The chops were Frenched on the bone, rosy in color and as tender as cooked carrots. They had a kiss of char and the slightest gamy hint, just enough to let you know that you were savoring lamb. The meat was topped with a relish prepared with kiwi, herbs and manuka-tree honey, adding more layers of New Zealand flavor to a chop that had come from an animal that once grazed on the grasses of the island nation.
It was, to say the least, an impressive debut from Nathan Bates, who swept all the award categories at the Embassy Chef Challenge at the Reagan Building and International Trade Center this month, including top prize from the Challenge Hungary contest held in February. This was the first time Bates had competed in the annual event despite his having served as head chef to the New Zealand ambassador to the United States, Mike Moore, since 2007.
“I’ve been meaning to do it for the last few years, but it seems every time it has come up in the past, we had a big event,” Bates told me during a phone interview. “I made a point this year of making sure that I got the time to do it.”
As one of the judges, I would have bet large sums of money that Bates had sous-vided his lamb chops, and I wasn’t the only judge who thought that. Right, Joe Yonan? Well, when I talked to Bates, the award-winning chef revealed that he, in fact, hadn’t placed his lamb in a water bath. He also had ideas on how best to treat your lamb for the upcoming Easter holiday. Edited excerpts of our conversation:
Tim Carman: From what farm did you source your lamb for the Embassy Chef Challenge? To a judge, we were blown away by its flavor and texture.
Nathan Bates: I’m not sure of the specific farm, but it’s from Canterbury, New Zealand, which is where I’m from. There’s a number of suppliers over here: The Lamb Co-Op, the Lamb Company are a couple of companies and also A.M. Briggs; they stock New Zealand lamb over here. And also Whole Foods has it.
TC: Would they sell the same lamb you used for the competition, or was your lamb the kind that you can only get through the embassy?
NB: The lamb I sourced for this was from A.M. Briggs, which was my main supplier. I just find that New Zealand lamb is a lot more tender and has great flavor, mainly because New Zealand lamb is so young when they slaughter it.
TC: Are they younger than U.S. lambs when they go to slaughter?
NB: New Zealand lambs are six to 12 months old on average, but they normally fall toward the younger side of that, so I find them to be a lot more tender and milder in flavor. So, I think they are, yeah.
TC: I understand you sous-vided your lamb during the competition. Do you prefer sous-vide lamb, or other cooking methods?
NB: I didn’t sous-vide it. I just gave it a good sear on the hot plate, then roasted them at work and cooked them medium-rare. And then just let them rest up really, really well. Then I just heated them at the Reagan Building in the hot boxes, which was a bit of a task to get them cooked perfectly. But I am a fan of the sous-vide method as well. Either method gets great results, so long as you get that nice sear on the outside, to get that caramelization of the crust.
TC: What method would you advise for the home cook?
NB: I think you can just treat it pretty simply. It really tends to go well with most flavors. I like the traditional garlic and rosemary and mint, chopped up and just spread on with a little bit of olive oil. Just basically searing it and roasting it in a nice oven and letting it rest well. I think that’s the key. But also you can use Mediterranean or Middle Eastern spices. It stands up well to most flavors.
TC: Americans have a tricky decision this time of year: Do they buy lambs from the United States, which were raised over the winter and often on grain, instead of hay and grass? Or do they buy frozen and imported lamb from New Zealand or Australia that was raised in the proper spring season? Which would you advise?
NB: I’m probably a little bit biased. [Laughs.] I find New Zealand lamb is a great product, and I can taste the difference when I have them side by side or on the rare occasions when I don’t use New Zealand lamb. You can still do a good job with any lamb.
TC: Can you taste a difference between the lamb that has been raised out of season vs. spring lambs?
NB: Not really, not myself, because all the lamb I get here is culled in season and has been frozen. But it’s pretty consistent.
TC: The freezing doesn’t affect the texture at all?
NB: No, because they have a pretty good quick-freezing process they go through, so it really doesn’t affect the integrity of the meat. We defrost them slowly in the refrigerator overnight. It’s not really an issue.
TC: Do you see any difference between grass-fed and grain-fed lamb? There’s been quite a bit of discussion on which is the better lamb.
NB: Yeah, I think you can just taste the difference. Just a nice, mild, clean, so to speak, flavor in the grass-fed, free-range lamb. It’s the stress-free environments where they are raised, and you can taste that in the food.
TC: For the home cook at Easter, is there a cut of lamb you recommend?
NB: In New Zealand for the traditional family holidays, it’s quite traditional to do a roast leg of lamb. That method I said before: with the garlic and rosemary and a little bit of mint. Just chopping it up fine, mixing it with a little bit of olive oil and marinating it that way overnight and roasting it. The average-size leg of lamb takes about an hour and a half, and just resting that for about 20 minutes and carving that.
TC: What temperature do you typically cook it to?
NB: I start it at 425 Fahrenheit in the oven and then turn it down to 375 for about an hour and a half, so that’s about 145 internal temperature.
TC: You’ve been here in the United State for about five or six years now. Have you tried any of the local lamb producers, like Border Springs?
NB: No, I haven’t. I’ve sort of been a bit on the New Zealand side of things, I guess, just promoting New Zealand lamb.
TC: I’d be curious what you think. Border Springs has become the choice for local chefs lately.
NB: Okay, I’ll have to check that out.
TC: Are you going to be cooking lamb for the ambassador for Easter?
NB: I’ve actually got Easter off, which is a nice change this time. I think he’s been invited out, so it gives me a good break.
TC: What are you going to do?
NB: Probably just a quiet weekend, I think. Just relax. Maybe a game of golf or two. But, yeah, step out of the kitchen.
TC: You’ve been here long enough to see U.S. meat consumption habits. Why do you think lamb isn’t as popular in America as it is in New Zealand?
NB: I’m really not sure, to be honest. Like at the event, I had a lot of people come up and say they haven’t tried lamb before or they were never a big fan of lamb, but I managed to convert some people, which was great. But, yeah, I’m not too sure. I think it can be expensive, which might be one reason.
TC: What advice would you give to Americans to encourage them to try more lamb?
NB: Just try it. It’s so flexible that you can do just about anything with it. It’s really easy to work with. You can pretty much take it straight out of the packet. Ninety percent of the cuts are real simple: just salt and pepper and in the oven. There’s not a lot you have to do to it to make it shine.
TC: It surprises me, given the lean quality of lamb, that it’s not more popular here.
NB: Absolutely. There’s a lot of health benefits to lamb as well. It’s a great source of iron and other nutrients. It’s not that high in cholesterol.
TC: After your victory at the Embassy Chef Challenge, has anything changed for you?
NB: Not so much. A few bragging rights, which is nice. More media interest, which is interesting. But no, just a bit more pressure to keep maintaining those standards now that I’ve won such an award.
TC: Are you thinking about starting a demonstration cooking program at the embassy, like Hungarian chef Viktor Merenyi did after his victory last year?
NB: We’re sort of talking about that at the moment. I’ve actually got a meeting with New Zealand Beef and Lamb tomorrow, just talking about what we can do to promote New Zealand lamb. It will be interesting to see what comes of that. We’re definitely looking to build on it, yeah.