Such a basic conservation philosophy has hardened into a rigid waste-nothing mind-set in recent years, Armstrong notes, as the sagging U.S. economy has delivered a one-two punch to high-end restaurants. Diners, the chef says, are loath these days to pay an extra dime for dinner, yet food costs continue to soar for the people who prepare and sell the meals. That often is why chefs embrace whole-animal butchery in their restaurants, where they can buy and break down entire carcasses, which are far cheaper than individual cuts of beef, pork or lamb.
But whole-animal cooking requires not just a line cook who knows how to butcher, but also a chef who knows how to turn off-cuts and byproducts into appealing dishes. Take, for example, the veal hearts from the Randall Lineback calves that Armstrong buys.
“Very often that’s a cut of meat that’s thrown in the trash can,” Armstrong says. “In nine out of 10 restaurants, no one is going to order veal heart.”
Instead of tossing those organs, however, Armstrong now brines them for a couple of days before slowly braising them until tender. He’ll then sell plates of the braised hearts to select customers who show an affinity for offal. At two dishes per veal heart, and two veal carcasses a month, Armstrong says those organ meats now generate an extra $100 instead of feeding rodents at the garbage dump. The chef performs a similar trick with veal testicles, which he treats as sweetbreads for the adventurous diner. He figures he earns about $20 per gonad. Perhaps that’s not an image you want to associate with Restaurant Eve, but those veal testicles help to keep the restaurant’s doors open.
Look around the local dining scene, and you can find similar whole-animal cooking at other restaurants, which are likewise devising ways to use byproducts beyond traditional stocks and charcuterie programs. Rogue 24 chef and owner R.J. Cooper, another Buben alumnus from Vidalia, pays $30 a pop for wild Scottish hares, which he breaks down into a number of components: the legs for rillettes, the bones for consomme, the loins for a poached-and-roasted dish, the ribs for a pint-size rack of rabbit. Cooper even soaks the whole hare in milk to extract the blood, which he’ll then turn into a parfait.
“You’ve got to learn how to use the whole animal to make any kind of profit” from those pricey hares, Cooper says.
The paradoxical thing about whole-animal programs is that some chefs don’t always buy whole animals. Sometimes, they buy them in pieces. This past summer, Logan Cox, chef at Ripple in Cleveland Park, bought yellowfin tuna collars, the bony section of the fish near the head that has long been a delicacy in Japan. He brined the collars, braised them and finally caramelized them under a salamander. He’d then sell the collars for $40 for two people. At one point, he was buying the collars for a mere $2 a pound (although clever fishmongers soon started upping the price once they realized the meat from the collarbone can be as rich and flavorful as meat from a bone-in steak).