Alternatives Steal the Plate | Food Newsfeed
Evan Sung

Alternatives Steal the Plate

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Soaring protein prices, environmental consequences, and consumers’ desire to adopt healthier habits have chefs thinking differently about meat and other center-of-the-plate choices.

By Nevin Martell September 2015 Health & Nutrition

Meatless Mondays began as a home-front initiative to conserve food during both world wars. However, in 2003 the program was reborn as a public health awareness campaign encouraging Americans to cut back on meat since a number of diseases and health issues had been linked to its consumption. Today, there are larger and ever-growing concerns about the environmental impact of meat production. Not to mention, the rising cost of beef. But are these philosophical conversations and consumer campaigns actively affecting how much meat is—or isn’t—served?

Numbers Don’t Lie

Americans’ primary source of protein is still beef. Last year, 7.9 billion pounds of beef was purchased in foodservice, representing 31 percent of the total foodservice protein market by volume, according to Alison Krebs, director of market intelligence for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. Of the $145 billion wholesale value of all food sold into foodservice in 2014, beef was the No. 1 product, accounting for nearly 25 percent of all dollars.

Despite those statistics, the USDA reports the per capita consumption of beef fell to 54.2 pounds annually—the lowest level since it began recording this statistic in 1965. Overall, beef has seen a decline in consumption since peaking in 1976 when Americans on average consumed 94.1 pounds each annually.

There were two complicating factors related to beef consumption last year. The first was lower supply. “This was driven by herd contraction that took place because of the major drought,” Krebs says. “On top of that, we saw beef prices increase 7 percent at wholesale level and 18 percent at retail.”

This has led to several changes. “Portion sizes are going down, since meat is costing more, and everyone is more conscious of their health,” says Frank Alafoginis, vice president of Capital Meat Company, a family-owned specialty meat distributor located in Hyattsville, Maryland. “Chefs are also starting to use more of the animal than ever before to help combat rising food costs. We’re constantly looking for new cuts to combat the costs of traditional cuts like ribeyes, strips, and filets.”

Breakout hits for Alafoginis’ company have been the hanging tender steak and the teres major cut. Krebs says the cuts with the biggest sales growth last year include the Delmonico, flank steak, T-bone, and porterhouse. Despite all the interest in new cuts, the fastest-growing beef item at foodservice last year was the old-fashioned burger.

Beyond Beef

Beef may still be king, but pork may be the crown prince of meat. A number of restaurants focusing on “the other white meat” have opened in recent years, including the Green Pig Bistro in Arlington, Virginia, The Purple Pig in Chicago, and Bar Bacon in New York City. A swine-y standout is the Partisan in Washington, D.C., co-helmed by chefs Nathan Anda and Ed Witt, where nearly all of the more than 30 house-made charcuteries are predominantly pork, and pork-centric dishes account for the majority of the entrées.

This type of pig-celebrating menu wouldn’t have been possible even a decade ago. “Pork got such a bad rap in the ’80s, ’90s, and early 2000s,” Chef Anda says. “Pigs were being raised in confinement and injected with hormones and antibiotics. Over time, they were losing muscle structure and fat content, so it was basically a pale meat. Now, there’s a new breed of farmer who wanted to bring back the heritage breeds and glorify them, and there are chefs who want to utilize the animal as much as possible.”

He takes a tip-to-tail approach at the Partisan, so almost no part of the pig goes to waste. That means the menu might feature Korean fried feet, heart terrine, and pho-spiced head.

Brendan Walsh, culinary dean at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, hears a lot of talk about this philosophy among the butchers and meat faculty. “Let’s treasure these animals and honor them by not wasting anything,” he says. “It’s helping our young chefs understand that it’s not just about the center-cut loin, but learning how to work with more parts and learning the art of hoof-to-snout butchery.”

What is Local?

Many chefs, at fine-dining restaurants especially, are in a rush to tout local meats on their menu—but what does local really mean? Not even the USDA can give a concrete definition. In the summary to its 2010 report, “Local Food Systems: Concepts, Impacts, and Issues,” the USDA notes, “There is no consensus on a definition of ‘local’ or ‘local food systems’ in terms of the geographic distance between production and consumption.” That leaves a lot of room for interpretation.

Anything within a 60-mile radius of the restaurant qualifies as local to Chef Charles d’Ablaing of Chaz on the Plaza in the Raphael Hotel in Kansas City, Missouri. He uses the phrase “somewhat local” to define a larger territory. “I mean it’s grown within Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, or Nebraska—the core states around us,” he says.

For Alafoginis and the Capital Meat Company, the concept of local is broader. “We define local as the region, which for us includes Maryland, the Shenandoah Valley, northwards in Virginia, and even some parts of southern Pennsylvania,” he says. “I don’t know how you put an exact mileage on it.”

This spring, d’Ablaing started sourcing hormone-free and antibiotic-free, naturally raised Angus beef tenderloins and Kansas City strip steaks from High Summit Ranch, which is located 45 minutes away from his restaurant in Maryville, Missouri. He started this local beef program despite concerns voiced by his director of operations. “He was a little skittish about the price tag,” d’Ablaing admits. “The beef is pricey; it creates a $50–$55 entrée, because the steaks are $10 more than their USDA Prime versions.”

His gamble paid off. The High Summit Ranch tenderloin and strip steak are now the most popular dishes on his dinner menu. “Last night I sold every bit of it, which meant 70 percent of my beef sales came from those cuts,” he says. “I expected people to get it. I just didn’t expect it to be this popular.”

This has led to an unexpected problem: “We’re having a hard time keeping up, because he only kills four cows a month for me,” he says. “Near the end of the month, we’ll be out before we get the new ones in.”

Despite this stutter step in supply, d’Ablaing plans to continue the program, and also to expand it. Starting this summer, he began featuring locally raised rack of lamb from Hi Ho Sheep Farm in nearby Oak Grove, Missouri.

Similarly, there has been a local farm program at Capital Meat Company for a decade. The local program offers clients beef raised in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, lamb from Hagerstown, Maryland, and pork sourced from a producer in Orange, Virginia.

“When I first started, there was just a handful of customers,” says Alafoginis. “Since then, it’s really caught on. I think most people would like to use it, but it still costs a little more.”

These locally raised meats have a premium cost of anywhere from an additional 50 cents to $2 or more per pound over meat sourced from the traditional suppliers in the Midwest. Nonetheless, there’s enough market for such products that Alafoginis is researching dependable local sources with consistent quality for game birds and chicken. “Ultimately, we want to have a local option for every product we offer,” he says.

Despite this growing interest in specialty meats, such production claims are showing up on fewer menus than might be anticipated. A survey of Technomic’s MenuMonitor Database for the first quarter of 2015 reveals only 87 menu items featuring grass-fed beef; that’s out of 74,527 items, so just 0.1 percent.

Another 0.1 percent of beef menu items—a total of only 78—claim to be naturally raised. Other categories have even smaller representations: Only 34 beef items are menued as local and only six are menued as organic. “It’s not taking over mainstream beef,” Krebs says.

Vegging Out

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are vegetarian restaurants where meat has moved off the plate entirely. Despite having been a part of the dining scene since the late 19th century—the aptly named Vegetarian Restaurant No. 1 opened in New York City in 1895—vegetarian restaurants were often considered a specialty niche. However, these restaurants did attract some customers who were not vegetarians. In the last few years, an increasing number of vegetable-focused restaurants have opened with the hopes of enticing mainstream diners, including Philadelphia’s Vedge, Elizabeth’s Gone Raw in Washington, D.C., and Natural Selection in Portland, Oregon. “I think we’re all a little tired of pork belly,” says Amanda Cohen, chef/owner of New York City’s veg-centric Dirt Candy. “I find that people go out to eat a lot these days, so they’re trying to balance it out. They’ll have steak one night and they’ll have vegetables or eat light the next night. Even a decade ago, people were only going out rarely, so they would want to eat meat and feel luxurious.”

Cohen believes the public’s interest in vegetable-focused restaurants is partially due to the globalization of food culture in the U.S. “It’s really only North America and Western Europe where meat is the center of the plate,” she says. “As we eat cuisine from so many different cultures, it’s very natural for us to focus less on meat.”

The last decade has also been characterized by a general increase in the adventurous acceptance of previously uneaten ingredients, including some products that one wouldn’t naturally expect. “Diners are much more willing to try parts of vegetables they haven’t tried before or to try vegetables prepared in different ways,” says Cohen, a believer in the root-to-shoot philosophy where every element of the vegetable should be used. For instance, she has used butternut squash skins, radish greens, and baby pea shoots in various dishes. “No matter how scary eating the greens of a beet might sound, it’s nowhere near as scary as eating a cow brain.”

There’s also a growing interest in meat substitutes. According to a report released by Lux Research in the spring, plant-based proteins could make up 33 percent of the world’s protein market by 2054. In the short term, the firm estimates 80 percent of sales will be soy-based products. However, looking forward, it sees strong growth for proteins made with peas, canola, and rice, as well as less-conventional sources, such as insects and algae.

A variety of companies are in that space, including Hampton Creek, Gardein, and Vege USA. Beyond Meat, which offers meat alternatives mostly made with yellow peas, has seen strong growth.

Tim Geistlinger, the company’s vice president of R&D, says interest in plant-based protein alternatives is increasing for two reasons: “People want to know how what they are eating will affect their bodies from a nutritional standpoint, and how it is affecting the environment.”

Part of the battle has already been won with the public. “Everyone now knows that it’s healthier to eat more greens, salads, and vegetables than red meat,” he says.

“There’s a huge shift to focus on plant-based proteins,” agrees the CIA’s Walsh. “It’s happening on all sorts of fronts countrywide. Does that mean we’re not going to eat meat any more? No.”

He sees the culinary school at the frontline of change. “For a long time our industry has been on the polar opposite side: foie gras, big steakhouses, etcetera,” he says. “Now we’re moving a whole generation of people to the middle. How do we do that? In yoga they say, ‘These are micro-movements.’ ”

One of those steps is to employ blend-ability techniques. A prime example is the classic burger. Now, CIA instructors are recommending a blend of beef and mushrooms, or another compatible vegetable, and suggesting restaurants substitute a grain salad or greens for the fries. Another example is the breakfast sausage that is being produced at the CIA, which is now made with 30-40 percent whole grains. “It seems small, but it’s very consequential,” Walsh says.