed like a perfect, unique kind of way to use a beer with ribs. So we did that, we made a little pastry tart that it went on top of, a little side salad. We served it up on our own plates. Everyone else was just kind of taking paper plates and slopping out whatever they had. So we were really hardcore about presentation. And it paid off. People were like, “Do you guys have a restaurant?” And I was like, “No but maybe some day we will!”
After that we just said, “OK, we’ve gotta do something with food.” We were thinking about it and it just seemed like making a food product was going to be a lot more likely road to success than trying to open a restaurant which neither of us had any experience in, and we certainly didn’t have however many millions of dollars it would take to open a restaurant of our own in New York.
So we thought it would be fun to come up with a cool little food product. I spent the summer right after that competition trying to come up with ideas. I had a refrigerator full of vats of pickles and kimchee and sauerkraut and mustard and harissa and relish and salsa…everything you could possibly make into a food product.
But none of it seemed really exciting to us – it seemed like there were a bunch of people making pickles and a bunch of people making relishes and salsas already, and they were doing it really well. We were on a weekend trip one time in Pennsylvania, and there was a really great German butcher shop there with a smoke house and they had made a little batch of jerky. It was really salty and full of corn syrup and that kind of stuff but it was still kind of better than the average stuff. We were eating it, we were really liking it, it wasn’t really very good, but there was something about it that we liked and people seemed to like. So we thought here’s a great opportunity! Let’s take jerky – something that’s pretty much universally poorly made – and make it really well. In the way that we would make a meal – buy some pastured meat, buy some great ingredients, and try to come up with some meaningful flavors.
So that was what we decided to do. The first thing we did before we went out and bought a $15,000 dehydrator was go online and find out how we could make a dehydrator ourselves. Alton Brown had a show on the Food Network where he made a dehydrator out of a box fan and two air conditioning filters. So we went around the corner to Home Depot, bought a box fan and some air conditioning filters – made sure to get the ones that were not fiberglass! – and marinated some meat, popped it between the filters, bungee corded it to the fan, cranked it up and set it out between two chairs for twelve hours.
So those crazy Alton Brown projects are for real?
Yeah – it’s for real. We put it to the test! It worked! We cracked it open and it looked like beef jerky, smelled like beef jerky, tasted like beef jerky…we ate it, it was good, nobody got sick, so we were like, “Alright! We can make some beef jerky!”
We knew we weren’t going to be able to get far with the Alton Brown contraption, so we did some research and got a little box smoker – a mini-fridge sized thing. Fortunately Robert has a balcony outside his apartment, so we were able to sneak it out there. We got a little extractor fan for bathrooms and stuck that in to circulate the warm air, and basically created a sort of Mark II dehydrator and smoker.
And we just started going to work – experimenting to get the timing right, the flavors right and the marination right. A few months into it we were pretty good with where we were. We heard about the Next Big Small Brand competition, and we figured it was a good opportunity again to put what we’d been working on out into the public arena to see what people thought. So we did it – we entered, and a few weeks later we got a call saying, “You guys are finalists!”
We made it into the top five. On the night of the finals the judges loved us, the crowd loved us and we ended up splitting first place. At that point it didn’t even matter to us whether we won – it was just great exposure to people like Whole Foods, Martha Stewart magazine, Food & Wine editors, New York Times bloggers…all that stuff. So that was another moment where we realized, “Alright, this is a product we can really go to town with.”
At that point we started looking for commercial kitchen space. That started us on this whole adventure to find something – do we lease space, build our own, how do we find something?…We found a place in Queens which was kind of a problem because we’re Kings County Jerky. Luckily it was in officially disputed territory. There was this pace called arbitration rock right there, marking that the area was disputed territory between Queens and Brooklyn. Of course the deal fell through with the landlord at the last minute and the next day Robert went out and found this place.
So the universe kind of coughed it up to us at exactly the right time.
This place is amazing. I haven’t seen a commercial kitchen space anything like this.
Robert: Thank you! We keep telling ourselves that too.
Chris: We’re always kind of amazed. When we walk in every day we’re like, “Wow – this place is really cool!”
Robert: I’m here about 14 hours a day, so we wanted it to feel right!
So tell me more about your ingredients and flavors.
Chris: Pretty much all the jerky out there was made with factory farmed meat and lots of chemical products. We thought, “We like to eat good beef, so why not make our snack with good grass fed beef?” Also it was a way to differentiate ourselves from the rest of the stuff out there. There are people who make jerky at home and sell it online, but it’s pretty all much factory-farmed meat, and it’s always got corn syrup, it’s always got Worcestershire sauce, which is full of corn syrup anyway. So it just seemed like it would taste better, which is always the most important thing with us, and it would differentiate us from everyone else doing it – it tapped into what people didn’t want in their food.
Robert: We just thought, “Grass fed beef is what we eat, so that’s what we should serve.”
Chris: Trying to find farms that could supply us was a real effort. I started by going online and found a directory for grass-fed farms, and there were a couple hundred of them in the region – we wanted to keep it local so we were only looking for farms in the area. There were two places that responded and said, “Yeah, we can actually handle you.”
One of them was Simply Grazin’ organics which actually supplies Whole Foods. They have a farm in New Jersey, another one in upstate New York, and one in Virginia. So we drove down there one morning and met them. They were super cool. They showed us around the farm and said, “Yeah, we can handle your meat needs.”
Robert: The animals there were just happy. They’re eating this super-fragrant alfalfa and stuff. We were actually petting the bulls. You don’t normally get near a bull.
Chris: Yeah – they don’t castrate their bulls, which is something that’s normally done. We asked the guy showing us around why they don’t do it and he said, “Why would you castrate a bull?” There’s a common wisdom that it made the meat better or something. He was like, “The meat’s not going to be better. The thing that affects the taste of the meat is stress. If the animals are stressed out the meat tastes bad. If I castrate a bull, he’s gonna be really stressed out! And pissed off! So we just decided not to do it and they’re the happiest bulls we’ve ever seen!”
The grass flavor in the beef really makes a difference too. When we open up a shipment of our beef and we’re trimming the fat off it and stuff, the aroma is so inviting. Just raw – I was never into steak tartar or carpaccio anything, but with this stuff you really can see wanting to try it. The fragrance of the grass really comes through. It’s really more than just some hippy dippy local locavore thing – it really makes a difference in the quality and the flavor and the aroma of the meat. It’s a significant difference.
And we tried cheap beef. When we were first testing out our method we ruined a huge batch of grass fed beef. We still hadn’t gotten it right, so we thought we’d go to Western Beef and get some stunt beef and use that to figure out the drying time. So we did – we bought a bunch of eye rounds. It was real cheap and we got an armload of it and brought it back, but when we took it out of the dehydrator it had such a weird smell and taste because we weren’t dousing it in msg and salt and sugar. You could really taste the actual beef. If you use poor quality factory beef it really has an unappealing odor and taste. There’s no way we could make a good product the way we want to do it with factory beef. And we wouldn’t want to.
Working with Simply Grazin’ has been great. It’s a perfect relationship. They come up to the city to deliver to other clients already, we like them, and their meat is great. Even before we started working directly with them we knew their meat was great because we’d been buying it at Whole Foods to make our test batches of jerky!
Because they’re a small-scale sustainable operation, the amount of beef they produce is limited, we’re a little limited in the amount of jerky we can make at a time, but that hasn’t been a problem.
We talked to some other farms too. One place based in south Jersey wanted to meet us halfway. They said, “Maybe we can meet at a rest stop halfway?” It didn’t seem like they really got how much beef we needed – they’d say, “Oh I have a couple of eye rounds for you.” It just was sort of too much and not enough at the same time.
Other guys in upstate New York – some really great people – are only doing sides of beef. They’re not butchering. They’re small farms that sometimes process their animals all at one time of year, so supply can be tough.
Simply Grazin’ does have a butchering operation – we can get what we need cut to size and everything. They produce it the way we want, have great quality meat, can butcher it for us, and can get it to us. They’re a little bigger but they have a small farm feel and approach to things. It’s a great relationship.
So how did you come up with your flavors?
Well first of all we thought, what flavors go well with beef that aren’t teriyaki or hot and spicy – the typical jerky flavors. We live in New York and we like to explore a lot of different types of restaurants and cook a lot of different types of food. Robert’s wife is Korean and always made great Korean barbeque, so right away we thought great! That’s a great flavor. That would be great with jerky. Let’s do it. It’s sweet, spicy, smoky…and we thought, “Let’s add some sesame seeds too.” And it came out great.
Again, it was taking what we cook and what we like to eat and just applying that to jerky.
Same with the Orange Ginger, which is a Sichuan flavor. That was based on a great trip we took to a a Sichuan restaurant in Flushing. We had this orange beef and we thought, “Wow! This is a great interesting new flavor.” It took a while to get it right. We use fresh ginger, orange, star anise, and Sichuan peppercorns. It took a while. I have a great book on Sichuan cooking and I just kind of studied that for what flavors go together and went through lots of trial and error to get the proportions right. We added the star anise at the last minute and that really brought it together.
There’s a whole world of cuisine out there. People cook beef in all kinds of interesting, spicy ways, so we just delved into that.
We’re still working on flavors. We’re working on a Smoked Chili Mole, a Thai Red Curry thing…I still have an idea for a Pastrami jerky with a coriander cracked pepper mustard seed seasoning. But it’s a lot of trial and error. A lot of things that taste great cooked don’t have nearly the same flavor as you think it will when dehydrated, so it’s a totally different process of getting the levels of sweetness, salt and spice right than it is with cooking. It definitely takes some experimentation to get the proportions right and to figure out how to dial stuff up.
So tell us some more about the process for making the jerky. What cuts of meat do you use? How’s it actually done?
It took a while to figure that out. With jerky you always want the leanest meat you can get. You don’t want any fat on there. So we started with the leanest cuts. We got a big box from Simply Grazin’ of all their leanest cuts, and we experimented with them. They were all equally lean, but with some of them, the muscles would become stringy when you took them out of the marinade…that won’t work. Others, when you’re trying to break down the meat into workable pieces, the muscles are overlapping in opposite directions so you’re not able to cut smoothly with the grain like you want to.
So we had to reject a lot of lean cuts and we were left with bottom round and eye round – both hind quarter cuts with the leanest most worked-out muscles.
Robert: So when we get a shipment of meat, we freeze it, then quarter it and trim the excess fat off. We make the marinades and do the slicing on the same day. We slice it with the grain on a meat slicer to get it an eighth of an inch thick.
I’m going to be making the orange ginger marinade and doing all the slicing today. Probably sixty pounds of beef. Tomorrow morning I’ll come in and put all the beef in the marinade. It’ll be in there for about an hour and a half. From there it all goes onto racks and into the dehydrator for about an hour and a half at a specific temperature. It’s in there for about four and a half hours, and then we pull it and pack it.
Chris: It’s basically a two-day process. The first day is the butchering and the trimming and the making of the marinade. The second day – laying out the meat – 42 racks go into the dehydrator, and it’s not as easy as throwing them out and and throwing them in. You have to lay out the marinated pieces of meat and you want to maximize the amount of meat you get in there. It’s all hand cut so the meat is all different shapes. So it’s almost like putting together a puzzle.
With the dehydrator, you’re not cooking anything. It’s really just like a hot desert wind in there. It’s about 200 degrees and below. If you cook it it gets crispy on the outside and chewy and raw on the inside, which is not what you want in jerky. So you’re really just trying to keep it at an even hot dry temperature and make sure that you’re just getting the moisture out and not actually cooking it.
So where can you get your jerky now?
Right now we’re selling it directly through our website, and to people who take tours to visit our space. We hope to be in a lot more locations soon.
Is it just the two of you?
It’s basically just the two of us. Robert’s friend Eric has been coming in mid week to help when it gets crazy with the production stuff.
So what’s next for King’s County Jerky?
Chris: We’re going to keep focusing on building new flavors, and on really mastering our production process.
Robert: We think we can refine things so that we can double our production right here before we add another person to the team. We’re working on it!
Chris: And of course, we’re working on getting things to the point where we can get our jerky onto shelves throughout the city. Right now, anyone who wants to try some of our jerky can order it on our website, or stop by here to pick some up.
For more on Kings County Jerky, see their website.