For Glenn Wheeler, it’s the versatility of pork that keeps him coming back for more.
And with more than three decades of culinary experience behind him, he’s still discovering and creating new and eclectic pork dishes that would excite and satiate anyone’s palate.
“From appetizers to salads and main courses, pork is like a sponge, absorbing every flavor in the world — American, Asian, Latin, you name it,” he said. “Oh, and of course, don’t forget desserts. From donuts to ice cream, is there anything better to enhance with than bacon? It just goes to show you that pork pairs well with many things.”
As executive chef at Spencer’s for Steaks and Chops, for the past 14 years, and a true culinary legend in Omaha, Wheeler has wielded his artistic culinary skills to create sumptuous pork crowd-pleasers, some of which have become signature menu items.
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During his decades in the kitchen, Wheeler has noticed that people’s taste buds have expanded tremendously and they are usually looking for that something special — a unique cut, cooking method or spice — that will enhance their experience even more, either in a restaurant or their own kitchens.
“The mainstay used to be pork chops, pork loin and tenderloin,” Wheeler said. “But, fortunately for chefs, our customers’ palates have evolved. A lot of this is because people are traveling, seeing different things along the way. They come back and then they try to find the same food locally. Exposure to TV, cooking shows, competitions and, of course, social media have only helped open the doors to new opportunities for both chefs and consumers. Right now, it’s an exciting time to be a chef.”
For adventurous eaters looking to explore pork cuts and recipes, he recommends trying some of the more under-utilized cuts of pork as opposed to the usual tenderloin and loin cuts. His go-to favorite cut? The pork butt.
“It’s one of the most creative cuts of meat,” Wheeler said. “Think about it, you can smoke it, braise it, cut it into pork steaks and grill it. And the fat content is just enough to make it extremely flavorful. For an easy prep, sprinkle it with rosemary and garlic. For a Latin spin, marinate your cut using a blend of chile peppers, cumin and orange and lime. Throw it on the grill and you’ve got yourself a great-tasting meal.”
Naturally, as a chef, Wheeler enjoys experimenting. “These days, there are just some pork cuts that are fun to play with that, in the past, were not really common knowledge among consumers. Today, that is changing.”
Secreto Iberico is the “secret” cut of meat that comes from between the shoulder blade and the loin of Iberian pigs. Wheeler said this particular cut of pork tastes so good because the surface of it is marbled with fat. Marinated and grilled quickly over a high flame, the finished cut is slightly crispy on the outside and extremely juicy and tender on the inside.
“It’s quite popular in Spain and slowly making its way through the states,” he said. “You can find it, but supply chain and workforce issues following the pandemic have made it a bit more challenging to locate.”
Wheeler recommends starting with the local butcher or meat market.
Some other unique pork cuts Wheeler is enthusiastic about include guanciale, a cured pork cut similar to prosciutto in its prep and curation processes, which is often used as a staple in Italian dishes like carbonara.
Wheeler adds pork cheeks to the list as well. On a trip to San Francisco years ago, he discovered chefs were cooking with this particular cut. Back in Omaha, he started sourcing them for the restaurant and eventually added them to his menu. Cooked very slow and low over a long time, the resulting taste is very tender. Another of his signature dishes at Spencer’s is Jon’s Naturals Pork Belly, which consists of pork belly cured in a pastrami brine for seven days, smoked and served with onion-fennel marmalade and Templeton Rye mustard. The item has remained a Spencer favorite since day one.
From snout to tail, for Wheeler, the fun clearly begins with pork. After a lifetime of dedication to the culinary world, Wheeler’s pork dishes continue to captivate, motivate and entertain. The result: more unconventional recipes for Wheeler to create, accentuating the versatility, flavor and power of pork.