When we think of a really fine restaurant and its food, we envision the kitchen; a brightly lit bee-hive of activity with artisans carefully constructing culinary delights while a white-toqued impresario commands the performance, touching off the miniscule details that only their exacting eye can see.
What about when you order a steak? Quite frankly, the less the restaurant does with it the better. Source me a great dry-aged steak, put it on the broiler and put it on a plate. Simple. Beautiful. No more, no less. Steak is like the bass line of a good rock n’ roll tune.
This rather depressing article in the Wall Street Journal shows a detailed history about why steak has lost some of its cache. The author traces the beginning of the end to the mid 1920s when the USDA started grading beef. The grading was based on fat content, the more of it the better. Fat tastes good. And it doesn’t take much imagination to see that improved feeding techniques, breeding, and hormone therapy would benefit the bottom line of the rancher. The rancher gets bought out, and before you know it almost all the steak that reaches restaurant kitchens and dinner tables everywhere is controlled by a handful of companies who copy each other on their way to fattening something else: profits. It takes even less imagination to see where this is going.
Some of the statistics in this WSJ article are astonishing. According to the author, a carcass now yields 40 pounds more meat than it did as little as 30 years go. The time it takes for a cow to get fat has been cut in half since 1950. Good for business, bad for flavor.
The article also talks about the difference between grain and grass, the proper age to slaughter, and the source and breed of the cattle. Useful things if you have a butcher you can speak to, and definitely worth a read if you like a good steak once in a while.
But what about the restaurant? Patrons have to trust that restaurants are taking the right steps, and to that end, we urge more menu-disclosure about the sources they use. Steak should retain its rightful place in the American Pantheon of dining. So for all our sakes, I hope you never chew on a beautifully marbled piece of steak that tastes, well, like chicken.