Reflections of a Restaurateur | Part 3
Part 3: Meat
Written onOctober 25 , 2012
It’s 102 degrees in the kitchen, and the chef at my Montpelier restaurant is making quick work of cutting up a chicken. He slides a razor-sharp boning knife along the breast, loosening the meat from the sternum. The birds he’s working on are smaller than we would have liked—barely more than three pounds each—but this week, they were all we could get.
“We’re going to need to buy more chickens tomorrow,” he notes darkly. “I thought we might get four servings per bird, but we’re only going to get two.”
As the person in charge of the cash flow, I cringe. The petite poultry, which I had to purchase at farmers’ market retail price when the farm that sells to us at wholesale ran out of birds, cost nearly $20 per bird. Meaning that each serving of chicken—not including the expense of labor or other ingredients that ended up in the dish—cost $10 or so. Selling the entrée at $20, with fancy stuffing, wilted greens, and a decadent sauce made with copious quantities of wine and butter, we were going to lose money.
At times like this, I can feel pangs of envy for the ease with which some other restaurants meet the demands of their customers’ hungry bellies. Just one phone call to a distributor and uniform, carefully packaged cuts show up on the doorstep the next morning—no feathers, fur, or fuss.
At Salt, on the other hand, we wrestle with whole animal carcasses, and sometimes must beg suppliers to make last-minute deliveries—when we have a run on goat, for example, or when the beef we bought turns out to be more sinew than meat and we’ve got fewer portions than we thought. Sometimes, these emergency supplies arrive just in time for us to turn the meat into a delicious stew or to smother it with spices and get it in the smoker. Sometimes they do not, and on those nights, we have fewer dishes to offer our customers.
When a restaurant’s purchasing decisions are driven by ethics rather than economics, finding meat can get really tricky, really quickly. Call me a meatist, but I’m not overly concerned about how much room a given carrot had in its bed or how much affection a farmer dispensed to a particular head of lettuce. However, I do care if a calf is confined or a pig doesn’t get an occasional special treat and scratch on the chin.
My values and those of the chef are reflected in the way we purchase meat for Salt. Our pork chops, beef roasts, and duck breasts come from farms that allow their animals to roam around in pastures, rather than keep them indoors their whole lives. Organic certification is not crucial to us, although some of our farms have it, but careful management of environmental resources, excellent treatment of beasts, and delicious products are the name of the game.
Why does well-cared-for meat translate into supply chain problems? For one thing, many of the farms we buy from are mom-and-pop operations. The folks who run them aren’t in the business for the cash. They seem to embrace the work because they’re passionate about it, and in some cases, want to provide good quality food for a growing brood of children.
When a couple runs an animal farm without additional labor, they invariably seem to be running themselves ragged. Unlike plants, which can occasionally fend for themselves, animals need constant care. Sometimes they get sick and must be tended unexpectedly. Sometimes they’re stubborn, and moving them, or milking them, takes longer than one would ever guess. As at a busy doctor’s office, one early-morning delay—a damaged tractor, a missing sheep—can mean spending an entire day playing catch-up.
Plus, when critters are out roaming the moors rather than chilling out in a barn, the farmer has a lot less control over their activities. And animals that garner much of their nutrition from pasture simply don’t fatten up as quickly or uniformly as those fed copious quantities of grain. “The last cow we sent for processing was really small,” a lithe, blond farmer told me when I pointed out that a particular package of short ribs was too thin and bony for us to buy. “But we needed [to sell] beef.”
It’s also evident that different butchers have different levels of skill. Some cut neat, trim pieces, while others are somewhat sloppy, leaving on silver skin or creating pieces of different widths that don’t cook evenly. And then there are waterfowl, which are notoriously hard to work with. A few weeks ago, geese arrived in our kitchen covered in down. Armed with a pair of pliers, and with other tasks piling up around him, the chef spent four hours pulling slippery, oily feathers out of puckered flesh. By the end, he’d sworn that we’d never serve duck or goose again.
Spending that amount of time preparing an ingredient for the pot increases its expense dramatically. And then there’s the actual cost. Smaller operations don’t get the benefits of efficiencies of scale and that translates into higher prices for us, and down the line, for our customers. The things that we rebel against in factory farms grew out of a desire to provide cheap food for the masses, and those operations have trained people to think about meat as a commodity, for which one ought not pay too much.
The fact is, even in pastoral Vermont, it’s pretty easy to find less expensive, local chicken. Most area restaurants that serve Vermont chicken buy their birds from Misty Knoll Farm in New Haven. That business handles 225,000 birds per year, and were I so inclined, I could buy package after package of chicken breasts, thighs, and drumsticks at Hunger Mountain Co-op for less per pound than I pay directly to our smaller farmers for whole birds.
But I don’t. “Our chickens range free in spacious, specially designed enclosures,” the Misty Knoll website says. Compared to the birds at most U.S. chicken farms, the ones at Misty Knoll have it good: they enjoy cleaner facilities and more room to roam—but just 1.75 feet per bird, according to a 2011 article in Local Banquet. It’s a relief that the chickens are treated better than they would be at a Tyson plant in South Carolina, and without Misty Knoll, fewer restaurants would be able to sell local chicken at all, given that supplies are sparser than demand. But it’s still not the chicken that we want to offer at Salt.
Being this finicky doesn’t make things easy for us, and sometimes, not for our farmers, either. We often run out of the cuts of pork and beef that appear on our menu and end up braising tons of meats, even during the heat of summer, because we’ve made it our goal to buy and cook tougher bits that farmers have a difficult time selling.
After more than a year-and-a-half running the restaurant, I’d say that buying meat is one of the more frustrating—and more rewarding—parts of the job. Although a few customers are shocked at how much fat they see on the pork we serve, or that the steaks we buy aren’t as tender and buttery as the corn-fed versions, others tell us that the more flavorful meats from grass-fed, pastured animals bring them back to their childhoods, and still others are curious to try our more unusual offerings, such as goat and mutton.
And then there are the fabulous farmers who make this whole approach possible. The other day, when she couldn’t sell us the number of chickens that we wanted in the size we needed to make money on them, one of our favorite farmers actually picked up birds from somebody else’s farm and delivered them to our doorstep, just to be nice. With suppliers who are willing to go out of their way for you like that, to help make another small business a success, who needs cheap?