Cosmo Goss, chef de cuisine of The Publican, and Michael Mason, director of food and beverage at The James Hotel discuss foodservice trends in meat preparation during Taste Talks.

CHICAGO – Taste Talks took place in Chicago’s Restaurant Row (Randolph Street) neighborhood in early October. Held a few weeks earlier in Brooklyn, NY, this three-day food festival explored the culinary cutting edge of a food-fanatical generation. Featuring more than 100 chefs, both established and up-and-comers, the event is dubbed the Future Food Expo.

At the Chicago event, culinary professionals participated in panel discussions, including one entitled “How We Eat Meat Now.”

The panel included Michael Mason, director of food and beverage at The James Hotel in Chicago, home to David Burke’s Primehouse, where dry aging is the way patrons eat at this steak house. “We have a gigantic dry-aging room in the basement,” he said. “We went back in time to the way steaks were aged in the olden days.”

All of David Burke’s steak houses use an aging technology Chef Burke patented. An entire wall of the room is lined with pink Himalayan salt, and the beef is allowed to naturally dry here with help from the salt. At the same time it dries, the beef absorbs the subtle flavors of the salt, resulting in beef that is tender and deep with flavor.

The Chicago restaurant is known for its dry-aged rib eye, and serves steaks typically aged for 28, 40, 55, or 75 days. The longer the steak ages, the more intense it becomes, as moisture evaporates and concentrates the flavors.

“The flavor profile of dry-aged meat is very unique,” Mason said. “It is more intense, definitely an acquired taste. They cook up quicker and don’t necessarily leave an abundance of juice on the plate, but remain tender and moist after the aging process.”

For the NRA Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show this past May, the restaurant served a 365-day dry-aged rib eye. What started as a 20-lb. steak shrunk to 10-lbs. “With less moisture in the meat, you have less meat to sell, which is one of the reasons it commands a premium per pound,” Mason said. “Another factor is the time involved in the aging process.”

“The sweet spot for most of our steaks is 55 days,” he added.

David Burke’s Primehouse serves a steak burger that has been dry aged for 40 days. (Photo: David Burke’s Primehouse)

The restaurant even dry ages chuck for its burgers. “The rind the chuck develops needs to be shaved off before we put the meat in the grinder,” Mason said. “Aging gives the cooked burger a unique nutty taste.”

Patrons of Publican Quality Meats (PQM), which is located in Chicago’s meat packing district, eat meat by having the option to consume all parts of the animal. “We generally bring in whole animals — cow, fowl, lamb and swine — whenever possible. We offer every part of the animal for purchase, so if you don’t see it in the case, we tell our customers just to ask,” said Cosmo Goss, chef de cuisine of The Publican, PQM’s sister restaurant. “Some cuts in higher demand tend to sell out more quickly. There are also some cuts that are very limited on the animal. Some don’t even have an official name, but we’ve named them and our customers come in and ask for them.”

Evoking old-warm charm, PQM is a multi-faceted property. It’s a butcher shop, neighborhood café, bakery and gourmet market with a private dining room at night and a fully functioning catering operation.

“We deal with farms and purveyors where animals are free range, uncaged, fed natural diets, are given no antibiotics or steroids and are slaughtered as humanely and painlessly as possible,” Goss said. “We even work with farmers to create our own proprietary meats by finding the best breed and feed.

“We do not waste a molecule of these beautiful animals,” Goss added. “We process them into headcheese, marrow bones, cured meats, cooked meats, ham hocks, regular cuts, blood sausage and more. We feel this honors the life of the animal and is the right way to do this kind of work.”

PQM ages many of meats as well as its homemade, from-scratch sausages and charcuteries. “One of our unique offerings is aged duck,” Goss said. “We usually age the dark meat for about eight to 10 days. The effect is the same as you get with steak. The meat is juicier and tenderer.”

Burgers are also a big part of PQM’s business, with Burger, Bourbon & Beer Night a weekly event during select times of the year. The secret to PQM’s burgers is “We try to make them like In-N-Out,” Goss said.

Nothing goes to waste at the Publican. Whole animals are brought in and all parts are offered for purchase or processed into from-scratch sausages, charcuteries and other items. (Photo: Mika Sisaki)

Today’s foodie consumers seek out buzz words, even in the butchering business. “It used to be that everyone wanted USDA Prime Grade beef for its superior tenderness, juiciness, flavor and fine texture,” Goss said. That’s what you get with corn-fed cows, which is a diet that allows for the highest degree of fat marbling.

“But now the buzz is grass-fed,” he said. “In order to get many of those same attributes, you need to seek out breeds that are effective with converting sugar to fat. That’s how you can get desirable marbling in grass-fed beef.”

Mason said that grass-fed beef just does not work with dry aging. Dry aging needs adequately marbled beef, and that is nearly impossible with 100 percent grass fed.

Another panelist, John Jackson, co-owner and co-executive chef, Charcut Roast House in Calgary, Canada, said, “Pretty much all we do is grass-fed beef, but we do often need to have our farmers finish off with corn.”

His business partner and co-executive chef, Connie DeSousa, added that today’s consumers, including meat eaters, want to know where their food is coming from. “We spent 40 days at 40 farms to get to know our farmers before opening our restaurant,” she said. “We broke bread with them and their families while discussing what the animals are eating and how they are being raised.”

The panelists agreed that grass-fed beef does not mean higher quality. They also agreed that the animal’s overall lifestyle is what is important. The goal for Chefs Jackson and DeSousa is to someday work exclusively with a single farm and to be able to tell the story of that farmer to their patrons.

That was definitely a recurring theme among all the panelists, telling a story. Have it be the proprietary dry aging process, use of the whole animal or from farm to fork traceability, today’s meat eaters want to know more.