The Whole-Animal Challenge
life gives you offal, make meatballs
by Marcia Gagliardi
photo by Ed Anderson
A WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON during lunch service, and
Nate Appleman, the chef of San Francisco’s regional
Italian restaurant A16, and his crew are huddled around a
whole dead steer, wondering what to do with over 500 pounds
of usable protein. It’s
like a football team deciding a play, with different cooks
designated to tackle different parts: Who’s on steaks?
Who’ll cut the bottom round into shape for bresaola?
What’ll go into a pasta dish at A16’s sister restaurant,
SPQR? It’s literally a beast of a job.
With a popular
urban restaurant blazing through as many as 60 pork chops on
a busy night, the easiest way for a chef to meet that kind
of volume would be to order the exact number of cuts required,
keep them Cryovaced in a walk-in refrigerator until they are
ready for use, and then fire ’em up as
needed. So why are so many San Francisco Bay Area chefs ordering
whole animals — from lambs to cows — instead?
not that high-quality cuts aren’t available,
at least in the Bay Area, where there are some wonderful purveyors
of precut meats. But a chef’s decision to use the whole
animal takes a broader view, from the notion that no part of
an animal should go to waste, to the increased quality control
that comes with buying the whole animal. Upon delivery of a
complete steer or pig, the chef can judge how healthy the animal
was, and see the marbling of its fat and its overall plumpness — qualities
not immediately apparent in disembodied cuts from a number
It’s about respecting the
whole animal, gristle and all — not just the filet.
“There’s a lot more bad
meat out there than good meat,” says A16 and SPQR’s
really have to respect the guys who are raising the good meat
and pay them their due and use their product, or they go away,
because they’re just dealing with 10 head of cattle,
not 10 million.”
Many chefs enjoy the challenge of both
breaking down a complete animal and wasting as little of it
as possible. It’s
about respecting the whole animal, gristle and all — not
just the filet. And there’s a definite economy to it.
Says Appleman, “I know for a fact I would have to use
lesser quality meat if we weren’t using whole animals.
With whole animals, I can use better quality, and charge less.”
For some, using the whole animal is
just flat-out fun (they are chefs, after all). There’s the challenge (or “the
allure,” as I once heard it described) of puzzling out
how to feed a restaurant full of customers with just one animal.
After all, once you buy it, you have to sell it — and
quickly, because the “consume by this date” clock
When chef Stuart Brioza bought a whole
steer for Rubicon, a recently closed San Francisco restaurant,
he paid $3,200 for 900 pounds of meat — a significant
but, it turned out, cost-effective commitment. Ultimately,
Brioza would sell through it in less than three weeks, partly
by scheduling his purchase for one of the busier times of
year. Still, not figured into the original price were the
logistical costs: the time and money spent picking up a whole
steer from the rancher, and the rental of a minivan that
literally sagged with the weight of the animal on the drive
Still, in some ways, buying and retrieving
the steer was the easiest part. For starters, where would
Brioza put it? For most restaurants, space is at a premium;
just a few 225-pound pigs on hooks in the walk-in can pose
serious capacity issues, let alone finding room for a whole
steer after it’s
been broken down.
Brioza dreams of a meat-only walk-in,
with hooks for meat to hang freely so that it can be kept
unwrapped (the threat of cross-contamination prevents raw
meat from being left unwrapped in multi-use walk-ins). With
a dedicated space, Brioza could do affinage — in effect,
mature — his
meat in the same way that cheese is stored and aged for just
the right amount of time. With packaged meat, he says, “you
have to bring it back to life. After it’s Cryovaced,
you need to expose it back to air; you open it on Tuesday for
use on Friday.”
Even without affinage, animals need
to hang freely for a few weeks to age, which is why many
chefs plead with their purveyors to hang on to the meat for
at least a couple of weeks before delivery. Mark Denham,
chef of the Cal-Spanish Laïola
in San Francisco’s Marina district, likes to hang his
lamb ideally for three weeks, and if you saw his shoebox-size
walk-in, you’d see what a commitment that is. (Denham
goes through one lamb, one pig, and a quarter of veal each
Some chefs have gone so far as to design
their kitchens and storage areas around the ability to store
and break down the whole animal. Nate Appleman’s next
restaurant, Urbino, will have a butcher room with a dedicated
meat refrigerator and storage. The prep kitchen will have
a butcher table at its center, with a band saw and a sausage
grinder, and a walk-in will be sectioned off to hold whole
carcasses. “I am
determined to use the whole animal,” Appleman says.
butchery center at the restaurant will ultimately act like
a mini-commissary, selling meat to Appleman’s other
two restaurants (A16 and SPQR). That way, Appleman can sell
the “off-cuts,” like short ribs and skirt steak,
to A16, and the new restaurant can feature the premium cuts.
There are also plans to have a butcher counter where neighborhood
residents can purchase quality meat.
Perhaps one of the bigger
challenges of using whole animals is managing supply and demand.
After the desirable steaks and chops are gone, there’s
still a lot of meat left that chefs need customers to consume.
Customers, especially at upmarket restaurants like Rubicon,
are looking for well-known cuts like New York steak and lamb
chops. Brioza says menu descriptions are key to persuading
customers to go for the less-familiar cuts, and sometimes the
vaguer the better. A “roasted
and carved shoulder of beef” can encompass a variety
of cuts on the plate. Pigs, Brioza notes, offer even more latitude.
Most diners aren’t as familiar with pork cuts, which
allows chefs to integrate more variety on the plate. A mixed
plate, as Nate Appleman observes, is the best way to discover
and savor the different flavors of muscle.
The limited supply
of cuts means that chefs often decide when to educate their
customers and when to lay low. Laïola’s
chef Denham explains to his customers why pig cheeks and lamb
shanks aren’t on the menu every night (“I gotta
save them up”), but he doesn’t explain everything
that goes into the head cheese, or that there might be some
kidney in the meatballs.
At A16, where diners scarf down one
and a half pigs a week, Appleman offers ciccoli, a “rustic
country paté” that
customers find delicious, even though it contains some parts
that most folks wouldn’t guess they were eating. Then
again, the boned and stuffed trotters now sell out when they’re
on the menu — which was not at all the case when A16
first started serving them. The chefs interviewed for this
piece all agree that it helps to have (and nurture) an accepting
clientele like the one found in the Bay Area; the idea that
beef is beef and pig is pig, no matter the cut, can require
more selling in other parts of the country.
Using the whole
animal comes more naturally for some restaurants than others.
It’s easier to offer mixed grill plates
and incorporate scraps into meatballs, sausages, salumi, and
terrines at more casual or rustic-style restaurants. Laïola’s
Denham calls pigs “the miracle creature” whose
every part can be put to use. Brioza utilized as much of his
whole steer as possible by freezing a lot of the trim for future
use in sauces and stocks, and by using a good bit of scrap
in burgers and other dishes for staff meals. The animal even
showed up on the dessert menu. Nicole Krasinksi, Rubicon’s
pastry chef (and Brioza’s fiancée), was happy
to have real rendered fat for piecrust.
Many chefs may believe in the philosophy of using the whole
animal, but philosophy is of little use without butchery skills.
Butchery is an art, and a disappearing one at that. The chefs
interviewed for this piece came by their butchery skills from
a variety of sources. As a young child, Appleman watched his
grandfather, a butcher in Ohio, make sausage. Appleman now
teaches butchery skills to his staff.
Mark Denham’s grandparents
raised Herefords, hens, sheep, and geese at their Indiana farm.
As a kid in the Bay Area, he made culinary forays for sides
of beef in the Sierra foothills with his family. Later, Denham
trained under a Northern California lamb purveyor named Don
Watson, who showed kitchen crews how to break an animal down
with a saw.
Watching Ryan Farr, the
chef de cuisine at San Francisco’s
Orson, cut down half a pig is like observing surgery: Everything
is neat and orderly, from the small tray bearing an array of
implements to the bright lights shining overhead. At the end,
all that’s left is a small container with mere ounces
of waste. The skin will be used for chicharrones and the front
legs (shoulders) for salami. They’ll cure the back legs
for a year and serve them as Spanish-style ham. The trotters
and shanks will show up in the popular pork buns.
all have their own butchery style, from Farr, who uses a combination
of implements (one of which is a small bear-hunting hatchet
from a hunting store in Jackson, Mississippi), to Appleman
with his 10-inch cleaver. Some note that once you know how
to butcher a lamb, it’s not too hard to scale up to a
pig, and eventually a steer. (Sure.) Russell Moore, chef at
Oakland’s Camino, assures me that “after the first
hundred times, it’s all easy.” (So, home cooks,
don’t despair over massacring that rabbit — you
have another 99 tries until you get it right.) They describe
the work as intuitive and say that after the initial cuts,
the meat comes off where it wants to, almost as if the animal
tells you where to insert the blade.
of the whole-animal philosophy is simple: “Don’t
subcontract food.” He and the other chefs look back to
an era before such a concept existed. If they’re on to
something, this return to the past may very well be the future
of meat in restaurants.
Marcia Gagliardi is a freelance food writer living it up in San Francisco.
She is the founder and publisher of “the tablehopper” (tablehopper.com),
a popular weekly e-column with insider news and reviews
covering the local dining and drinking scene. The daughter
of a former delicatessen owner, she thinks salumi should
be its own food group.
This article originally appeared in
Meatpaper Issue Five.