The Meat Story
a Global Sphere of Influence
We are so fortunate in the U.S. to be able to access the finest meats anywhere in the world. The quality and variety available to foodservice operators is staggering. From where did all of this carnivore bounty come? From all over the world. It seems that Columbus had a lot in common with the biblical Noah, in that his ships were loaded with animals. Beef cattle, sheep and pigs were among the passengers on the explorer’s second voyage in 1493. Subsequent voyages by the Spanish, Dutch, British and French introduced more and more meat sources that were not indigenous to North America. In a nutshell, cattle ranches sprang up in Texas, pig farms flourished in the Midwest and sheep grazed in Colorado.
It’s fascinating to explore how cooks and chefs in different parts of the world developed different methods of preparation for the meats at their disposal. We are all the richer for it, because immigrants to the U.S. — including many chefs — brought a wealth of techniques and recipes, which became part of the great American culinary spectrum. The meat dishes served in today’s restaurants reflect many generations of evolution and revolution in grilling, roasting, pan frying, broiling, braising and other cooking methods. Recipes and special techniques used to be closely guarded secrets. In today’s global culinary community, there is a lot of sharing going on, and wonderful diversity. As Anthony Bordain demonstrates in episodes of his “Parts Unknown” series on CNN, food makes a great global common denominator. In an American kitchen, a French chef might learn how to make an authentic mole sauce from a line cook with Mexican heritage. In turn, the young apprentice could be schooled on how to prepare Steak au Poivre, a nifty addition to his repertoire. It’s a beautiful thing.
Steaks, Shanks and Schnitzels
Early on, French influence on American meat menus was formidable. Filet mignon, chateaubriand and fine steaks with incredible sauces were the epitome of fine dining. While this is still true, many other influences from across the globe have impacted American menus. Cross-pollination of different cultures has added greatly to the richness we enjoy today. Classic French Chef Daniel Boulud of NYC’s Restaurant Daniel posts some of his favorite recipes on his website (danielnyc.com). One of the featured dishes is Veal Schnitzel, a decidedly German influence. Mader’s Restaurant in Milwaukee is considered by many to be the finest authentic German restaurant in the U.S. The #1 favorite menu item for over 100 years has been the Pork Shank with apple demi glaze, red potatoes and red cabbage. The menu includes many other meat dishes with German origins, but also Filet Mignon with fried leeks and red wine demi glaze, served with scalloped potatoes -- a nod to French technique.
More German influence: Blackbird in Chicago, always innovative, offers Rabbit Schnitzel with chicories, barbecued raisins, capers and Greek yogurt. And, not surprisingly, Wolfgang Puck showcases authentic Veal Weiner Schnitzel at Spago in Beverly Hills. It’s served with Austrian potato and cucumber salad and baby greens. There seems to be a lot of schnitzeling going on, likely because Germans comprise the largest ancestry group in the United States.
The Veal Connection
Italian chefs such as Mario Batali have made Osso Buco a household name. This braised meat dish is traditionally made with cross-cut veal shank. The name means “bone with a hole,” and the hole is filled with marrow, considered a delicacy. Osso Buco can be made with lamb or pork shank as well as veal. Chef Batali has even demonstrated the technique using turkey legs on his television show, “The Chew.” The point is that, unless your operation prides itself on rigid authenticity, it’s quite all right to color outside the lines and make substitutions to classic meat dishes. Another Italian chef, Lidia Bastianich, has a different take on veal at her Manhattan restaurant, Felidia. “Vitello” is veal tenderloin, served with asparagus, fava bean puree, grana padano fonduta and pistachios.
Kobe or Not Kobe . . . That is the Question
The relatively small island nation of Japan does not have a lot of pastureland on which to graze beef cattle. However, it is in Kobe, Japan, that probably the most famous and prized beef in the world is raised. It’s called Wagyu. Heavily marbled, melt-in-your-mouth texture and incomparable flavor are all characteristic of Wagyu beef. “Kobe” refers to one of the regions of Japan where Wagyu cattle are raised. Very little true Kobe beef is served in American restaurants, because very little is exported to the U.S., and the cost is prohibitive. The good news is that Wagyu beef is now being produced across the U.S. According to The Ohio State University Department of Animal Sciences, most American Wagyu is a crossbreed of Japanese Wagyu and Angus cattle. The first Wagyu breeding stock was imported in 1976 – just four head; five more followed in 1993 and 35 more in 1994. Some U.S. Wagyu breeders can boast animals directly descended from the original Japanese bloodlines. This beef is referred to as American-style Kobe beef. Otherwise, U.S. Wagyu beef is simply called “Wagyu.” It is prized for the same characteristics as Japan’s Kobe beef, and is found in our finest restaurants, including Restaurant Daniel in New York, Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas, Spago in Beverly Hills and scores more. In fact, Spago also carries true A-5 (excellence rating) Japanese Wagyu, and charges $50 more for it than the American Wagyu on the menu. Chef Puck knows his audience. L.A.’s top-rated Providence also offers A-5 Japanese Wagyu.
South American Influence
Argentina and Brazil are responsible for a raft of meat-centric operations gaining momentum across the nation called “churrascarias.” “Churrasco” is a Portuguese term meaning “grilled meat.” At churrascarias, chefs dressed in gaucho garb present long skewers of grilled meats to diners at the table. Fogo de Chao is one of the best-known churrascarias in the U.S. It began as a small restaurant started by gauchos in Brazil in 1979. It debuted in the U.S. in 1997, appropriately in Dallas, where BBQ is practically sacred. Today, the concept has dozens of locations across the country. Grilled meats include different cuts of steak, lamb and pork. Chicken and seafood are also featured, plus a vast array of apps, salads and sides. Chimichurri sauce is the traditional churrasco accompaniment. It originated in Argentina, and is prepared with garlic, olive oil, red wine vinegar, parsley, herbs and spices.