Sourcing the best steaks: Insights from Benny's Chop House

by Donna Berry
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Culinary
Mitchell Schmieding, director of operations, Benny's Chop House, Chicago.
 
Vegetarian. Flexitarian. Lessitarian. Market research suggests consumers want more plant-based foods, yet consumption data shows intake of beef, chicken, pork and more is on the rise. MEAT+POULTRY sat down with Mitchell Schmieding, director of operations at Benny’s Chop House in Chicago, to talk about why consumers crave meat, specifically, a really great steak.

Schmieding spent more than a decade working under the renowned Charlie Trotter and has been with Benny’s Chop House since 2010. Benny’s is a contemporary Chicago steak house that encompasses classic flavors and modern style. As one of the only restaurants in Chicago, and one of 12 nationwide, to offer Kobe Tajima beef tenderloin from the Hyogo Prefecture in Japan, Benny’s menu boasts the broadest range of steaks in The Windy City, all 100% USDA Prime.

M+P: There is so much conversation on plant-based diets, yet data shows that Americans are eating more meat than ever before. And, great steakhouses such as Benny’s Chop House are booked nightly. What’s keeping meat on the center of the plate?  

Schmieding: People simply love the flavor of quality beef. It is part of our genetics. Whether it was at your first family picnic or first dining experience in a quality steak house, one never forgets the flavor that a lightly charred hamburger or steak, cooked over intensely hot coals and wood, bring to the palate. 

 High-quality meat, which is USDA Prime, or even at the next level, such as USDA Prime genotype Black Angus, Japanese A-5 Miyagi, Japanese A-5 Kobe, and a line of natural USDA Prime genotype Holstein, are the steak selections at Benny’s Chop House. They simply cannot be rivaled. In the US, the quality level for the grading of beef adheres to USDA standards. In short, the higher the ratio of speckled marbling in addition to the age of the cattle, the higher the grade will be. This is because it is the fat/marbling that determines tenderness, juiciness and the sublime flavor of the meat. Less than 3 percent of all beef raised in the US receives the stamp of USDA Prime, and 99 percent of this is sold to restaurants. The public rarely can find these cuts in a grocery store or open market. 

M+P: Is it healthy? 

Schmieding: Absolutely, as most foods are when consumed in moderation. Beef contains a high-quality complete protein, vitamins B6 and B12, and many minerals, including copper, magnesium, pantothenic acid, phosphorus, potassium, riboflavin, selenium, thiamin and zinc. Aside from the nutrients beef contains, the genetics are of ultimate importance. I mentioned genotype Black Angus. This is an important detail, in that according to U.S. law, cattle that has at least 50 percent black hide can be called Black Angus. So a menu may state Black Angus but you may receive a mixture of breeds (e.g., Holstein, Hereford, Brahma, Simmental, etc.) and in some cases, no genotype Black Angus genetics is part of non-genotype cattle, or what is referred to as phenotype cattle or what we visually see. 

M+P: How does Benny’s Chop House ensure that it receives 100 percent genotype Black Angus all of the time? 

Schmieding: We work with our primary meat supplier who buys cattle only from ranchers and facilities that are licensed to breed and raise 100% genotype Black Angus. These facilities have specific feed programs, which are most beneficial to the Black Angus breed. It is a very large cattle, comparatively fast growing, and is always fed corn and grain through at least half of its life. These ranches are checked often by USDA for compliance.

 Black Angus is a breed that originated in Aberdeenshire and Angus in Northeastern Scotland. The lineage dates back to the early 1800s. The first official herd book was created in 1862 and the Black Angus Society was formed in 1879. At that time, Angus could have been either solid red or black, and polled (hornless) and white udders were common. Today in the US, Red Angus and Black Angus are two clearly and distinct breeds and must be polled.

I did mention corn-fed earlier. It is the corn and the cattle’s digestive process that can make meat spectacular. Cattle are ruminant animals. They bring their food back up as cud to re-chew. Digesting and imparting the corn completely within the cattle produces that sought-after marbling of fat throughout the cattle’s intramuscular muscle. The more speckled the marbling, the better the grading. Plugs of fat reflect cattle that have been quickly fed out in the last three months or so of their life, to reach a weight for sale to slaughter. Rapid corn feeding produces the fat plugs in the muscular fiber and thus cannot be graded as USDA Prime.

Culinary
Unrefrigerated Kobe beef will begin to melt like butter. It should never be cooked more than medium rare. The flavor is sublime and delicate, with a velvety, silky texture. It is so tender, you only need a fork to cut it. 
 
M+P:
What about grass-fed beef?

Schmieding: Benny’s Chop House does not serve grass-fed beef. Though it may have its health benefits, we feel that the negative aspects of grass-fed cattle far outweigh the benefits. Grass-fed beef does not have consistent flavor or texture. It is next to impossible to ensure that grass-fed cattle are consistently eating the same grasses. So what? Eating a variety of grasses, during different seasons, with different levels of lushness and dryness, will without question produce cattle that have distinctly different flavor. In some cases those flavors could be unpleasant, metallic and aluminum like. Grass-fed cattle do not have the fat marbling that is part of the foundation of a great steak. You cannot have a successful premium steak house with inconsistency in product.

M+P: Benny’s has some specialty beef items uniquely sourced from Japan. What makes them special?

Schmieding: Tajima-gyu motoushi are purebred seed stock cattle that have maintained a bloodline since the Edo period (1615 to 1867). Protecting this lineage has meant protecting its taste. The lineage and pureness on its own is reason to delight in Kobe beef, which comes from this cattle. Kobe beef accounts for a mere 0.16 percent of total beef consumption in Japan. Kobe beef was first imported into the US in 2014.

 Kobe cattle are taken to auction at eight to nine months old. They are then fattened on feeding farms for about two years before they go to market. In comparison to USDA Prime, Kobe cattle take two to three additional months of feeding time to reach market. Their diet consists of dried meadow forage and nutrition-rich feed supplements made by blending together soybean, corn, barley, wheat bran and other healthy ingredients. They are not given any grasses ever. Water also is a very important to their diet and the reason you will find most growing regions near a fresh water supply. Tajima-gyu genetics possess both fine muscle fiber and a high degree of intense speckled marbling. The Japanese grading system for beef is factored on the degree of marbling, meat color and brightness, firmness and texture of meat, and the luster and quality of the fat. The grading is from A1 to A5, with A5+ the highest quality available. 

M+P: How do you communicate this story to restaurant patrons?

Schmieding: A reason why Kobe beef costs so much is that it is a prerequisite that the bullock or virgin cow be born in Hyogo Prefecture from a Tajima cow having a pure lineage and the bullock or virgin cow has been bred and raised by a designated farmer in the Hyogo Prefecture. Only about 5,000 cattle are certified as Kobe beef each year. The Tajima Beef Certification system codes each of the cattle with a 10-digit number. Any consumer may ask for the certificate that comes with the Kobe beef, enter it into a web browser and identify the lineage of the Kobe beef they are about to purchase and enjoy.

If Kobe beef is left unrefrigerated, it will begin to melt as butter might. To receive the most from Kobe beef, it should never be cooked more than medium rare. The flavor is sublime and delicate, with a velvety silky texture. It’s a flavor one never forgets once they have had it. Kobe beef is so tender and lush, only a fork is needed to cut it. This is what our guests at Benny’s Chop House can enjoy every day of the week.

Culinary
Fat marbling determines a steak’s tenderness, juiciness and the sublime flavor of the meat.
 
M+P:
You have a number of dry-aged steaks on the menu. Many restaurants have a unique approach to dry aging that makes their steaks stand out. What’s Benny’s “secret"?

Schmieding: First and foremost, you must purchase the very best USDA Prime beef. If not, the dry-aging process has little to no value and certainly will not result in the outcome of dry aging. Our aging is a standard method using a hot box with well-circulated air, with the temperature never going above 36° F and never below 33° F. We do not over-age our dry-aged beef. We feel that a total of 45 days gives the meat just the right amount of depth of flavor, complexity of flavor, savory satisfaction, sweetness and nuttiness. Lightly seasoned and placed on a properly heated grill ensures the juices are sealed within the cut of beef. Letting it rest before serving will secure that the juices do not run out after the first cut into the meat. We do not serve any of our steaks on sizzle platters as we feel that the steak will continue to cook beyond the temperature it was ordered.

M+P: What’s your secret to sourcing great-quality meat?

Schmieding: We script the narrative. The specifications for each cut of our steaks is in writing. We tell our purveyors once, tell them why, and tell them again. Then we tell them again, tell them why, and still tell them again. This is not a typo. Repeat this process again and again. Check every order, every steak that is delivered. Check the steak visually. Does it have the marbling? Is the color bright? Weigh the steak. Check the seal. If all is good, we keep it. If the steak does not meet our specifications, it is returned and the supplier must replace it. The suppliers are held accountable to the very highest degree.

M+P: You’ve been in the industry for many years and know the ins and outs on steakhouses. What’s the good, the bad and the downright ugly?

Schmieding: True success does not compare competition. We have a belief that we don’t compete with the best. We are the best and this belief is confirmed with our double-digit growth for seven years and counting. We distinguish ourselves through our clients and our measure of success is what we do for our clients every day. We are a privately held company; we are not a franchise. 

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