Food for Thought
Guiltless Veal? And Foie Gras? I’m in.
Most chef/owners probably made New Year’s resolutions like “Make my restaurant more profitable” or “Create a really killer new menu item.”
But not Randy Evans of Haven. “My goal for 2012 is to make veal the new pig for chefs,” he says.
Veal? I love veal, who doesn’t? But the ethical animal rights folks have made veal the face of animal cruelty. Poor little babies yanked from their mothers at birth, tied in stalls or crates and force-fed milk. Never seeing the light of day. How can anyone want to condone that? Veal is the second most non-PC food on the restaurant menu. (More about the first in a moment.)
There’s even a national organization urging you to boycott veal, which is just what several towns and cities in America have done. Even big box Costco banned buying veal from producers using the crate-and-chain method in 2010.
“I’ve been asking my sources to raise humane veal for a year and a half,” says Evans. “My dad worked on a dairy farm when he was young and he always said bulls were dinner. They would cull the bulls (who couldn’t produce milk for the dairy) and feed them until they were ready for slaughter. They weren’t harnessed in stalls. They were just raised naturally. And a calf is about 200 pounds, like a pig, and you can use all the parts of it just like a pig.”
Finally, Evans found someone willing to raise calves his way.
Meet Felix Florez of Black Hill Ranch.
“Black Hills’ veal is just really delicious,” says Ryan Pera of Revival Market. In fact, Black Hill veal is becoming so popular Florez expects he’ll need another ten acres by the end of this year.
“I’ve been in the restaurant business since I was 15,” Florez says. “I was a sommelier at 19.” He worked in some of the top restaurants in Houston and with some of the best chefs.
“And I would see all these chefs ordering meat from other states and countries,” he says. “And I thought ‘Why can’t we raise the best meats here in Texas?’”
He started with a couple of acres in Cypress, raising heritage hogs for restaurants. At first it was part-time, but he gave up working in restaurants in 2010 when the ranching really took off. Today he has ten acres in Katy and his own breed of pig, the Black Hill Swabian, designed specifically for chefs. So when Evans asked him about humanely raised veal, he took the challenge.
“My family has been in cattle ranching for generations,” Florez says. “So it wasn’t hard for me to do this. The calves get to nurse and walk around the pastures with their moms and then when they are about 2 1/2 to 3 months old we process them.”
“Black Hills’ veal is just really delicious,” says Ryan Pera of Revival Market where they buy whole calves from Florez and butcher them on site. In fact, Black Hill veal is becoming so popular Florez expects he’ll need another ten acres by the end of this year.
The eating of veal, the meat from baby beef, dates back to Roman times, where it was so popular Emperor Alexander Severus had to issue a decree forbidding it because the breeding stock was dwindling. In Europe veal has been wildly popular for ages. Can you say Wiener schnitzel? Or veal scaloppini?
But it wasn’t until the advent of factory farms that raising calves for veal took on a cruel twist. In order to mass-produce it, people started stuffing calves in crates and stalls, chaining them so they couldn’t move (to keep the muscles soft) and stuffing them.
But natural or ethical veal comes from calves raised the old-fashioned way. And frankly, it tastes just as good as the less humane veal.
Oh, and the most non-PC food on menus? That would have to be foie gras.
The force feeding of geese and ducks with feeding tubes (known as gavage) to produce the fatted livers to make foie gras has been such a hot-button issue over the past few years that some countries, cities and states (like California) have banned the sale of the end product. But, just like veal, that wasn’t always the case.
“Geese fly south in the winter because they run out of food,” chef Evans explains. “If they have free food, all they can eat, they’ll stay. So if Felix can have flocks of geese and ducks and just feed them all they can eat year round it would be much more humane and I could have serve guiltless foie gras.”
“Yeah, he’s been on me about that,” admits Florez. “I’ve never seen humane foie gras that comes close to the force fed in taste, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. I’m going to try.”
“No one’s figured out how to do that quite yet,” Pera says. All though some have come close.
Chef and food scholar Dan Barber talked about a small Spanish farmer who raised his geese naturally in a TEDx talk in 2008. Eduardo Sousa runs his family farm and adjacent restaurant and produces what Barber called the best foie gras he’d ever eaten. And he does it by feeding his flock all the nuts, berries and olives they can eat. The birds naturally gorge themselves gearing up for winter and migration, but with an endless supply of food they don’t actually have to fly south for the colder months.
Yes, it’s time consuming and more costly than force feeding, and obviously you can’t produce as much as you can with gavage, but it’s a whole lot nicer on the birds.