There is nothing that turns restaurant customers off more than substandard meat. So what makes for good quality meat? Miles Clarke reports.
With steak dishes already over the $40 mark in many establishments—$65 at one Sydney diner—expectations are sky high.
A plethora of meat brands has emerged in recent years, assisted in no small measure by restaurateurs sourcing superior produce, with Illabo lamb, Wagyu and King Island beef but a few examples. This identification allows the restaurant owner the chance to claim a point of difference from the competition that sells unbranded generic meats.
This is not to say there’s no protection. The Meat Standards Australia (MSA) scheme ensures that all meat sold under the MSA logo has been carefully assessed for all factors that influence eating quality and is guaranteed to be tender if cooked using a recommended method.
In addition, the National Livestock Identification System (NLIS) is one of a number of government and meat industry initiatives designed to protect the national herd in the event of diseases such as BSE (mad cow disease) or foot-and-mouth disease taking hold.
Currently, 23 million Australian cattle on 110,000 properties have tags fitted in their ears, which allow an animal to be tracked from birth to slaughter. Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA), in association with the various state governments, implemented and now manages the massive database that tracks the movement of virtually every head of cattle in the country. It ensures the cattle can be traced from property of birth throughout its life.
“We’ve done test case scenarios and are able to pinpoint the location of an individual animal in under an hour, irrespective of where it might be,” says Christian Mulders, NLIS manager for MLA.
He says Australia has broken new ground with its NLIS database, which is an extension of a paper-based system that has operated since the 1960s.
“Cattle are tagged with a small radio frequency identification (RFID) device, which is electronically read as it moves through the supply chain. When these movements are recorded in the database it enables us to track the movement of virtually every head of cattle in the country, and provides an invaluable form of insurance in the event of disease,” says Mulders.
The sophisticated monitoring is primarily aimed at protecting the livestock export industry, which accounts for around 70 per cent of the nation’s cattle production.
Matteo Pignatelli, proprietor of Matteo’s, a Melbourne institution in North Fitzroy, has a sceptical, if not downright cynical, view of the grading systems. Matteo’s is housed in the original Mietta’s restaurant site and is open seven days a week for lunch and dinner. The restaurant seats 180 to 200 guests at a time.
“I find the only way to ensure a quality supply is to have good relations with your butcher and that is achieved by paying your bills on time,” says Pignatelli. “The grading is more about price than taste, in my experience. Grading is a step in the right direction, but when a supplier gets calls from 10 restaurants, which ones do you think will get the best quality meat? You can never take the human factor out of the equation,” he says.
He also finds it hard to trust the claims of producers.
“Unless you are actually going to the source of the product, how can you know if the product which you are paying a premium for is the real deal? How can anyone be 100 per cent sure that a product is organic? It might be located adjacent to areas where pesticides are used, but can you still say it’s organic?” he asks.
Sydney chef Peter Kuruvita, one of the owners of the $8 million Flying Fish, an upmarket waterfront restaurant on Jones Bay, says NLIS brings accountability to the supply process.
“We have a major investment here in a highly competitive market and it’s essential that our supply is secure and being able to get right back to the paddock if needs be is an assurance we need,” he says.
“The MSA certainly helps maintain the standard, but we have also seen prices rise as a consequence of its implementation. The Marble scoring system also helps, but that’s only for scores over five. Anything less and the consistency of quality suffers. I use sirloin mostly for the intensity of flavour and when conditions are good you can even taste the grass lightly in the meat.”
Kuruvita says that despite being vigilant he still has to trim up to 50 per cent off the delivered weight of his meat.
“We go through about 200kg of meat a week, which accounts for only 15 to 20 per cent of our covers as we’re first and foremost a seafood restaurant. Nonetheless, we’re committed to serve an excellent steak every time and the demand is there.”
Quality is everything
Executive chef at the award-winning Auge Ristorante in Grote St Adelaide, Terry Soukoulis, says over the four years he has worked at the restaurant he has turned to small butcheries for his supply. And he’s quite happy to pay a premium to ensure quality. The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner from Tuesday to Saturday and seats 65 guests, with the kitchen brigade numbering six.
“We’d find the large wholesalers would give us top quality for the first four or five deliveries and then it became just a matter of luck. We need to be with a supplier who is on our wavelength and we don’t need the embarrassment of complaints about toughness.
“I don’t know how the supplier we have manages it, but we don’t have a steak knife in the house—his meat is that good. We have meat products in the antipasto tasting place, ragout for the pastas as well as veal and filet dishes on the menu,” he says.
Executive chef for Blue Line Cruises on Sydney Harbour, Ian Crotty, has to juggle vastly differing demands for produce. The four vessels, two magistic catamarans and two showboats can require the delivery of 2000 meals a day in the high season and considerably less over the quieter months. Dishes prepared on board include a beef filet, osso bucco, lamb shanks and kangaroo.
“We use several meat suppliers and will sometimes play one off the other, especially when introducing a new line,” says Crotty.
“I’ve visited the meat processing facility at Top Cut Food in Melbourne and am confident with their operations. We also use Haverick Meats in Sydney with good results. Over the year, we’re a big customer in anyone’s book and we’re generally happy with the quality of the meat dishes we serve.”