Common Foodsense: Meat-Cutting Trend Requires Cost Analysis
In one of the many food industry newsletters that I feel obliged to have coming to me and generally ignore, there is a link to an article in Food & Wine. It’s about chefs trimming costs and encouraging creativity by ordering bigger cuts of meat. I haven’t read the article, because I would have to put my email in a little box and go on their mailing list to do it, but I intend to rant about it anyway.
It’s not that I have anything against Food & Wine. They were the people who published my very first food article back in the ‘80s, originally titled “A Treatise Upon Hash Browns,” which launched me into literary stardom and paid for three oil changes and a tire rotation. I’ve even mostly forgiven them for editing it almost beyond recognition—really, replacing “ontological” with “celestial”? Really? “Celestial” is a foodspeak cliché meaning “good,” for crying out loud, while “ontological”—oh never mind.
However, they published a couple of recipes I co-wrote a few years later, and I didn’t give them any copy to fool with, so that calmed me a little. And now I see this latest innovation: buying big hunks of meat and breaking them down into little hunks. What a novel idea.
I applaud the fact that chefs are doing this, and the popularity of the trend is undeniable: you see a lot of stuff written about snout-to-tail cookery; there are contests promoting the use of both by-cuts and offal; and customers seem to be drawn to the mixed aromas of the sustainable and the mildly exotic. Everybody has at least heard of tongue tacos now, and many have tried them and found them not to be frightening at all—though most customers would probably rather not see the process of peeling off the taste buds. And so, in some quarters, we are returning to the situation I grew up with, where every cook is expected to own a scimitar and a boning knife and know what to do with them.
Instituting a meat-cutting regimen in your kitchen requires a couple of things. First, you have to be willing to pay for cooks with the skills to do this economically. Yes, you will be buying meat more cheaply: primals and sub-primals cost less per pound than a finished steak. And you get all those cool trimmings to use in all sorts of creative ways. You have to pay for those skills, though, and they are not necessarily widespread in the general population. And even so, your cooks will not cut with the speed and accuracy of someone who does it all day, every day. I was an OK meat-cutter for a cook. I was not an OK meat-cutter for a meat-cutter. And meatballs, or paté or whatever you’re using your trimmings for, require grinding (a skill in itself: don’t use the feed stomper to push, please) and assembly. Those old kitchens that bought carcasses and used every bit had a supply of 12-year-old apprentices to hold labor costs down. This option is likely unavailable to you.
You need to watch your costs, then. Start by making a “prime cost”—food plus labor—for the cuts you regularly use, and don’t forget to calculate your yield loss. You’ll get stock from the bones, but it isn’t likely you’ll use all the fat unless you make suet for birdfeeders. And there’s a lot of fat.
These highly skilled cooks can give you the cachet of having done your processing on site; it is up to you to make it worth something. Years ago I decided to hire a guy to break down whole chucks and turn them into hamburger, the way every Italian restaurant in North Beach did. Nobody made a big deal about it in San Francisco; that was the way everyone made hamburger, so it was nothing special, just like making osso buco from the veal shanks after you’d broken down the legs for scaloppini and stew meat. In Uptown, though, we were the only ones making burgers that way, and we figured the extra cost was worth it for the publicity we could get from it. Except no one said anything about it. So we gave it up. Your second thing, after hiring those folks and calculating those costs (I’d advise doing those in reverse order), is to shout what you’re doing from the housetops so people will come and help you pay for it.
Jonathan Locke has more than four decades of experience in the foodservice industry (yes, he’s old). He is the founding chef of FoodSense restaurant consultants. He can be reached at email@example.com or 612-236-6463.