“It’s only polite really if you knock an animal on the head to eat it all: tripe, heart, feet, ears, head, tail. It’s all good stuff,” – Fergus Henderson
London’s high priest of nose-to-tail eating, Fergus Henderson, was one of the first modern day chefs to publicly advocate for eating non-traditional parts of animals. Chefs around the world, including those in Whistler, have since followed his lead and are now serving up secondary cuts and offal at a fast pace. Think beef shoulder, rump tenderloin, sweetbreads (thalamus gland), veal tongue and bone marrow.
Also known as meat organs, offal has been popular in Europe for centuries, but has only recently caught on over the past few years in North America. Not only are these delicacies full of flavour but, they’re also relatively cheap and a sensible solution for restaurant owners and chefs who are continuously looking for interesting products to dish out at a manageable cost.
Head Chef Nick Cassettari is at the helm at Alta Bistro. He is young, enthusiastic, giddy with pre-wedding excitement and has lots of ideas for the kitchen. Having just come out with a new winter menu, he has added a generous amount of offal dishes. Despite its rising popularity, Cassettari claims it’s hard to educate the public about offal and head-to-tail eating. He insists if he were to serve sweetbread to about 80 per cent of Alta Bistro’s clientele, they would be very hesitant.
“It’s all about encouraging that first experience. If we order in a heart and cut little steaks out of it, you could serve it to a guest and they would never know they were eating heart. Obviously we would never blindly serve a customer, but the reality is that heart and offal in general are a juicy piece of meat that is better for you than traditional cuts,” said Cassettari.
The London-trained chef has been working with offal ever since he started sharpening knives, taught by master chefs along the way. Cassettari says offal is labour intensive and it takes a little bit of love, time and respect to properly cook a pig’s ear or a kidney, but he claims the rewards are enormous.
“Offal can taste amazing if done right. I started off making sweetbreads which is a thalamus gland only found in veal,” explained Cassettari. “They are very special because the thalamus gland actually becomes obsolete as a cow ages. Low and slow is the key when it comes to cooking it. They are like the veal’s foie gras, packed with nutrients, super fatty and rich. Sweetbreads and offal in general are full of flavour and generally cheaper.”
Cheaper. For chefs and restaurant owners this has become the bottom line. Finding good quality meat that doesn’t break the bank that is also bursting with flavour is the ultimate goal. So Cassettari and other local chefs are becoming inventive, turning their attention to secondary cuts like pork belly, or the Denver, flat iron and skirt steak cuts, as well as other less fashionable meat that doesn’t skip out on taste.
For Jason Pleym, owner of Two Rivers Specialty Meats, it comes as no surprise to the butcher that secondary cuts are making a resurgence.
“There has been a bunch of movement in secondary cuts. Chefs are always looking for something new, cost effective and different. In response, we have been doing a lot of work to find other cuts of meat that provide interesting textures and flavour profiles. Depending on how they’re made, secondary cuts can be just as good as a top sirloin, if not better and they are far cheaper,” said Pleym.
Pleym goes on to explain that larger companies and packing houses don’t have time to cut secondary meat. It’s the smaller butchers like his North Vancouver shop that are able to service the secondary cut and offal market because they have more time and attention to detail.
Two Rivers Specialty Meats is strongly rooted in the Sea to Sky. Pleym and his wife opened up shop five years ago, partnering with Pemberton Meadows Natural Beef. It was important for them to consider how the animal was raised, its lifestyle and feed program before purchasing the meat. Armed with that same business plan, they have since signed on with twelve other farms located anywhere from Pemberton to Chilliwack. They now supply meat products to many of the major players in Whistler such as Araxi, Bearfoot Bistro, Quatro, Alta Bistro and the list goes on.
For many butchers and chefs alike, head-to-toe eating makes sense. It’s an appreciation of cuts of meat and innards that are often discarded. It’s making the most out of an entire animal.
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