This is a story about Sukey and John Jamison, sheep farmers who live in Unity Township, Westmoreland County.
It also is a tale of venerated chefs -- among them Wolfgang Puck, Daniel Boulud, Paul Prudhomme, Frank Stitt, Ken Frank, Terrance Brennan and the late Jean-Louis Palladin.
And the legendary Julia Child.
The Jamisons are celebrating 30 years on the farm. Their goal, they say, is to "provide the best natural young lamb in America."
Jean-Francois Buel, executive chef of Daniel restaurant in New York City -- the proprietor is French chef Daniel Boulud -- belives they've done just that.
"We use Jamison Farm Lamb at Daniel because they have a clean flavor without being too strong, and the meat is tender and moist as well as lean," Buel says. "Also, Jamison is a small farmer, so we know exactly where our product comes from and what goes into it."
Stitt, owner of Bottega Restaurant & Cafe, Highlands Bar & Grill and Chez Fonfon in Birmingham, Ala., is so enthusiastic about Jamison Farm that he offers a recipe for Lamb and Black Bean Chili on the Jamisons' Web site. Joining Stitt with choruses of praise are Frank, of La Toque restaurant in Rutherford, Calif., and Brennan, of Picholine in New York City.
In Western Pennsylvania, restaurants that feature Jamison lamb include Le Pommier on the South Side; Isabella on Grandview, Mt. Washington; Lidia's, Strip District; Six Penn Kitchen, Downtown; La Cucina Dolce Incorporated, Monroeville; and Mountain View Inn, east of Greensburg.
The Jamisons themselves, however, haven't been spoiled by all the attention. They aren't ones for finery. Their humble farmhouse, where Sukey has for years refined her lamb-cooking skills in a country kitchen, reflects the wholesomeness of their product. The couple is in control from start to finish. The lambs and sheep feast on grass just outside their screen door; the two oversee birthing, growth and health; and slaughtering and processing takes place at a nearby USDA-certified plant that they own.
You could say the Jamisons got their first big break with the help of a chef at H.J. Heinz Co.
"We started selling our lamb by mail-order in 1985, sort of like Omaha Steaks," says John, who also was working for his family's coal business at the time. "At that time, no small purveyors were doing mail-order. We advertised, but got no response. We did have sales to some restaurants --at the time, chefs wanted mainly the rack and the saddle. We had a lot of lamb leftover.
"And I got thrown out of restaurant kitchens in Pittsburgh because people thought it was too expensive."
Meanwhile, Jamison was laid off when his family's coal company went out of business. The couple had moved to a larger farm in the area so they could increase their herd size. They were carrying two mortgages and had three young children to support. Income tightened.
"We had to scramble," John says.
John met with Byron J. Bardy, a certified master chef at Heinz Foodservice, and Bardy told him about a Children's Hospital fund-raiser he was planning that would feature the seven best chefs in the country. Bardy said he would use the farm's lamb for the event.
"By that time, I felt there was no future in the lamb business," says John. "I decided to donate the lamb. It would be our swan song."
He wrote letters to the chefs who would attend. Two of them -- Prudhomme and Puck -- sent orders. Then Jean-Louis Palladin, chef/owner of Jean-Louis Watergate Restaurant in Washington, D.C., appeared.
In the late '70s, when the hotel was infamously known more for the break-in that toppled President Richard Nixon from power, Palladin -- a young Michelin-starred chef from France -- opened a restaurant there. Palladin, considered one of the culinary geniuses of the 20th century, called the farm and ordered three lambs for a congressional dinner.
It was a Wednesday -- the dinner was that Saturday. The Jamisons had the lambs slaughtered and drove the carcasses themselves to the Watergate, but got lost and arrived late Friday evening.
"I had two lambs over my back, and Sukey had one," says John. "We knocked at the back door of the kitchen and told the maitre d' we were there to see the chef."
Out came Palladin -- "6 foot, 5 inches, with SOS (steel wool) hair, and glasses, dressed in a white coat, Jordache jeans and white tennis shoes," says John.
The chef took one of the lambs and laid it out on a long stainless-steel table, speaking excitedly in French, hands waving.
"He got glassy-eyed and teary. All these people were around. (The chef) could tell its age and what it had eaten. I was fascinated."
Palladin drew a map of France on a piece of butcher paper and pointed out where the best lamb in that country came from. The Jamisons' product, he noted, was comparatively superb.
The Jamisons' relationship with Palladin became very close, and their business mushroomed. The chef developed a recipe for lamb stew -- it is sold through the Jamison's Web site as Mama's Lamb Stew -- that features shallots, leeks, turnips, white wine and Palladin's secret ingredient: V-8 juice, says John, laughing.
Palladin died of lung cancer in November 2001. He was 55 years old. The Jamisons say they miss him terribly. As a result of his passing, the Jean-Louis Palladin Foundation was formed the following summer. John Jamison is president of the organization, dedicated to continue the chef's quest to seek out and use the best ingredients, to mentor young talent and encourage culinary creativity. John also serves on the board of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture.
Accolades continue to rain on the Jamisons. Last year, Sukey received the Golden Plow Award from Women Chefs & Restaurateurs, a national association to honor women in the culinary business. The honor recognizes Sukey's outstanding contributions in community affairs and how they made a strong impact on the lives of others.
Her lamb pie, which is sold frozen for a 30-minute oven heat-up, was a finalist for top honors in the 1997 Fancy Food Show sponsored by the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade.
She has developed and continues to test recipes using lamb cuts that formerly were less popular with chefs in America, such as ground meat, shoulder, shanks, steaks and top round eye. Bones are kept to make simple stock, the foundation of her prepared products, made on-site at the couple's nearby plant.
The farm produces three types of sausage: a merguez-style, favored as a street food in southern France, Spain and northern Africa; breakfast sausage; and a spinach and feta blend reminicent of Greek flavors, says Sukey.
The Jamisons brim with interesting stories -- one could spend an entire day marveling at their escapades with the notable, rich and famous -- but one of the funniest involves the late Julia Child, who became a dear friend of the couple over the years.
As part of their recipe development, the pair -- married for 37 years -- sends samples to chefs and culinarians across the country for feedback. With Palladin's Mama's Stew -- his recipe made a small quantity -- they multiplied the ingredients to feed 100 so they would have lots to ship out.
Unfortunately, Sukey and John weren't aware that herbs and spices usually can't be doubled or tripled in a recipe; less should be added, to taste. However, off went the samples. Child was on the list.
She wrote the couple a sweet letter: "Thank you so much -- I am just delighted to have that wonderfully generous package of lamb with the kidneys and that beautiful leg ....
"I am enjoying the stew; however, I feel that there is too much of a pervasive herb flavor in it -- is it rosemary?"
The Jamisons never tire of eating lamb.
"We eat it a lot," says Sukey. Their children grew up on it.
"That's how we came up with many of the recipes. They were my kitchen testers. Once, during an interview, we were asked how often we served lamb at home," she says. "One of our daughters said, 'eight days a week.'"
Their two grandchildren, who live with their parents in Japan aren't experiencing comparable childhoods.
"They're growing up on sushi."
Karin Welzel can be reached at email@example.com or (412) 320-7992.