By Sean Moon
As centre-of-the-plate mainstays, meat and poultry have long held a prominent place on Canadian restaurant menus. But with chefs always trying to raise the creative bar and impress diners, many are reaching beyond international borders to develop inspired and innovative protein dishes, all while giving tradition its due respect.
With the days growing longer and the scent of grilled beef, pork, lamb and chicken wafting throughout neighbourhoods across Canada, it appears that our love affair with meat and poultry shows no signs of abating. Perhaps more popular than ever thanks to an infusion of ethnic inspiration, meat is also continuing to address consumers’ desires for locally sourced, better-for-you protein options while providing them with the gustatory “wow” factor they have come to expect at their favourite restaurants.
Tradition meets innovation
In addition to diving into multi-cultural flavours, old-school cooking methods and family-style presentation, chefs are also giving a nod to tradition with a return to using all parts of the animal, increasingly sourced from local farms and producers. It is this unique combination of old-meets-new that keeps meat riding such a wave of popularity on foodservice menus.
“One is hopeful that a trend towards respect for ingredients will continue to be one of the strongest movements in the years to come,” says Daniel Orovec, executive chef at Atlantica Hotel in Halifax. “Not only looking at the whole animal and utilizing as many cuts and options for both meat and poultry, but also deriving from this laudable plan an understanding that sometimes a simple respect for a high-quality piece of protein may very well be the best way to be both profitable and on point. To put it in other words, stop messing around with my food.”
Orovec says there is an abundance of artisan butchers and farmers markets that offer nose-to-tail cuts, a development that harkens back to times when customers knew their butcher and he or she knew the customers. These tiny enclaves of meat heaven, says Orovec, can be a potent breeding ground for innovative, ingredient-driven chefs’ creations.
“When the use of these other cuts are combined with a flair for adventure, utilizing not only different cooking methods but interesting and unique flavor profiles, a door can be opened to not only being ahead of the curve but also more profitable. After all, let us not forget that the food business is a business.”
Reducing food waste
Tanya Thompson, national account manager at Cargill Foodservice, believes that sustainability is top of mind with consumers today, and is a key part of nose-to-tail dining – using the entire animal and reducing waste.
“We are seeing a resurgence in nose-to-tail dining,” says Thompson. “Today, consumers’ minds and palates are more open to trying lesser known cuts of beef. Also supporting this trend is the access chefs have to more ingredients than ever, allowing for the fusing of cultures, using cuts from the entire animal. This trend offers chefs a platform for innovation and operators a way to enhance profits.”
As a beef cattle producer in Tweed, Ontario, Kara Enright, co-owner of Enright Cattle Company, agrees that the most exciting trend in meat dishes at restaurants in Canada is the use of locally sourced products.
“Whether you are on the East Coast or in the heart of Ontario, locally sourced proteins are really starting to gain momentum. Farm names identifying the source of the meat are being added to the menus. Chefs are dealing directly with the farmers, exploring new cuts and learning about how their food is produced. The restaurants and chefs are benefiting from the quality of product that they are receiving and being recognized and preferred by the consumers as a source for local food.”
But local sourcing is not the only major trend in meat and poultry. Mathieu Paré, executive director of the Canadian Beef Centre of Excellence, says with chefs and restaurateurs engaging guests in new and creative ways, shared plates and family-style dining can open the door to dramatic presentations featuring larger cuts — for example, whole bone-in beef shank or pig’s head.
“These are wow factor items that the can be shared,” says Paré. “This not only creates opportunities for economical and under-utilized cuts, it can highlight skill and technique and creates a very interactive experience for diners.”
With the increasing popularity of family-style dining, larger cuts are being prepared in-restaurant and premium steaks such as porterhouse, rib eye and New York are being served carved for sharing at the table.
“The sharing option makes meat dishes more approachable and enjoyable for a romantic table of two or groups alike,” says Paré. “Economical cuts used in slow-cooking techniques are also popular and make for great sharing options. Trimmed product can be reworked into charcuterie preparations such as sausage or rilletes. These value-added menu items can be a great profit centre for restaurateurs.”
Not only are so-called offcuts often more economical, they are also sparking interest from chefs who, like Paré, see novel uses for many such ingredients. Connie DeSousa, chef and co-owner of Charcut in Calgary, says that as a restaurateur and business owner, she is always looking for the best deals and offcuts are still the best deals around.
“One of my favourite cuts is the heart,” says DeSousa. “While it is an organ meat, it lends itself really well to steaks because the muscle fibre in the heart is quite similar to something like a New York steak. So, I’m always recommending offcuts for our guests to try. We butcher everything in-house so it makes it easier to serve items like that. It is also important to make these cuts as familiar as possible to the guests, such as our beef heart kielbasa which is a really popular item on our menu.”
Cattle farmer Kara Enright also believes that consumers are becoming more aware of less-common beef cuts and are willing to try them.
“These cuts are typically economically priced but when prepared and plated they can compete on all levels with the prime cuts,” says Enright. “These cuts can give the consumer an excellent eating experience and are an affordable beef option. They also provide the restaurant with an affordable source of local quality beef.”
Unique protein option
Mark Hills, president of Hills Food Ltd., believes that with consumers becoming more interested in sustainable, wholesome ingredients, they also want proteins that are delicious and nutritious. That’s where some of his company’s less-traditional meats and proteins such as kangaroo come into play.
“Conventional livestock production is challenged by the sustainable/eco-friendly aspect — methane production being the most significant byproduct of their activities,” says Hills. “Global warming is here. Kangaroo does not create methane. No trees need cutting. No watering needs. No fences built. It really is a no brainer.”
Plus, says Hills, with wholesale venison loins costing as much as $50 a kilogram compared with kangaroo loins at $18/kg, the math also makes good sense.
“Kangaroo meat colour, texture and flavour are so close to venison, yet the pricing makes it a very, very food-cost friendly protein. Perceived value of the product by the consumer is strong so the return to the restaurateur is significant.”
Returning to roots
While more chefs are discovering the value and variety of offcuts and less-popular meat proteins, a growing number are also returning to more traditional cooking and preparation methods. DeSousa, for example, says a lot of chefs are turning away from gas cooking and are looking back to the past with wood-fired grills and other solid fuels.
“A lot of chefs are craving that kind of natural smoke and char that you would get off the solid-fuel equipment,” says DeSousa. “While it is quite expensive to install with the complications of the required ventilation, I think this kind of equipment makes a huge difference on the outcome of the dish.”
Atlantica’s Orovec agrees that when it comes to preparation methods, everything old really does seem to be new again.
“The return of more traditional cooking methods is opening the kitchen to more useful and beneficial applications. Braising would be the most obvious of these cooking methods,” explains Orovec. “The art and chemistry of flavour enhancers, time and temperature to change an inedible veal shank into Osso Bucco, as an example, has helped to transform menus across the country. The same can be said of a confit application to food items realizing a benefit to the bottom line as well as to the palate of our guests. Sous vide cooking gained traction in the 1970’s at the Restaurant Troisgras and has grown in recent years to be an ‘innovative’ way of approaching not only protein preparation but all manner of applications — think sous vide curried cauliflower.”
Although under-utilized cuts have their place and are inspiring some creativity, innovation in meat and poultry recipes is also being driven by a number of factors, including the consumer’s desire for healthy, locally sourced food along with the ethnically influenced use of spices and seasonings.
“Continued focus on local, clean Canadian food is influencing recipe development and more products are being developed and produced in-house,” says Mathieu Paré. “From sausages to sourdough, chefs are taking on the challenge to create recipes rather than purchase convenience product.”
Cargill’s Thompson says a major factor in the desire for more transparency about the food they consume is the Millennial generation, which represents a growing force in the restaurant-going demographic.
“Millennials want to know the story behind the food they are eating and look for stories that make them feel good about what they are eating,” says Thompson. “Over one-third of Millennials are willing to pay more for farm-raised beef. The interesting part of this is that all beef cattle are raised on farms in Canada! So just adding that “farm-raised” adjective can add value to a menu.”
Spicing things up
Of course, even the highest-quality meat or poultry can sometimes use a helping hand when it comes to creating variety and flavour. Ethnic spices, herbs and sauces are proving their value with chefs time and again.
“Our chefs here at Cargill are really liking some of the Middle Eastern seasonings such as dukkah (toasted and ground nuts with coriander and cumin) and za’atar, (fresh thyme, sesame seeds, sumac). A couple of other new sauces they have been experimenting with are chermoula and zhoug — which is kind of like green chili pesto,” says Thompson.
Charcut’s DeSousa and others are looking further afield as well, turning to Italy, Asia and beyond for new flavours to enhance their already stellar protein dishes.
“One of my favourite seasonings to use, especially when making gravies, and which is probably a little untraditional, is adding a dash of soy to the gravy,” says Charcut’s DeSousa. “It really kicks up the umami and adds really great colour as well.”
Mike McKenzie, owner of Seed to Sausage Corporation, recommends one of the “hottest” protein enhancers on the market today — nduja.
“Pick up some good nduja if you want to add a spicy umami bomb to any dish, not just pasta,” says McKenzie. “Ramen, eggs, tacos, octopus — anything you want to add heat to. It’s a must try. Just sauté some onions and garlic with a bunch of oil and then melt a big chunk of nduja into it. I promise it will blow you away.”
With worldly influences becoming more prevalent from fine dining to neighbourhood pubs, it’s no surprise that chefs like Orovec see a constant shifting of flavours on menus, especially when it comes to meat.
“Whether it’s chimichurri sauce for your grilled flank steak or kimchi-braised chicken, it’s getting easier and easier to find interesting flavours tied to ethnic cuisine. Call them “artisan” if you will but I get most excited with the spice market and what can be done with these offerings. I think of smoked sea salt, Himalayan pink salt, granulated paprika, different rubs that can be created with high-quality spices and the plethora of different peppers out there. Options is the key word here; the rest is left to the imagination and skill of the chef.”
Sean Moon is the managing editor of Canadian Restaurant & Foodservice News.