About a dozen chefs wearing white coats and white hair nets are gathered in the frigid red-floored production facility of Superior Meats on West Main Street in Louisville. The chefs are here on this weekday afternoon to learn methods on how to “take down” or cut up a lamb.
Superior Meats supplies meat to restaurants, hotels and medical facilities. It is the last family-owned local meat supplier in Louisville. Company President Ben Robinson says they get their beef, bison, pork, poultry, wild game and other meats from many places.
“Everywhere — we source everywhere,” he says. “Everywhere from the commoditized beef out West to our local farmer in Bardstown.”
And Superior Meats is also sourcing its talent from afar. The company is currently involved in an exchange through the Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative sponsored by the State Department.
Entrepreneurs from all across Latin America are in Louisville as part of the program. The founders are hosted by small businesses and nonprofits in the city for the next few weeks.
The entrepreneur chosen to do his fellowship at Superior Meats is Jose Lema from Ecuador. At his home in Quito, Lema sells exotic meat to hotels and restaurants.
“I’m in the meat industry back in my country but I deal with different animal,” he tells the chefs. “I deal with guinea pigs.”
Guinea pig might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of an ‘exotic meat’ in the U.S. But in Ecuador, this is nothing new.
“Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia share a culture because that’s where the Incan Empire was set up thousands of years ago,” Lema says. “Since we share all of these, guinea pig is eaten in these three countries.”
And to Lema, it does NOT taste like chicken.
“If you mix like a pork and a rabbit — it has a particular pork-ish flavor,” he says. “But you still can have these rabbit undertastes.”
Lema’s company is called Cuyempak and was founded in 2010. “Cuy” is the word in Ecuador for “guinea pig.” Lema works with 200 small farmers in rural areas in Ecuador on best practices on how to raise and sell the animal. That includes processes around mating, feeding them with plants that will let the animals gain weight, and composting.
Lema buys the animals from farmers at a fair price, takes them to the plant, then processes and sells them.
The vacuum-packed cuy can be bought with or without marinade. The animal is prepared with Ecuadorean spices, as well as garlic, a lot of onions, cumin, a little bit of pepper and the company’s secret ingredient. Cuts include guinea pig filet and guinea pig ribs.
For Lema, this isn’t just about cuy or guinea pigs. According to the World Food Program, chronic malnutrition affects nearly 24 percent of children under the age of five in Ecuador.
“It needs solutions for that,” Lema says. “So guinea pig is part of our culture and that’s the response for that.”
Lema wants to use Cuyempak to help small farmers. He says the goal is to use local resources to solve a problem.
“So we’re trying to help a little bit for this problem and give these families a chance to have a better life, a better economy,” says Lema.
The same goes for Ben Robinson of Superior Meats.
“We’re sitting here in a state that’s the number one producer of beef cattle East of the Mississippi,” says Robinson. “We care about our community we care about our farmers and we want to help be a piece of this industry going forward.”
Although they may work with different types of meat, Lema and Robinson say they have a lot to learn from each other.