Elizabeth Dougherty (originally written for publication in 2006)
A Growing Trend Among Chefs:
Hunting Down Tonight’s Menu
Chefs are packing heat. Something to think about the next time you send a dish back to the kitchen.
Recently, English chef Jamie Oliver was on television traveling to Italy. He had journeyed there to become “inspired” about cooking again. In one episode, he and the locals shot a wild boar. They proceeded to skin it, gut it and hang it up for all to see, including the children. Jamie looked at the camera and said, “These kids know where their food comes from. I mean, it’s not all about Teletubbies, is it?”
In the French Laundry cookbook, written by the famed Thomas Keller, he recounts the experience of his rabbit purveyor showing up with twelve live rabbits (at Keller’s request), showing him how to fabricate one from its live state, and then leaving. Rabbit was on the menu that week and the remaining eleven weren’t going to hop into the braising pans themselves. Chef Keller said it not only taught him about butchering, but also about waste. After that harrowing experience, he said he knew a cook should never squander anything, ever.
Gordon Ramsay, in his new series, the “F-Word” (F stands for food, silly) has been raising turkeys with his wife and four small children with the intention of eating them for Christmas dinner. In Sunday night’s episode, the turkeys were unceremoniously slaughtered. The reaction of the children was not shown (they were not present), but I’m sure some tears were involved. His point, like Jamie and the others, is that it is important to understand the origins of our supper.
As chefs increasingly become more outspoken, they seem to have become more questioning of the manner in which our food is produced. Unlike the days when hunters disappeared into the woods and brought back pheasant for dinner, buckshot and all, today’s dinner is neatly processed and packaged ready for cooking at a supermarket near you.
In culinary schools, students are forced to watch some rather unpleasant videos about slaughterhouses. No need to go over the details. Chefs are beginning to question what is more natural, shooting game that ran wild and ate it’s own indigenous food or buying a chicken in the store that grew up in a cage where it couldn’t move around? Obviously, chefs can’t spend all their time hunting and foraging in the woods. So, more chefs are buying from producers like Bell & Evans and D’Artagnan; free range ranches that advertise healthier game.
Their point is, know the source of your food. Here are some questions a chef might ask:
1) Was it raised under sanitary conditions?
2) Was it fed a vegetarian diet?
3) How many antibiotics, hormones and steroids was it given?
4) Was it kept in a cage or pen, or was it free to roam?
Some people care more because they want to know what their family is eating and how it’s going to taste. Natural free roaming chickens, it’s generally thought by cooks, taste much better than those that were not allowed to move around. Chefs like Jacques Pepin say it can make the difference between a tasty, succulent bird and one that has very little flavor.
And what is “natural”? According to the Cattlemen’s Beef Promotion and Research Board (beefboard.org), all fresh beef that does not contain an additive, like a solution or marinade, is considered “natural”. They imply the word “natural” is used more for marketing purposes than anything else. “Natural does not mean “organic” or that the meat is free from pesticides, hormones or antibiotics. However, the board states that when U.S. cattle are given antibiotics it’s done “judiciously.” Now you have to figure out what “judicious” means when all you want to do is buy something delicious for dinner. To make it more confusing, the USDA Fact Sheet on North American Cattle states that all U.S. cattle are fed a ruminant-free diet. Sounds like a vegetarian diet, but it is not. Ruminants are animals with cloven hooves and more than one stomach, like cows and goats, but not pigs, for instance.
For some, the origin of the meat is becoming a matter of status. The current high-priced meat trend is American Wagyu beef, similar to Japanese Kobe beef and raised from the same breeding stock. It’s considered more prime than the USDA prime standard for beef and sells for about $100 per pound. A bit pricey, most would say.
With all the choices at the market today, Americans are becoming more discerning as to what’s in their food and how it was raised. According to the Organic Trade Association, organic food is the fastest growing segment of food sales in North America. It’s nice to know that those preparing our food seem to be paying more attention to how our livestock is cultivated in general.
Although most chefs probably won’t be brandishing firearms anytime soon, it’s become apparent they do like to know where their meat comes from.