Chef News

Lawless Jerky Founder Matt Tolnick on Cooking, Community, and (Obviously) Jerky

The backstory is in the name at Lawless Jerky. The law was becoming less interesting for founder Matt Tolnick, so the former defense litigator left his 80-hour-week lawyer job and started a beef jerky company in Santa Monica before he relocated operations to Phoenix.

The man now lives for his company.

“Everything I do has some angle to jerky,” Tolnick says. “When your whole life is thrown into it, it becomes, hopefully, a healthy obsession.”

The jerky itself comes in seven flavors and two types of meats. The original flavors are referred to as the Core Four and include Honey Chipotle, Aloha Teriyaki, Sweet Sirarcha, and Mango Habenero – the hottest of them all. Then there’s the more mild BBQ Spare Rib pork jerky, the Japanese Curry beef jerky, and the Pho beef jerky.

Tolnick created all the flavors over several years in different places, including in West L.A., at a friend’s apartment in Philadelphia, and in the intense-smelling spice room at the Lawless facility right here in Phoenix. 

Friends and family also inspired flavors. Tolnick’s Philadelphia roommate loves pho and suggested the flavor, which was funded by Kickstarter. His father loves eating spare ribs. The rest came from the founder.

“I like to cook, and I don’t like to use recipes other than the ones I came up with,” says Tolnick, who started cooking more after his mother passed away while he was in high school. His dad's job demanded he often be on the road, so Tolnick began to cook for himself and his younger sister. He also studied abroad in  Australia, where he spent even more time in the kitchen.

Lawless Jerky goes through a four-step, “very manual, intensive process” in this chilly facility located behind Noble Bread in Phoenix. Vats of 100-percent grass-fed meat from New Zealand go into a tumbler with Tolnick’s ingredients and sit for 24 hours. Up to 50 trays of marinated meat then go into ovens on wheeled towers and get smoked with hickory wood. The meat, now technically jerky, is then pulled off the racks and hand-cut before it goes to a separate facility in Tempe for packaging.

Beyond the spice room and jerky facility, Tolnick is out connecting with other local businesses in the Valley, including Wren House Brewing Co. and AZ Distilling Co., for possible beer flavors – even trying to find a home, eatery or otherwise, for the excess fat that’s cut from the BBQ Spare Rib pork jerky.

“It really takes a community to build and raise a business," he says. 

For more information, check out the Lawless Jerky website.

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Lauren Cusimano is Phoenix New Times' food and drink editor. She is a journalist and food waste writer based in Tempe. Joys include eating wings, riding bikes, knowing everyone at the bar, talking too much about The Simpsons, and falling asleep while reading.
Contact: Lauren Cusimano