One productive result of the Great Recession is that the restaurant community has had to learn to do more with less. Cutting cost while maintaining quality can be challenging, but those establishments that succeed at doing both reap the rewards of higher efficiency and greater resiliency to future market upheavals. Cutting corners in the kitchen, though, is a tricky business, especially when it comes to center-of-the-plate protein items. Trimming cost via smaller portions and lesser quality fish, foul, and meats is a sure-fire way to turn off guests and loose loyal customers for a long, long time. So what’s a chef to do?
When it comes to beef, kitchens nationwide are finding an answer in the use of alternative cuts. For those that butcher their own meat, it’s natural to take a waste-not-want-not approach by finding a use for every scrap. But, kitchens that don’t butcher also find that using less expensive cuts can add creativity to a menu, as well as help maintain profit margins. Though savings may underlie the popularity of alternative cuts, chefs also have begun to appreciate the nostalgia they inspire, the flavor they provide, and the experimentation they invite.
At Kachina Southwestern Grill, in Westminster, Colorado, Chef Patrick Hartnett lets no part of the steer go to waste. “When you receive a whole animal to butcher,” he says, “the entire animal needs to be used to make it fiscally viable.” With meat coming in at approximately five dollars per pound, including the tenderloin, strip steak, and ribeyes, Hartnett’s nose-to-tail approach has significant economic benefits. Of the restaurant’s two butchers, he claims, “they pay for themselves!” But for Hartnett, financial gain is only part of it; serving alternative cuts appeals to the Southwestern style of Kachina as well as his own sense of creativity.
Using culotte steak, cooked sous vide to medium rare, he can prepare burritos tableside, finishing the meat on salt blocks. Hartnett even finds use for the spider steak, a cut rarely given credit in the United States, which is taken from the muscles above the cow’s tail. “A great steak to use in the same applications as a flank or skirt,” he notes, “[with] a similar flavor profile. They can be eaten with a sauce, like smoked chile demi-glace, or a beef jerky butter.”
In fact, there isn’t a cut of beef that Hartnett doesn’t know what to do with. Making alternative cuts marketable is a challenge he welcomes with enthusiasm. Another way that he does this is by making beef jerky, a “retail market superstar,” according to him, which can either be paired with tequila at the bar, or used as an ingredient to enhance a dish. “I use one flavor that is smoky to make a compound butter and then another more fruity (pomegranate molasses) flavor that we grind and use as a crust on different cuts of meat like Jerky crusted striped bass makes for a great surf and turf application”.
Serving the alternative cuts may be a growing trend, but to Hartnett, it is more fundamental than that. “I see Kachina as a window to the past...how the native Americans survived for thousands of years. Nose to tail in those days was not a catch phrase but a way of life. This is how is was and how it should be done to sustain our environment.”
“The front, the back, the shoulder . . . has to be sold,” says Scott Popovic, corporate chef for Certified Angus Beef LLC in Wooster, Ohio. He appreciates that today’s trends are helping to utilize the entire animal. “Our team of expert cutters realize the challenges chefs face today with rising food costs, and our meat scientist, Mark Gwin, focuses primarily on ways to use the alternative cuts.” Gwin works with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association to discover new ways to use chuck and round cuts.
Popovic says that these cuts can be translated to maximum profitability on menus. He suggests that chefs pick up a chuck roll and experiment with the two or three muscles intertwined within it. “Pull out the chuck flank and short ribs, for example, and then take a Warner-Braxler Shear (WBS) force apparatus to determine the tenderness of each cut,” he advises. “The WBS is the most popular way to measure tenderness in beef. It determines how many pounds of pressure are required to cut through a 1-inch core taken from each beef sample. This reveals how the meat will react to cooking techniques.”
He starts by seasoning the cuts with salt and pepper, and then he begins to experiment with cooking techniques to determine how the cuts respond to braising, grilling, and other methods. He also marinates the cuts to learn how each maintains its texture. Some cuts, if marinated too long, can get mushy.
Popovic urges that sides are a very important part of serving alternative cuts. “Once you have a satisfying result, add a bit of intensity to the accompaniments to give the dish a final flair. You can afford to use some vegetables and starches that may be a bit pricey, because you’ve saved so much money on the beef cut.”
At Spanish tapas restaurant, Mundaka, in Caramel, California, Chef Brandon Miller works with beef on an almost instinctive level. Breaking down the meat himself allows him to make decisions as he goes, based on what he finds. Better pieces go to the fresh steak tartare, which is ground to order, while fattier pieces work well for house ground burgers. Of the burgers, Miller notes, “We use a couple different cuts for different reasons. We use the chuck for texture, sirloin for flavor, and I put a little bit of pork fat in there, because it is a better fat than beef.”
As someone who learned to butcher at a young age, Miller’s do-it-yourself approach is more than a choice; to him, it is just how the job is done. Alternative cuts, too, seem to fit naturally into the Mundaka tapas-style fare. “We use tongue quite often,” says Miller. “We do a tongue salad with an old-world sauce of capers egg and vinegar, which freshens it up, because it is a really rich piece of meat.” Miller also enjoys using the tail, which is usually braised and served on the bone, although sometimes the meat is removed for oxtail empanadas.
Doing his own butchering means that Miller can use parts that would normally be overlooked, such as the hanger steak, found at the center of the cow as part of the diaphragm. “In the American butchery process,” Miller informs, “we cut the cow in half and the hanger steak gets lost. That is why it is not really known.” To prepare it Miller cuts the hanger into small portions, sears it, and serves it medium rare. “It is a really flavorful steak,” he says, “and it works for my menu because it is a small bite menu.”
For Miller, leaving much of the butchering to himself is tied naturally to his use of alternative cuts. There is more labor involved, but it allows him to make fine adjustments to his dishes and to work with parts that he might otherwise miss. “There is nothing that I’m afraid of using,” says Miller. “That’s the challenge.”