I WALK INTO the humble warren of Southeast industrial space that is meat purveyors Nicky USA, and am directed to the office of Geoff Latham, its founder and president. He is not at work yet, because in my haste to meet Portland's game king, I am early. Red-blooded trophies pack a room unmistakably decorated by a man: souvenirs of near-religious college football boosterism, stuffed ducks frozen in flight, and snapshots of the lantern-jawed, perpetually fresh-shaven Coach Latham and his son in their baseball jerseys. Curiously, though, the back wall is lined with a banner of Japanese noren (shoulder-sweeping door curtains) and a gridded, grainy monitor shows feeds from a half-dozen security cameras, despite 35 other employees who could watch the screen. As I begin to work up a Keyser Söze tale of intrigue, Latham arrives to effortlessly match his forward energy to mine, and whisks me off to the heart of the operation.
Carefully sourced meat ($450,000 worth) lines the unfolding network of walk-in freezers. Forklifts bleat around corners, and men with the purpose of linebackers hoist orders to and from packing tables. We duck into a cooler no bigger than a one-car garage, filled with racks of Olympic Provisions and Chop charcuterie. A pallet of Iberico hams, three times the price of prosciutto, comes to mid-thigh. This was their first office, Latham explains, and for nearly 22 years they've been building out the surrounding space as other businesses leave. We cross the staging bay to a processing room, scrub in, and don hair nets and smocks. Six hundred Oregon rabbits—bigger, more humanely raised, and more flavorful than their Chinese counterparts—were butchered and bagged for individual sale the day I was there; another day it would be a dozen lambs, or a dozen hogs. It was demanding, bone-chilling work, but the workers were methodical, unhurried, and proud to be seen at their trade.
It was rabbits that started it all for Latham, he says. He sold them to fledgling high-end Portland restaurants like Genoa, the Heathman, and Paley's Place from the trunk of his Ford Escort, a post-college (OSU '88, agribusiness management and animal science) lark after a job as an Idaho potato salesman went south. His timing couldn't have been more perfect: It was the early '90s, and chefs like Philippe Boulot and Vitaly Paley were creating fine dining in Portland. Boulot—whom Latham credits as his mentor—liked that he could consistently buy good rabbits, but the Frenchman asked for a wider selection of game, and soon Latham's light went on. Nicky USA was founded with silent Japanese partner Noriyuki "Nicky" Mori (Latham's provider of mysterious noren?) and had soon branched into other relatively exotic fare like squab, venison, lamb, and pheasant. Over the years Latham has built a client list that numbers about 450, with 250 Portland-area customers and many more in his latest market, Seattle, where he recently opened an office.
Latham is highly respected for the unique care he takes in promoting his clients. "No other purveyor in the city of Portland has uplifted chefs like Geoff," says Eric Finley, co-owner of Chop Butchery & Charcuterie. For 12 years Latham has done something increasingly rare in any industry: He throws Wild About Game, a showcase of his chefs cooking game meats in a competitive environment where guests can taste and interact. It is also a blowout of a customer appreciation party, and it costs him a fortune, but Latham has a classic and personal touch in his business dealings. If Gabriel Rucker wants square patties for his Little Bird burger, Latham delivers. If Rodney Muirhead needed an extra waiter at Podnah's, I imagine Latham would tie on an apron.
We pass by his USDA inspector's desk on the way to look at a new Reiser Vemag sausage grinder and stuffer; the massive, pristine machine, still in its German crating, can do four man hours of work in 10 minutes. It's a capstone of the vertically integrated Nicky Farms plan, beginning with a new farm an hour south of the city where he plans to raise some of his own game meats.
Noting the popularity of once-ignored cuts like skirt, hanger, and cheek, I ask this kingpin what he thinks is poised for rediscovery in the coming years. Latham points out a lamb osso buco, far easier to braise and eat than a foreshank, and he says he's selling marrow bones by the "boat load." For my part, I purchase a fresh rabbit, brown it, and braise it in IPA and mustard. It is more interesting than chicken, but moreover, because of the faith I now have in its provenance, and the knowledge that it is shared by my most admired chefs, it is all the more satisfying to partake of.