The offal truth

Mark Best: the way he sells alternative cuts of meat is to not tell the customer what it is.

Mark Best: the way he sells alternative cuts of meat is to not tell the customer what it is.

While alternative cuts can be a cost-effective means of diversifying a menu, there’s not much point if you can’t sell it. Mark Best, chef and owner of Marque, says he does it by building up trust with his customers

Mark Best is no stranger to alternative cuts, and their use forms one of the founding philosophies of his restaurant Marque. The current menu features delicacies such as veal sweetbread and ox heart that, according to Best, are far more interesting in texture and flavour.

While Best says that he has always adhered to the “nose to tail principle”, it is just one of the many factors influencing the menu at Marque.
“A certain degree of boredom comes in using the same two cuts for over a decade, so you start to look elsewhere on the beast… It has to be intellectually satisfying as well as culinarily. If something needs a pig’s tail, we’ll give it a pig’s tail—not just as a matter of course. The dish dictates where we go. We look at each individual dish and look at what it needs. It’s usually obvious”.

Best maintains a peasant outlook that generates both a need to use the whole beast, and some interesting ideas, “My main love is regional French food. I’ve always loved it. I’ve always been very interested in how these great regional classics came about”.

It is a perspective that has been fostered since early childhood, “My grandparents are of German background from the Barossa Valley. I was exposed at a very young age to these cuts through small goods or my Nana’s cooking. I knew what tripe, heart and kidneys were from a very young age”. It’s not hard to see how this upbringing has also influenced his approach to marketing, and perhaps there’s a little bit of his Nana talking when he says, “I ask my customers to be hungry and to trust me. To be honest, I think I know what’s good for them”.

Best’s marketing strategy for offal is brilliant in its simplicity, “We don’t give them a menu and we don’t tell them what it is when we put it down. We wait until they’ve said ‘that was delicious’… only a small percentage are outraged,” he jokes. “With a la carte, I have to be more careful because the menu is out in front of them… ‘ox heart’ is never going to sell—it will go to enthusiasts only. I want people to order right across the menu”.

It is not a matter of saving on costs, “It can be (cost-effective), but that doesn’t actually happen at Marque. By the time we trim to get to the point where it’s suitable for our menu—even the ox heart—by the time trim all sinew off, we’ve taken the cost advantage away”.

Cooking offal has its challenges and Best warns that there is “absolutely” a risk of cooking the meat incorrectly, “Every cut has its own particular cooking method. Just through experience you learn what works and what doesn’t”. Best urges chefs to keep an open mind and approach each meat on an individual basis.

Despite the potential pitfalls, Best says there are some distinct advantages of working with offcuts. Whereas in the past chefs might think of a beast in terms of sirloin and about six primal cuts, the butchers he works with are increasingly moving towards the French, rather than the British or American butcher charts. “Rump consists of four or five different muscle groups, so it’s very difficult to get a consistent product. Breaking down primal cuts into individual muscle groups allows you to be more accurate in your cooking,” says Best. Additionally, he credits modern technology in cuisine for allowing chefs to incorporate slow-cooking to turn third-class cuts into a first-class product.

With customer preferences in Australia changing over time, Best says it is now easier to market alternative cuts. These days, he says, “customers are demanding something more interesting than braised ox cheek”. While he doesn’t go so far as to specify a demographic of “offal lovers” and “offal haters”, he does draw a distinction between those customers with broad dining experience and the general public. “My customers eat out all around the world, and frequently. The general public aren’t that adventurous”.

While Best believes strongly in leading customers along an educational process, he warns against moving too far ahead and losing them. When it comes to animals such as horse, popular in countries like France and Belgium, Best says of the Australian market, “The noble beast thing” kicks in. It’s like eating dog—it’s just not going to happen”.

Nevertheless, Best feels he has been given a “mandate by the people” to push the envelope and take diners out of their comfort zone. “It’s a compromise between the chef’s outlook and what the customers will let them do”.

For Best, serving not just a Wagyu sirloin, but the heart as well is a way of reminding his customers where the product came from. He urges his customers to leave their preconceptions at home and come to the table with an open mind, “When someone says to me ‘I would not normally eat that, but that was delicious’—that is music to my ears”. ⎮

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