Meat prices are volatile, and barely a week goes by without a story on how its consumption affects our health. So why is the country in the grip of a meatbased obsession? Is it possible for restaurateurs to strike a balance between consumer preferences and rising prices? Zeren Wilson reports
Men with beards cooking inexpensive cuts low and slow are now de rigueur, and even restaurant ingénues know their brisket from their chuck steak. Pulled pork has penetrated sandwich chains and provincial menus up and down the country - meat is having a moment.
Meat is as cool as it has ever been. Dude food (an unsatisfactory term) demands a heavy bias towards meat, preferably smoked or grilled over an open flame. So where does that leave the operator who relies on a protein based concept when the battle to maintain margins is becoming tougher?
A report last year by supply chain specialist Prestige Purchasing warned that restaurants would see changes to their menus by 2020, as global demand will force meat prices higher and so consumers will find meat less fashionable.
And the health implications of a diet reliant on meat is also a topic of discussion, with a recent headline in The Guardian claiming: "Diets high in meat, eggs and dairy could be as harmful to health as smoking", based on a study undertaken by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.
The mono product restaurants
Stories like these cause concern for a concept like Flat Iron in London, where the offer is a limited menu majoring on the underrated yet flavoursome flat iron cut of steak.
"I think a moderate portion of protein as part of a balanced diet is totally healthy," says owner and founder Charlie Carroll. "I don't buy the fact that sensationalist stories will drastically change people's eating habits. If they do, I would hope that our reasonable portion size and the fact that we serve our steaks with a salad rather than chips included would count in our favour."
There is also the school of thought that operators running a limited menu, like Flat Iron or Burger & Lobster, are able to control costs more easily: "Our scale and focus allow us to get an excellent quality product at a reasonable price; something I hope we then pass to the customer as surprising value," Carroll adds.
Burger & Lobster is one of the most successful proponents of the limited protein offer, but it has felt both the benefits and the pitfalls.
"The strength of so-called mono product restaurants is obviously the ability to buy in massive quantities, but this is also its weakness," says David Strauss, general manager of Burger & Lobster parent company Goodman Restaurants.
"Burger & Lobster shifts 11 tonnes of live lobster a week, which has become a huge logistical operation. We find ourselves in a position where it is impossible to change our sales mix to counter any unexpected price rises. Guests want lobster and nothing else will change their order."
David Read of Prestige feels that the benefits are clear and palpable in the current restaurant milieu. He says there are many operators with value-sensitive offerings who
are reviewing their menu design very carefully. "An example of this is Wagamama, which recently introduced a lunchtime specials menu with a more 'balanced' mix of protein and carbs, in order to hit a particular price point," he says. "In fact, Burger & Lobster is a great example of an organisation that has limited the number of stock-keeping units [SKUs] on its menu, specifically so it can sell beef and seafood at a low perceived price. By limiting SKUs, it buys better and reduces waste dramatically."
So if meat is in the grip of price rises, fluctuation and uncertainty, are those players who concentrate on alternatives, like vegetables - such as Bruno Loubet's Grain Store - better equipped to cope?
"It's becoming harder and harder to keep prices down - you have to juggle your produce," says chef-patron Loubet. "We have been less affected than other restaurants though, as we take a different approach and are focused on vegetables, so I hope we are able to keep our prices very reasonable."
When Grain Store opened there were some raised eyebrows as observers wondered if an offering that majored on vegetables as a core part of the business could be sustainable.
But it appears his bold decision is reaping rewards.
"In a way, these [meat] price increases strengthen my belief in what we're doing at Grain Store even further," Loubet continues. "People eat too much meat and animal products anyway, so the increase in costs is just a sign they need to try and adapt their eating habits.
"It just isn't sustainable for the world to carry on consuming so much meat. Also, cooking with vegetables gives you far more options and is more exciting. I find that I can experiment with so many flavours and different ways of preparing and cooking vegetables."
So where does this leave an operator that has hung its hat from the very outset on the glories of meat: the hugely successfully Pitt Cue Co, which arrived on London's
South Bank in 2011?
"Farming costs continue to rise, and beef and pork costs are higher than I can ever remember," says Tom Adams, co-owner and founder. "These costs have to be sucked up and inflicted somewhere, whether that's on the business or passed onto the customer.
"Our rearing of our own animals has not come out of any desire to counter the meat price issue, but has conveniently developed at the same time. We now buy in whole carcasses, make sausages and bacon, and have our own animals from the farm, so we help balance costs this way. Offal is much more prevalent than it was before, too."
The need to balance the meat avalanche is very much in Adams' mind, and one of the big hits of the menu is fried pickled shiitake mushrooms.
"Vegetables are very important, not least because we love cooking them, but an all-meat meal isn't that much fun. You need balance and some respite from the meat, and good vegetables help complete a meal."
Caravan in London's King's Cross has placed greater emphasis on vegetables than many operators, and as a result has been in a better position to react and adapt to price fluctuations.
"At Caravan, vegetable dishes have always been a central part of the menu and are part of our food philosophy," says co-owner Chris Ammerman. "It's not necessarily about clawing back margin for us, as vegetable-based dishes are priced suitably lower, but it's fair to say they play as important a role as the protein. We always try to create interesting vegetable dishes by using seasonal produce, and this keeps prices low."
London chef Andrew Wong is creating some of the most inventive dim sum in the capital at the moment, and many of these parade vegetables as a main ingredient.
"Even vegetables are not massively cheaper these days, and good quality organic vegetables are never cheap," says Wong. "Vegetarian dishes are always going to be important to me though, as it says a lot about a restaurant if it bothers to go the extra mile to put good vegetable dishes on the menu. Our focus is about bringing
authentic Chinese dishes to the UK, and that's not difficult for us as there are entire communities in China that are vegetarian."
Leveraging supplier relationships Another operator that has flung all its eggs (chickens) in one basket is Korean fried chicken restaurant Jubo, where protein is very much the lynchpin. LK Foong, co-owner of Jubo, explains: "One of the advantages of operating in a mature and developed marketplace is that there is a broad range of suppliers we can leverage.
Price inflation is inevitable and it's important to maintain good relations with key suppliers - particularly those who are consistent and dependable."
The core of Jubo's menu remains the choice of either 'soy garlic' or 'hot and sweet' fried chicken, and this tight focus has clear benefits.
"We've kept it small and simple, right from the onset. We've always wanted to have a very 'focused' menu. Korean fried chicken was key to the Jubo concept and it will remain our hero product and unique selling point. A lean menu approach also allows for a more efficient stock management system and consistent cost of goods."
Cheaper cuts… and insects Chef Ben Spalding, formerly of Roganic and now running his Creative Belly catering business, places emphasis on using cheaper cuts, which have begun featuring more prominently on some London menus.
"I have always favoured cheaper cuts over more expensive cuts. We look to make three or four different dishes from a cut. So if we get a beef heel - a fairly cheap cut - we would cook it over two days, pick half of the meat to use in a filling, caramelise and crisp up the other half, make a stock by concentrating the braising liquid and use the large bone as a serving piece after cleaning it up. We are currently hitting 80%-88% gross profit on our events, due to our style of cooking and our 'no waste' attitude."
Alternative forms of protein open up another world of possibilities, and Spalding has broached the idea of insects as an ingredient.
After all, they have been trumpeted as a potential new source of protein that is sustainable, seasonal and nutritious.
Maybe it's not as mad as it sounds. But, there is a spectre on the horizon, conjuring visions of a frightening Brave New World that may change our entire concept of what meat is, where it comes from and the role it plays in our diet: cultured meat.
Dr Mark Post, professor of physiology at Maastricht University, has secured more than $30m to research growing meat in a laboratory. Muscle tissue will be harvested
from stem cells, and everything can be controlled, from the fat levels to the balance of nutrients.
Cruelty-free and sustainable, perhaps, but more than a little scary. Those insects may begin to look a lot more appetising…
Keeping costs down meat product development
As the majority of customers continue to demand meat, much of the new product development undertaken by Eblex, the organisation for the beef and lamb industry,
involves identifying value-for-money solutions.
"We have developed a number of new foodservice concepts, including innovative steak cuts, such as the Denver steak (from the chuck) and the tri tip (from the rump),"
says Hugh Judd, Eblex foodservice project manager (pictured). "There is more to be harvested from the carcass and we will be rolling out more new cuts soon."
The organisation has developed a new range of carvery mini-roasts to help address the decline in traditional roasting joints. Having conducted a trial on beef and lamb
mini roasts with chef Nigel Haworth, it found that the smaller joints are simpler for chefs to prepare and eliminate wastage.
Eblex is also tapping into the 'better burger' trend with its Gourmet Burger range.
"Mincing trim from primals such as the rump, chuck or brisket can improve margin, as well as creating different taste and texture profiles, which many consumers prefer," says Judd. "By opting for primal-specific burgers, there is potential to encourage consumers to trade up to a premium, quality product."
Longhorn short-rib cooked in cricket and worm stock, pak choi, smoked redcurrants and marjoram By Ben Spalding, director, Creative Belly
Photo by Paul-Winch-Furness
Serves 4 Preparation and cooking time: 2 days
Assembling time: 2 hours (start late afternoon/early evening for best results)
1 beef short rib (preferably rare breed - ie, Longhorn/Dexter), minimum 900g with not much fat
500g coarse sea salt
250g muscovado sugar
1 bunch of marjoram leaves
1 bunch of thyme
1 garlic clove, peeled
2 oranges, zest and juice
2 lemons, zest and juice
1 cinnamon stick
2 bay leaves
30 black peppercorns
Braising stock 30 dried crickets
100g dried worms
8 litres chicken stock
1 litre red wine
1 litre veal stock or dark reduced pork stock
100g Heinz tomato ketchup
20g soy sauce
To finish Â½ bunch of marjoram leaves
20g redcurrant jelly
30g dried crickets, chopped with
a knife to dust
Garnish 2 pak choi, split lengthways
4 long pieces of salsify
Â½ punnet of redcurrants
40g smoked oil (optional)
100g pumpkin seeds
Maldon sea salt
The day before you intend to cook the dish, mix the coarse sea salt, sugar and other curing ingredients with your hands, breaking up the spices to release the aromas.
When ready to cook, trim the short rib of any excess fat. In a tray sprinkle 1/3 of the mix onto the tray, place the short rib on top and cover with the remaining mix, then
leave the short rib out at room temperature for 3.5 hours. Then remove the short rib from the salt, scrape off all the mix and discard.
Now fill a container with cold water and drop the short rib in for 10 seconds and massage/pick the remaining cure off. This is important as the salt cure is just to help season the meat.
Dry the meat thoroughly and place in a very deep tray that will fit in your oven. Preheat the oven to 140Â°C.
Now prepare the braising stock by mixing all the ingredients together in a large pot, whisking well to avoid the ketchup burning at the bottom. Once hot, pour over the meat and place the tray in the oven, uncovered, and set a timer for 12 hours.
It is important you check the short rib every hour for the first 2-3 hours to ensure it is cooking slowly. You are looking for just a few bubbles coming up from the
stock in the corner of the tray so the meat is slowly breaking down and the stock is taking lots of flavour in.
Now prepare the garnish. Split the pak choi lengthways and set aside.
For the salsify, wash it under warm water in a sink to remove excess dirt and grit, then dry it.
Now fill a container with cold water and the juice of 4 lemons.
On a chopping board, peel the salsify and keep turning it to ensure it stays round. Once peeled, top and tail each piece with a knife and place immediately in the lemon water so they do not turn brown. Repeat for the rest and leave in the water until ready to assemble the dish.
In a bowl, add the pumpkin seeds, a good glug of rapeseed oil and a good season of fine salt.
Make sure the seeds are coated well, then pour them onto a tray and roast at 160Â°C for 15 minutes to start - you are looking for a light golden brown. Roast for a further 5 minutes and repeat until the seeds are the correct colour. When ready, pour into a colander to remove the excess oil and set aside.
For the redcurrants, add them to a bowl and then add the smoked oil, mix and leave to marinate at room temperature until needed.
After the 12-hour mark the short rib should be fully cooked and the bones should almost fall out. Lift the short rib out of the stock and onto a clean tray.
Strain all the braising stock off and reduce in a pot until it reaches a light sauce consistency.
Now trim all fat and sinew off the cooked short rib and divide into four portions. Place each portion in a pan with four ladles of the reducing stock. Start to reduce and spoon over the short rib to glaze.
When the stock has reduced to sauce consistency, add the marjoram leaves, finely chopped cricket dust and redcurrant jelly and adjust the flavour how you like - possibly adding a few cubes of butter. Keep warm.
To cook the salsify and pak choi, bring a deep pot of heavily salted water to the boil, add the salsify and cook until it just starts to get tender, then add the pak choi and boil for a further 2 minutes until just tender. Strain and they are ready to serve.
Place a piece of the short rib on each of the four plates/bowls. Spread the pak choi and salsify over the top. Divide the toasted pumpkin seeds over each plate. Add the moked redcurrants to the sauce, add a generous ladleful of sauce to each short rib and serve.
Dried crickets and worms are said to have a nutty, savoury character. A Syrah from Côte-Rôtie would keep pace with both the rich, insect-fuelled braising stock, as well as the rare breed beef.