Cuts above

Matthew Kemp from Restaurant Balzac says cheaper cuts of meat not only make sense for business, but add a point of difference.

Matthew Kemp from Restaurant Balzac says cheaper cuts of meat not only make sense for business, but add a point of difference.

From brisket to pig cheek, using secondary cuts of meat not only caters for a new retro-cool dining crowd, it also makes perfect business sense

Once upon a time, pig’s ears were only sold in pet shops: smoked, dried and smelling faintly of kibble. Today, they hide amidst carefully coifed piles of bitter greens alongside soft-boiled duck eggs and Sydney Harbour views.

Just as the lamb shoulder used to be a bony bit not worth the bother, beautifully cooked ‘secondary’ or non-loin meat cuts are now popping up on fancy menus around the country.

And for many chefs, it’s a long-overdue chance to bring sexy back to the brisket.

“Loin cuts are boring,” quips celebrated Restaurant Balzac chef, Matthew Kemp — a long-time proponent of secondary cuts. “They don’t show any skill, and when it comes down to it, I’m a show-off.”

In June, Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) launched a campaign aimed at highlighting the myriad benefits for chefs of using cheaper cuts of meat — including the chance it gave chefs like Kemp to shine. “The use of secondary cuts has always been a strong platform for our communication with chefs,” explains MLA’s marketing manager Claire Tindale.

“But we felt there was room to generate some more excitement around certain cuts and make them the real stand-outs on a menu,” she says. The MLA’s resulting ‘Masterpieces’ campaign combines information about key non-loin cuts, with a series of masterclasses featuring chefs and wholesalers.

Kemp agrees that there are significant benefits to using non-loin options on a menu.

“Obviously, it’s cheaper, and there’s no getting around the fact that that’s a major consideration in the kitchen,” he says.

“But even more important, I think, is that anyone can cook a loin. When you can cook a fillet at home without even thinking, why would you go out for more of the same?”

Chef at Melbourne’s Circa The Prince, Jake Nicholson, backs up the claim that chefs need to keep upping the ante if they want to keep diners interested.

“As people become more knowledgeable about cooking in Australia, chefs need to find new ways of offering something that the average cook doesn’t do,” he says. “Non-loin cuts are a great way of differentiating, because they usually have a lot more flavour to play with and can be very versatile.”

Nicholson has been using oyster blade on his menu for the past 12 months and says it is his best-performing dish. He braises the meat in stout, “long and slow”, then presses it and serves it with grain mustard, mash and creamed leeks.

Andy Ball from Sydney’s much-loved Belmondo restaurant also features an oyster blade on his menu, alongside other secondary cuts of lamb shoulder, beef cheek and pork cheek.

“All these cuts perform extremely well in terms of plate cost, eating quality, and portion control,” he explains. “The beef cheek is more suited to winter, but the oyster blade and pork cheek will be carried through to the warmer months because they way we’re cooking them isn’t so heavy and we can change up the garnishes.”

Ball says cuts like oyster blade tick all the right boxes a chef should be looking for in running a successful, profitable restaurant. “You can’t go wrong with something that eats as well as a tenderloin but is a quarter of the price,” he says.

Like Kemp and Nicholson, he says his secondary cuts literally “walk off the menu”. But popularity has its own drawbacks. “In 1997, I asked a butcher for beef cheek and he asked why the fuck I’d want it,” Kemp explains. “These days, it’s 500 times the price and I can’t get hold of it because every bastard wants some.”

Many chefs over the years have hung their hat on cuts that used to be considered second-rate and were priced accordingly, and they would no doubt sympathise with Kemp’s frustration.

Indeed, veal sweetbreads selling for two dollars a kilo a little more than a decade ago now fetch $24 for the same amount; an increase of 1500 per cent. And you only need to glance at the meteoric rise in popularity of cuts like lamb shanks or veal shin to see the effect it’s had on price.

“I’d estimate the food cost in a non-loin dish would be about 21 per cent, but my labour costs are more than 50 per cent.” Matthew Kemp, Restaurant Balzac

“I’ve always been interested in secondary cuts and it’s what I guess I’ve built my name on,” Kemp adds. “I might have shot myself in the foot a bit, because now it’s so damn expensive.”

While he admits that there are significant savings to be made for restaurateurs buying non-loin cuts, Kemp argues that the extra labour involved in turning them into restaurant-quality fare usually tips the scales back into the red.

“I’d estimate the food cost in a non-loin dish would be about 21 per cent, but my labour costs are more than 50 per cent,” he explains.

Nicholson says his oyster blade dish also offers a “huge profit margin” on produce costs, but claims his labour costs are more fixed, making the profits significantly more noticeable. “If you look at the cost of using something like waygu, you’ve got about nine or $10 of meat on the plate,” he explains. “But with my oyster blade, it’s more like two or three dollars, and the customer goes home just as happy because it’s equally as delicious.”

One of Kemp’s best performers is a pig’s cheek stuffed with tongue, but the way he sells it highlights a shifting tide in diners’ views on secondary cuts of meat.

“It’s basically a whole deboned pig’s head that we stuff with the ears and tongue and do in a slow braise before slicing it thinly and frying it off in a light crumb,” he explains. “On our dinner menu, we call it a ‘pig cheek shnitzel’, but on my monthly degustation menu, I’d call it a pig’s head. I think the latter description works on a degustation pitched to die-hard foodies, but on an everyday a la carte menu, it could be too confronting.”

The idea that chefs can use meat that would once have been relegated to supermarket sausages to instead create highly evolved, artisan dishes that showcase their technical skill is not new. But it’s possibly on the verge of a reincarnation, thanks not only to economic factors, but social ones as well.

“There has been a definite shift in thinking towards more environmentally aware and socially responsible ways of growing, killing and eating meat,” acknowledges Tindale.

“People are definitely more interested in sustainable and ethical eating these days, which not only provides another reason for chefs to find ways of marketing secondary cuts in their kitchen, but also provides a whole new reason for customers to actively seek out the restaurants that do.”

It’s part of the philosophy driving chef Adrian Richardson from Melbourne’s La Luna Bistro, where nose-to-tail eating is extolled as a more sustainable and ethical way of consuming meat.

Richardson ages all his meat on premises, buying whole animals at a time from local abattoirs or small producers.

One of his favourite cuts is the bolar blade, which he describes as “one of the most underrated cuts” of beef: “It’s a big muscle layered with fat and gelatine, which is wonderful for slow braising.”

One similarly powerful trend paving the way for more secondary cuts is the return of the crock pot or slow cooker, which no doubt has many retirees smiling into their casseroles.

Retro dishes like corned beef, stews and slow roasts are popping up on the crispest of white-clothed tables this year, but revitalising these traditional slow dishes isn’t just for winter.

“Duncan Robertson of River Kwai in Melbourne is a massive fan of our flat iron steak,” says Tindale. “He’s been using it in Thai salads and lighter spring dishes and tells us it’s extremely popular.”

Nicholson is also planning to keep his oyster blade on the menu after the Melbourne weather warms up.

“I’ll probably lighten up the flavours a bit by using things like peas and sorrel instead of the more wintery root vegetables,” he says. “But when a dish is as popular as this one, you can’t afford to take it off the menu.”

Tindale adds that many non-loin cuts like flat iron steak only need a light hand in the cooking process, making them well-suited to spring or summer dining.

“A lot of chefs say it’s much easier to cook with the flat iron than it is to get an eye fillet exactly right every time,” she says.

Which is lucky, as that extra hand could be useful when it comes to finding new food for the dog.

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