One of the longest-running sagas in the life of restaurants is the argument about how red meat should be cooked. I am thinking of that moment when you are asked how you would like your meat done and you’d say rare, well done or some point in between.
At least, that was the case until recently. During the past few years, I began to notice that lamb or beef often appeared on menus with “served pink” written next to it, offering you, the customer, little choice but to accept its pinkness. Sometimes your server might say, “we serve our meat pink, is that OK?” But that was more a statement than a question.
It is a real bugbear for some customers, but I can see the problem from both sides – and I think I have come up with a solution. The clue is in today’s recipe, below. At the Sportsman, we spend time working with farmers to get the best breed of lamb or beef for our area, check that the slaughter conditions are satisfactory, put in a regular order to make sure the farmer knows we will buy every week, and break whole animals down into the joints we need in-house. This goes above and beyond what some chefs do, which is simply to pick up the phone and order from the butcher as and when.
Add to this the fact that a chef’s expertise is knowing how to cook precisely so that the best results are achieved. When an order comes into the kitchen, and we learn that a customer has specifically requested us to incinerate their meat, it is upsetting.
Of course, if we didn’t care about the food that we sent out it wouldn’t be a problem, but you can’t have everything. If you want to go to a restaurant that really cares about what it does and produces exceptional food, then isn’t it obvious that they have an interest in the way their food is served?
I have heard people saying that they are paying and so you should serve it how they like. Of course, this is true; but people who don’t have a lot of experience cooking food don’t always take the time to think about just what it is they do or don’t like about eating it. For example, I once asked a customer why he liked his meat well done and he said it was because he liked the taste of charred food, and I had to agree with him. I then said: “What about the meat inside – do you like it dry and chewy?”
He replied that he didn’t really care about the inside. When I suggested that he should try it charred on the outside and juicy inside, he thought it sounded great and, once I’d cooked it for him, he loved it.
It hadn’t occurred to me that we might be talking at cross purposes and that “well done” meant different things to the two of us.
The reason for the problem is this. There are two types of muscles in meat, and they suit two different types of cooking. Lean meat, from muscles that do less work, is best cooked to about 50-60C, which is the temperature at which the meat keeps its moisture and tenderness but is still pink. Think fillet steak or lamb rack.
The other type of cut is taken from a harder-working region of the animal. The collagen and connective tissue in these cuts demand that they be cooked low and slow to make them tender and edible. Shoulder of lamb and shin of beef are two good examples. Such cuts are often cooked and served with braising juices to help keep some moisture in the dish.
Now, when customers tell us they like their meat well done, we tend to suggest that they should have a cut that is best suited to that – namely the braising, slow-cooked type. This meat is tender and rendered delicious by the long, slow cooking, falling off the bone and bathed in a rich, concentrated sauce.
This seems to me to be a good compromise as it means the customer gets their meat how they like it – no blood or pinkness – and the product that we care about is not ruined by an inappropriate cooking technique.
In fact, since we instituted this method of working and explaining to the customer, the problem has all but disappeared.