Is It Time to Introduce Your Diners to a Variety of Other Fun Meats?
Bison, Buffalo & More the New Beef
On a recent trip to Buenos Aires, I had the pleasure of dining at El Baqueano, not only one of the city's top restaurants, but also number 19 on Latin America's 50 best restaurant list of 2017. What makes it unique is its focus on sourcing local ingredients, including Argentinean wines. Not just vegetables or meat raised nearby, but El Baqueano serves local meat diners may not normally encounter like llama, alligator, rhea (sort of like an ostrich) and vizcacha, a rodent resembling a cross between a rabbit and a chinchilla.
The point is, they aren't afraid to experiment with introducing diners to unfamiliar meats and neither should you. Yes, people are used to seeing beef, chicken and pork on menus, but that doesn't mean they wouldn't be interested in trying something less ordinary or expected. Turkey burgers weren't considered normal until 15 or so years ago nor was seeing bison on a menu. Both have made strong inroads at restaurants across the country and now it's time to expand beyond that.
"We've seen that young people really are interested in trying new things," says John Dvorak, corporate director of fresh meats for Reinhart Foodservice. "One that is coming back is lamb. It has a unique flavor and is making a strong rebound and staying about the same cost as beef is rising. We're bringing in elk and wild boar, which has a richer flavor than regular pork. When people leave the restaurant, they'll talk about those exotic cuts and they expect to pay more for them."
There's a range of game meats you can explore. You may not sell a tremendous amount right off the bat, but you can start by ordering a few cuts, running a special and creating a little buzz. You can get ostrich, venison, goat—even alligator and llama. One way to easily introduce these meats to your diners? Ground them up to make burgers, Dvorak says.
(Lamb) has a unique flavor and is making a strong rebound and staying about the same cost as beef is rising.
- John Dvorak, corporate director of fresh meats for Reinhart Foodservice
"Exotic burgers are really popular," he says. "Unless you had one item as a special, you can use any wild game if you prepare it right."
For health-conscientious diners, bison is a lean alternative to beef and may be prepared similarly to how you would prepare steaks or burgers from a cow.
"Bison is amazing and it's one of my favorite cuts," says Walter Apfelbaum, executive butcher of Prime + Proper in Detroit. "It has healthier omega-3s (fatty acid) than salmon and the flavor you get is tremendous."
Apfelbaum also likes working with game meats like elk and venison, but cautions about the time of year to source those.
"In the winter, those animals have been eating more and packing on the pounds and the muscles are fattier," he adds. "I stay away from them in spring and summer because they lean out and they won't taste as good as in the winter."
Bison is amazing and it's one of my favorite cuts.
- Walter Apfelbaum, executive butcher of Prime + Proper in Detroit
With any new ingredient you add to your menu, don't over order as you don't know how well it will play with your customers. Start out with a few pieces you can introduce as a special and test things out. Duck, rabbit and quail offer good value, says Erik Niel, chef/owner of Easy Bistro & Bar in Chattanooga, Tenn. On the flipside, while including goat or buffalo might add something new and interesting to a menu, Niel personally hasn't found those click with his diners.
"It's the unique wow factor of putting a buffalo ribeye on the menu to get someone to try it—and it is good," Niel says. "But I've never been able to sustain the enthusiasm from our guests. People want what they want. If they're going out and spending money on a nice piece of meat, it's what they know or expect it to be."
While Niel poses an argument against using alternate meats, you need to see what works for you and your clientele, which might mean running something as an occasional special.
"As a chef, you need to ensure you can get your money back from it," Niel advises. "Getting it in the door is easy. Selling it can be challenging. It's great for a tasting menu or specialty dinner."