Hog (and duck) heaven

— They may have names like Puddin’ and Puff, but they’re evaluated on things like carcass structure and meat color.

Make no mistake, the Chappapeela Farms hogs and ducks are raised for a very specific destination — tables at some of the best restaurants in south Louisiana.

But that doesn’t mean that while they’re at the Tangipahoa Parish farm the floppy-eared, multicolored hogs and flocks of flightless Pekin ducks don’t get a few perks, like free range over 40 acres of green, predator-proofed pastures, plenty of mud wallows and lots of time to forage outside.

Louis and Rebecca Lirette raise, along with their two boys, Luke and Garrett Eli, thousands of ducks a year in addition to maintaining their hog herd, which includes 40 sows. Two of those are the aforementioned Puddin’ and Puff.

“It’s like a dream come true,” Rebecca Lirette said of the year-old operation. “We’re really blessed.”

Chappapeela, named for a nearby creek, started when Covey Rise Farms partner Sandy Sharp went to the LSU AgCenter looking for some facts about some hogs. There, he met Rebecca Lirette, who was an instructor at LSU specializing in swine production and the manager of the AgCenter’s pig farm.

When budget cuts claimed the pig farm and the stock was sent to the stockyard, the Covey Rise folks brought Rebecca Lirette and her husband, Louis, a former LSU AgCenter county agent, out to the country along with the best of the hogs from the farm.

The ducks travel a considerably longer distance, having their genetic origins in France with Grimaud Farms.

“We’re one of the few that get their genetics,” Louis Lirette said, attributing the farm’s good fortune to its proximity to top-rated chefs in south Louisiana.

The ducklings are born at Grimaud’s California farm, then shipped air cargo to New Orleans for Chappapeela, where they’re welcomed to a warm and snug brooder barn that contains about four weeks worth of ducklings.

The older ones have runs where they’re allowed to roam outside, getting them used to the conditions they’ll experience in the pasture, where they’ll live until they’re about 7 weeks old and ready for the processor.

Oh, and then there’s the food.

“We have all these nutritionists we helped in grad school,” Louis Lirette said. “So we have the best poultry diet science can buy.”

Everything from the feed in the formula to the gas in the trucks is local, Louis said.

“We’ve been here a year and we know everyone,” he said.

And that includes some of the top chefs in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, drawn to the quality and taste of the Lirettes’ pork and duck. Louis Lirette said Chappapeela ducks are found in 100 restaurants around south Louisiana. The pork is in about 40, including John Besh’s and Dickie Brennan’s restaurants, and Restaurant IPO, 421 Third St., Baton Rouge.

Chef Chris Wadsworth said he uses everything Chappapeela produces.

“They treat them like their own personal pets,” Wadsworth said. “They really care about what they do.”

Wadsworth uses their duck and pork in dishes like grillades, a Community Coffee-braised duck breast and pork belly.

He recently took “the whole nine yards” of Chappapeela products with him to a dinner he cooked at the Sundance Film Festival, using pork belly, duck and bacon on his menu.

At Ruffino’s, 18881 Highland Road, Baton Rouge, executive chef and partner Peter Sclafani III uses mainly the duck, though he’d like to start using the pork as well.

“Last night, we did a seared duck breast with a butternut squash purée and a duck jus,” Sclafani said, adding that the care the animals get at Chappapeela “absolutely” affects the flavor.

“If you use some of the most widely available product, that flavor is so mild,” he said. “This one has so much more flavor, but it’s not gamey.”

The duck breast is also favored by chef Troy Deano at L’Auberge Casino and Hotel’s 18 Steak, but he also stresses using the whole bird.

The breast is used in an entrée, stuffed with spinach and bacon and cooked sous-vide — in a vacuum-sealed bag immersed in warm circulating water — and served with local vegetables and usually a blackberry jam.

He also includes the legs in gumbo and bones for stock, and will serve the livers fried or in a pâté. The heart, he said, he saves for himself, slow-cooked and broken down.

“They’re natural, so no hormones, all organic, and that says a lot. Flavorwise, that really makes a difference,” he said. “You can’t beat having something that comes in fresh, that’s been playing in a field three days before it gets to your table as a guest.”

Chef Ryan André at Le Creolé, 18135 East Petroleum Drive, Baton Rouge, also favors the pork, though he said Chappapeela duck will be on the restaurant’s new menu when it rolls out soon.

André featured the pork belly, braised in Community Coffee, on his brunch menu recently. He then turned the leftovers into bacon for a burger. His plans for the duck include serving it with a sweet potato au gratin cake, fresh wilted greens and a spicy Jack Daniels glaze.

“The flavor of the duck compared to other domestic ducks; it has a mixture of wild and domestic duck flavor,” he said, adding that the care the Lirettes give their animals makes him kind of feel bad for the family.

“They care for the animals to the point they maybe don’t want to slaughter them,” he said.

But Rebecca Lirette said that’s exactly why their hogs and ducks are there: to be butchered and served at table.

Chappapeela was a driving force behind opening a state-inspected processing plant in nearby Robert, the first inspected poultry plant opened in 40 years. The farm sends about 1,000 ducks per week to the plant for processing. Hogs are processed at McNeese State University’s meat processing and teaching facility.

Rebecca Lirette said she chose the processors that take her hogs and pork carefully, knowing that the plants that dispatch her beloved pigs and ducks “really care for how they leave this world,” she said, adding that helps the sting of sending pigs like Puddin’ and Puff off the farm.

“We are blessed to be involved in agriculture this way,” Rebecca Lirette said. “We have a very personal connection to our customers. It is a very fulfilling life to raise animals for food ... and now to have those animals appreciated by some of the most respected chefs in some of the finest restaurants is just an incredible feeling.”