How This Ardent Vegetarian Became 'The Queen of Pork'—And What She's Doing to Fight Food Insecurity

Courtesy Randall Palmer

As a part of our monthly American Artisan series, chef and restaurateur Charlie Palmer talks with some of California wine country's most talented individuals. This month, Duskie Estes, owner of Black Pig Meat Co. and executive director of Food To Pantry, talks about her efforts to practice sustainability and decrease food insecurity.

Chef Duskie Estes spent 23 years of her life abiding by a strict vegetarian diet. Now, she bears the nickname, “The Queen of Pork.” The path between these two poles has been a winding one, but has in turn made resilience a mainstay of her professional persona.

Estes got her start in the Pacific Northwest, working her way into a position at Tom Douglas’s Palace Kitchen. From there, she and her husband chef John Stewart moved to Sonoma County, where they opened Zazu Kitchen + Farm, an ahead-of-its-time eatery heralded for its showcasing of local purveyors and commitment to ethical sourcing. Today, the duo run the Black Pig Meat Company. The outfit offers delicious bacon and other heritage pork products, all sourced from animals they raise on free-roam pastures without antibiotics or hormones. There have been many milestone moments throughout Estes' career, including more than a few television appearances, and awards ranging all the way up to Michelin. There have also been many hardships, namely a flood that forced Zazu to close its doors in 2019. But, throughout it all, Estes and Stewart have maintained their ethical commitment: “We make sure that any animal served in our restaurants has a really great life, and only one bad day.”

Here, Estes speaks about sustainability, the many obstacles women face in the restaurant industry today, and how she’s working with the Farm to Pantry organization to help eliminate food insecurity.

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CP: You’ve worked in this industry a long time. Can you speak to some of the challenges you’ve faced as a female chef that your male counterparts might not have had to contend with?

DE: Well, we’ve definitely come a long way, but we still have a long way to go. When I started out I wanted to be on the hot side of the kitchen, but every restaurant I went to either put me in pastry or pantry. I could not get a position on the hot side to save my soul. Finally I just lied on an application and said that I’d worked hot side before. I got the job and had to teach myself how not to look like a nincompoop on the line. I’d go out in my backyard and flip rice in a saute pan, just so no one could say I didn’t know what I was doing. That was the early 90’s. Now I think it’s a very different thing, anyone can walk into a kitchen and very shortly work their way onto the hot side, but that wasn’t the case back then.

CP: We’ve talked before about the business side of things, too. I don’t think many people consider all the complexities that come with running restaurants in general.

DE: If you look at the statistics for women who own restaurants, they’re actually worse than the statistics for women who run Fortune 500 companies. I think the real issue that troubles a lot of women is access to capital. Women restaurateurs tend to only have one restaurant because it’s harder for them to find investors. And there are lots of reasons for it, but I think one of the big reasons is that we don’t hang out with the dudes who have money. Generally, after service, the women in this industry are going home to manage home, not hanging out somewhere where you meet those wealthy people. And the people investing do tend to be men. So I do think we’re in this process of change, but we definitely have a ways to go. I honestly don’t know what the fix is, all we can do is keep at it. Keep trying to be better.

Film still portrait of Duskie Estes
Courtesy Randall Palmer

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CP: Tell us about the work you’re doing with Farm to Pantry?

DE: When the pandemic hit, I wanted to do what I think most chefs do in times of crisis, which is get in the kitchen and start cooking for people in need. It’s what we know how to do, it’s how we can give back. But, those are close quarters, and I have elderly parents, so I didn’t feel safe jumping in the kitchen. Someone told me about Farm to Pantry, I went out on a glean, and I fell in love. The organization works to rescue food that would otherwise go wasted and gets it to people facing food insecurity. The equation is simple: connecting abundance with need.

CP: And how can people get involved in this? Where should they start?

DE: Well I know your piece is about travel; this is real agro-tourism that actually gives back. So if you’re coming to Sonoma County, you can spend one of your mornings on a glean and still visit all the cool wineries on your list. All that information can be found on the organization’s website. For me, it provides the same kind of immediate gratification that comes from working in a kitchen. When you’re a chef in a restaurant, you cook a meal, serve it, and (ideally) the customer tells you they love it. It’s the same thing with Farm to Pantry. Within the same day, you get to reap the rewards of your effort. You get to feed someone who needs it. As a chef, that’s a really good feeling.