As a conscientious restaurant-goer circa 2017, you may only order coffee from a direct-trade farm in Kenya, chicken from Mary’s Free Range in the San Joaquin Valley, and organic produce picked exclusively from San Diego’s Suzie’s Farm.
So where’s your steak from?
Peruse a steakhouse menu and you’ll see proud declarations of USDA Prime and Certified Angus beef. Delicious? No doubt. But in this era of consumers wanting, or demanding, to know where their food comes from, steak remains somewhat of a mystery meat.
Restaurants like Cowboy Star, Island Prime and Stake Chophouse & Bar, however, offer a road map - make that a world atlas - to where they buy their beef. Ranches from Northern California to Colorado, Japan to Australia, are chosen for how they feed, tend and, yes, slaughter, their cattle. At these eateries, the artisan steak comes topped with transparency, hold the hormones.
“There’s a whole push behind this because of traceability ... we just want to know where things come from, and how they’re being raised,” said Tim Kolanko, executive chef at Stake in Coronado.
“I’ve always been very diligent about sourcing and am very proud of how we source our beef. ... The public asking the questions about it is definitely good for everybody."
The menu at Stake includes filet mignon hailing from the Double R Ranch in Northern Washington, boneless New York strip from Lone Pine Ranch in Mendocino County, and an A5 Japanese Satsuma Wagyu that’s so prized it comes with its own certificate of authenticity - complete with the cow’s parents’ names and nose print.
“A5 Wagyu versus Kobe (beef) is like sparkling wine versus Champagne, it might be just as good, or better, but you can’t call it Champagne if it doesn’t come from there,” Kolanko said.
That well-vetted A5 comes at a price - $32 an ounce, with a three-ounce minimum. Then again, no one goes to a steakhouse for the dollar menu.
At Island Prime on Harbor Island, executive chef Mike Suttles says he’s proud that his beef program sources from some of the most respected cattle farms in the world and still matches or beats the national chain steakhouses on price.
“I think what differentiates what we’re doing here versus steakhouses serving commodity products ... is these farmers have more control, they’re taking care of them from day one to the very end,” Suttles said.
Cows “stay on feed longer,” allowing them to grow and develop tasty, marbled fat naturally without growth proponents like steroids, he said. The result is a more tender, flavorful, higher-quality steak.
“The eating experience just isn’t the same,” Suttles said.
In recent years, the chef has become somewhat beef-obsessed, visiting ranches and farms around the country and becoming so familiar with their practices he can recite a herd’s specific diet (Idaho potatoes, soft white wheat, clover and alfalfa hay at Cedar River Farms in Tolleson, Ariz.). The knowledge comes in handy at Island Prime, which sells an eye-popping 40,000 steaks a year.
Those include an “Eye of the Ribeye” steak from Snake River Farms in Boise (“people who try that are blown away”), a Kerwee Australian Angus New York strip from Queensland (“extremely well-marbled cut with a fantastic flavor”), and an Aspen Ridge flat iron from Greeley, Colo. (“Aspen Ridge is a natural, organic program”).
Suttles said he became more selective in the meat he was bringing in to Island Prime a few years back when he was on a beef scouting trip and overheard a disturbing comment at a feed lot.
“The salesman said to a (prospective) buyer that he could put 140 pounds on a cow in a two-week period. They do that by force-feeding them steroids,” Suttles recalled.
“That’s what made me look at how I was sourcing. That’s when I said, I want to make sure (better) beef is in my restaurant, not the other stuff. We decided to go for the best meat possible.”
Chef Mike Suttles’ 5 tips for ordering steak
1. Are you looking for texture or flavor? For the most flavor, go with a New York or ribeye; for tenderness, order filet mignon.
2. Even if you like steaks rare, order the ribeye medium. Added cooking time allows the fat to melt and the flavor to develop.
3. Want that ribeye well done? Don’t order a bone-in steak, since meat closest to the bone tends to stay rare.
4. Skip the sauce, which masks the true flavor of beef. But if you must top it, opt for filet. And order it on the side.
5. Don’t always assume a big, bold cab pairs best with steak. Island Prime’s Wagyu-style Kerwee Meats Australian Angus, for example, has such superior marbling, its softness is better suited to a velvety pinot noir.
Did you know?
Fat is key with beef, giving it its signature meaty flavor. Grass-fed beef tends to be leaner; grain-fed fattier. Superior intramuscular fat, aka feathering, is when the fat is well-incorporated throughout the steak, fine lines that Kolanko likened to rivers flowing small streams, rather than big lakes, or chunks of fat. The result is a piece of meat that looks like marble, hence the term marbling.