Meatpaper five

The Whole-Animal Challenge
When life gives you offal, make meatballs

by Marcia Gagliardi
photo by Ed Anderson


IT’S A WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON during lunch service, and Nate Appleman, the chef of San Francisco’s regional Italian restaurant A16, and his crew are huddled around a whole dead steer, wondering what to do with over 500 pounds of usable protein. It’s like a football team deciding a play, with different cooks designated to tackle different parts: Who’s on steaks? Who’ll cut the bottom round into shape for bresaola? What’ll go into a pasta dish at A16’s sister restaurant, SPQR? It’s literally a beast of a job.

With a popular urban restaurant blazing through as many as 60 pork chops on a busy night, the easiest way for a chef to meet that kind of volume would be to order the exact number of cuts required, keep them Cryovaced in a walk-in refrigerator until they are ready for use, and then fire ’em up as needed. So why are so many San Francisco Bay Area chefs ordering whole animals — from lambs to cows — instead?

It’s not that high-quality cuts aren’t available, at least in the Bay Area, where there are some wonderful purveyors of precut meats. But a chef’s decision to use the whole animal takes a broader view, from the notion that no part of an animal should go to waste, to the increased quality control that comes with buying the whole animal. Upon delivery of a complete steer or pig, the chef can judge how healthy the animal was, and see the marbling of its fat and its overall plumpness — qualities not immediately apparent in disembodied cuts from a number of animals.

It’s about respecting the whole animal, gristle and all — not just the filet.

“There’s a lot more bad meat out there than good meat,” says A16 and SPQR’s Appleman. “You really have to respect the guys who are raising the good meat and pay them their due and use their product, or they go away, because they’re just dealing with 10 head of cattle, not 10 million.”

Many chefs enjoy the challenge of both breaking down a complete animal and wasting as little of it as possible. It’s about respecting the whole animal, gristle and all — not just the filet. And there’s a definite economy to it. Says Appleman, “I know for a fact I would have to use lesser quality meat if we weren’t using whole animals. With whole animals, I can use better quality, and charge less.”

For some, using the whole animal is just flat-out fun (they are chefs, after all). There’s the challenge (or “the allure,” as I once heard it described) of puzzling out how to feed a restaurant full of customers with just one animal. After all, once you buy it, you have to sell it — and quickly, because the “consume by this date” clock is ticking.

When chef Stuart Brioza bought a whole steer for Rubicon, a recently closed San Francisco restaurant, he paid $3,200 for 900 pounds of meat — a significant but, it turned out, cost-effective commitment. Ultimately, Brioza would sell through it in less than three weeks, partly by scheduling his purchase for one of the busier times of year. Still, not figured into the original price were the logistical costs: the time and money spent picking up a whole steer from the rancher, and the rental of a minivan that literally sagged with the weight of the animal on the drive home.

Still, in some ways, buying and retrieving the steer was the easiest part. For starters, where would Brioza put it? For most restaurants, space is at a premium; just a few 225-pound pigs on hooks in the walk-in can pose serious capacity issues, let alone finding room for a whole steer after it’s been broken down.

Brioza dreams of a meat-only walk-in, with hooks for meat to hang freely so that it can be kept unwrapped (the threat of cross-contamination prevents raw meat from being left unwrapped in multi-use walk-ins). With a dedicated space, Brioza could do affinage — in effect, mature — his meat in the same way that cheese is stored and aged for just the right amount of time. With packaged meat, he says, “you have to bring it back to life. After it’s Cryovaced, you need to expose it back to air; you open it on Tuesday for use on Friday.”

Even without affinage, animals need to hang freely for a few weeks to age, which is why many chefs plead with their purveyors to hang on to the meat for at least a couple of weeks before delivery. Mark Denham, chef of the Cal-Spanish Laïola in San Francisco’s Marina district, likes to hang his lamb ideally for three weeks, and if you saw his shoebox-size walk-in, you’d see what a commitment that is. (Denham goes through one lamb, one pig, and a quarter of veal each week.)

Some chefs have gone so far as to design their kitchens and storage areas around the ability to store and break down the whole animal. Nate Appleman’s next restaurant, Urbino, will have a butcher room with a dedicated meat refrigerator and storage. The prep kitchen will have a butcher table at its center, with a band saw and a sausage grinder, and a walk-in will be sectioned off to hold whole carcasses. “I am determined to use the whole animal,” Appleman says.

This butchery center at the restaurant will ultimately act like a mini-commissary, selling meat to Appleman’s other two restaurants (A16 and SPQR). That way, Appleman can sell the “off-cuts,” like short ribs and skirt steak, to A16, and the new restaurant can feature the premium cuts. There are also plans to have a butcher counter where neighborhood residents can purchase quality meat.

Perhaps one of the bigger challenges of using whole animals is managing supply and demand. After the desirable steaks and chops are gone, there’s still a lot of meat left that chefs need customers to consume. Customers, especially at upmarket restaurants like Rubicon, are looking for well-known cuts like New York steak and lamb chops. Brioza says menu descriptions are key to persuading customers to go for the less-familiar cuts, and sometimes the vaguer the better. A “roasted and carved shoulder of beef” can encompass a variety of cuts on the plate. Pigs, Brioza notes, offer even more latitude. Most diners aren’t as familiar with pork cuts, which allows chefs to integrate more variety on the plate. A mixed plate, as Nate Appleman observes, is the best way to discover and savor the different flavors of muscle.

The limited supply of cuts means that chefs often decide when to educate their customers and when to lay low. Laïola’s chef Denham explains to his customers why pig cheeks and lamb shanks aren’t on the menu every night (“I gotta save them up”), but he doesn’t explain everything that goes into the head cheese, or that there might be some kidney in the meatballs.

At A16, where diners scarf down one and a half pigs a week, Appleman offers ciccoli, a “rustic country paté” that customers find delicious, even though it contains some parts that most folks wouldn’t guess they were eating. Then again, the boned and stuffed trotters now sell out when they’re on the menu — which was not at all the case when A16 first started serving them. The chefs interviewed for this piece all agree that it helps to have (and nurture) an accepting clientele like the one found in the Bay Area; the idea that beef is beef and pig is pig, no matter the cut, can require more selling in other parts of the country.

Using the whole animal comes more naturally for some restaurants than others. It’s easier to offer mixed grill plates and incorporate scraps into meatballs, sausages, salumi, and terrines at more casual or rustic-style restaurants. Laïola’s Denham calls pigs “the miracle creature” whose every part can be put to use. Brioza utilized as much of his whole steer as possible by freezing a lot of the trim for future use in sauces and stocks, and by using a good bit of scrap in burgers and other dishes for staff meals. The animal even showed up on the dessert menu. Nicole Krasinksi, Rubicon’s pastry chef (and Brioza’s fiancée), was happy to have real rendered fat for piecrust.

Many chefs may believe in the philosophy of using the whole animal, but philosophy is of little use without butchery skills. Butchery is an art, and a disappearing one at that. The chefs interviewed for this piece came by their butchery skills from a variety of sources. As a young child, Appleman watched his grandfather, a butcher in Ohio, make sausage. Appleman now teaches butchery skills to his staff.

Mark Denham’s grandparents raised Herefords, hens, sheep, and geese at their Indiana farm. As a kid in the Bay Area, he made culinary forays for sides of beef in the Sierra foothills with his family. Later, Denham trained under a Northern California lamb purveyor named Don Watson, who showed kitchen crews how to break an animal down with a saw.

Watching Ryan Farr, the chef de cuisine at San Francisco’s Orson, cut down half a pig is like observing surgery: Everything is neat and orderly, from the small tray bearing an array of implements to the bright lights shining overhead. At the end, all that’s left is a small container with mere ounces of waste. The skin will be used for chicharrones and the front legs (shoulders) for salami. They’ll cure the back legs for a year and serve them as Spanish-style ham. The trotters and shanks will show up in the popular pork buns.

The chefs all have their own butchery style, from Farr, who uses a combination of implements (one of which is a small bear-hunting hatchet from a hunting store in Jackson, Mississippi), to Appleman with his 10-inch cleaver. Some note that once you know how to butcher a lamb, it’s not too hard to scale up to a pig, and eventually a steer. (Sure.) Russell Moore, chef at Oakland’s Camino, assures me that “after the first hundred times, it’s all easy.” (So, home cooks, don’t despair over massacring that rabbit — you have another 99 tries until you get it right.) They describe the work as intuitive and say that after the initial cuts, the meat comes off where it wants to, almost as if the animal tells you where to insert the blade.

Denham’s summary of the whole-animal philosophy is simple: “Don’t subcontract food.” He and the other chefs look back to an era before such a concept existed. If they’re on to something, this return to the past may very well be the future of meat in restaurants.

Marcia Gagliardi is a freelance food writer living it up in San Francisco. She is the founder and publisher of “the tablehopper” (, a popular weekly e-column with insider news and reviews covering the local dining and drinking scene. The daughter of a former delicatessen owner, she thinks salumi should be its own food group.

This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Five.

Photo of Nate Appleman of A16 from A16: Food+Wine (Ten Speed Press, 2008)