“Like everything in life, fat needs time to get better.”
So says Spanish chef and cattle rancher José Gordon in the 2015 Netflix documentary Steak Revolution. The film spans the globe in the search for the world’s best beef, with an implicit bias that there’s something weird about the overly tender, feedlot-finished, 20-to-30- month-old commodity cattle that dominates the U.S beef market relative to those that live long lives on open grass in other parts of the world. The look of pure befuddlement on the face of third-generation Peter Luger Steakhouse owner Jody Storch when she learns that Gordon lets his cattle live as long as 14 years before slaughtering them says it all.
Vaca vieja, or “old cow,” isn’t a weird thing at all in Spain or other parts of the world, where its yellow, grass-fed fat, dark red flesh, and deeply beefy flavor is prized. But when old dairy cows in the U.S stop producing milk, they’re fed into the same ground-beef supply chain as their sorry feedlot cousins.
That began to change in the early part of the decade when, spurred in part by high-profile champions such as José Andrés, some dairy farmers began to recognize that their mature animals were worth something. Chicago is starting to catch on too. At RPM Steak Doug Psaltis has served mature dairy beef from California’s Mindful Meats. He compares its taste to the intense beefiness of dry-aged steak, but says it’s cleaner tasting, minus the attendant blue-cheese funk of the latter.
Now Publican Quality Meats butcher Rob Levitt is getting into it. Earlier this week he took possession of a carcass from a seven-year old Holstein dairy cow raised and milked on Michigan grass and procured by a fellow named Eric Shevchenko, who runs an operation called Old World Farms out of the Mitten with the aim of getting midwestern mature beef into the hands of chefs and butchers.
Here’s a slightly edited chat I had with Shevchenko about his plans:
“I lived in northern California, Sonoma and Napa, for quite a long time, and raised rabbits and chickens for chefs that work out there, and did a lot of events with chefs from all over the world,” he wrote. “I got a phone call one day from Jose Andres’ thinkfoodgroup asking for me to help them find 8- to 15-year-old dairy cows. Within a week and a half I found a company in California that was utilizing organic dairy animals for organic ground beef [Mindful Meat]. We had their product sent to the R&D team and Jose and DC to taste test, and now they’re in two or three of his Spanish restaurants. Bazaar Meat in Las Vegas is one of them.
“I was a go-to guy to find odd items for chefs. I got to work with quite a few Michelin-star chefs around California. Decided to bring all that I learned back here to the midwest two years ago. It’s important to me to find more sustainable resources for beef, and finding out how great these animals tasted, it was important to me to take this venture here in the midwest.”
I asked Eric if we’d be seeing mature beef in retail display cases anytime soon.
“Yeah, we’re working on retail packaging [and] looking for places to start putting it into retail locations.
“It’s amazing to see the different dairy farmers here in Michigan. The difference is in the quality of the beef from California to here, as we have more green grass, more farmland. Some of these guys are growing over 20 to a hundred acres of corn, soy, and different things for silage to ferment to feed these animals year-round. Looking into the differences and breed selections from the Jerseys to Holsteins or even looking at a breed called the Ayrshire, which is been winning awards around the world as an old dairy cow for best steaks.”
On Wednesday, October 30, from 6 to 9 PM, you’ll get a chance to taste some of that old cow, as a handful of One Off Hospitality chefs—Sieger Bayer (the Publican), Ryan Pfeiffer (Blackbird), AJ Walker (Café Cancale), Ryan Piotrowski (Dove’s Luncheonette)—along with Joe Flamm (ex-Spiaggia), have all been allotted parts of Levitt’s old dairy cow and will be serving dishes made from them at PQM. Meanwhile Levitt will perform a forequarter butchering demo, and Shevchenko will discusses the pros—gastronomic and environmental—of antique beef.
Levitt says he’ll be selling what he butchers by the pound that night and in the coming days—if there’s anything left over. There will be some surprises too. “Eric’s bringing udders,” he says.
The whole thing is a steal at $50. Tickets here.