Mike Davis on Cool Jerk, Lao-style beef jerky

Categories: Interview
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Courtesy Cool Jerk
Looking for some savory stocking stuffers for foodie friends and family? We have you covered. 

Mike Davis and Mali Kouanchao have turned their passion project of making Lao beef jerky into a full-scale business called Cool Jerk. The husband-and-wife team are both artists and designers by day, and dehydrators of meat snacks by night.

Davis is the co-owner of Burlesque of North America and an accomplished disc jockey, and Kouanchao is an award-winning visual artist and recipient of the Bush Artist Fellowship in 2010. City Pages did a story about her works at the B-Girl Be exhibit at Intermedia Arts several years ago. These two were already recognizable figures in their own careers, but in the spring of 2010, they were inspired to try their hand at jerky-making for a competition thrown by a local restaurant.

"When we saw that Hell's Kitchen was hosting a beef jerky contest, we knew we had to compete," says Davis. "It was the universe telling us to move forward."

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Though they didn't end up winning the competition, the experience inspired them to make a real go of jerky-making. The duo teamed up with Big Steer Meats in St. Paul and launched a product line with four flavors, all available for sale online and hopefully soon in stores. The Hot Dish caught up with Mike Davis to learn more about the formation of the company and the history behind this particular style of jerky.

Hot Dish: Tell us a bit about how you developed this recipe.

Mike Davis: Cool Jerk is based on a recipe for traditional beef jerky from Laos called "sien haeng" or "sien savanh" which translates to "heavenly beef." Much sweeter and easier to chew than typical beef jerky, it's very common throughout parts of Southeast Asia, and variations can be found in some Lao, Thai, and Cambodian restaurants here in the United States. For the last 25-plus years, our aunt Nasao Thai has been making her own unique version of sien savanh to sell to family and friends and at an Asian grocery store in the Twin Cities area. She does everything on her own by hand, from slicing the beef super thin to marinating it to letting it air dry. Her work ethic is incredible to say the least. She always brings big batches to our family gatherings, and there are rarely leftovers.

HD: How were you able to make the jump from a home recipe to a more commercial production?

MD: We started working closely with Nasao Thai to learn her recipe and developed a few different flavors. Mali came up with the name Cool Jerk and I designed the logo and packaging. Shortly after, Mali and a friend of ours teamed up to design and launch our website and we began taking orders through our online store. After juggling the time-intensive jerky-making process with our full-time jobs and other interests, we decided to find someone to help us with the production of our jerky. Charlie with Big Steer Meats made a big impression on us. He really understood what we were trying to do with Cool Jerk and it didn't take him long to master our recipe. Now that we are working with Big Steer and producing the jerky on a larger scale, we're able to make a few steps in the production process easier while maintaining the taste and quality we aim for. 
 
HD: What are all the flavors you're offering now?

MD: We currently offer four flavors. Original, which is sweet and savory; Lemongrass, which is beef marinated with fresh ground lemongrass; Sweet & Spicy, with a little bit of heat; and then Native Lao Hot, with a more potent dose of spice including ghost peppers.

Cool Jerk sells for $8 per quarter pound, and you can also purchase "sampler packs" and mix and match any four of the flavors. Check out their website for weekly recipes and follow them on Twitter to find out which local events they'll be attending.

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