From Baby Burgers to triple-decker Grandpa Burgers and the whole A&W hamburger family in between, for Canadians, beef is king. Beef consumption in the nation has been steady since the mid-1990s and despite currently flat cattle futures, the recently published Canada’s Food Price Report anticipates beef demand will increase. The corollary is higher beef prices, but Canadians want beef, it seems. Tom Newitt, A&W’s senior director, Marketing, Brand Communications, says sales have increased at the chain’s 850 outlets since 2013 because consumers love beef.
“Canadians hold a special place in their hearts and tastebuds for beef and aren’t willing to give it up,” says Newitt.
Beef has a similar hold at more formal restaurants: at Earl’s Kitchen + Bar, the 100-per-cent ground-chuck burger (Bigger Better Burger, $14.50) — with no added hormones and antibiotic-free — is one of the restaurant’s most popular items. Its beef is western Canadian, with burger patties made in-house from scratch and seared to a caramelized crisp on the outside.
“Cooked to order, it’s just a simple burger,” says Phil Gallagher, Earl’s executive chef for Canada West. “It’s very good and very consistent.” The sirloin (6 oz. is $25) is the chain’s best-selling whole muscle. Burger or steak, beef has a special place here: Canada is the seventh-largest beef exporter in the world and 11th-largest beef producer, a fact reflected in a 2015 report published by Farm Credit Canada (FCC), which is a Crown corporation overseen by Canadian Parliament.
SATISFYING FOOD EXPLORERS
At one end of the spectrum, A&W, with a strong branding push for its beef, is approaching 900 burger locations; at the other is Toronto’s Barberian’s steakhouse, founded in 1959, and Kitchener’s Charcoal Steakhouse, which is celebrating six decades in business this year.
But while beef will always have a place on restaurant menus, many of today’s diners want to eat it a little bit less and a little less frequently. Restaurants have responded to the trend by using less-familiar beef cuts than traditional “middle meats,” as Marty Carpenter, corporate chef with Canada Beef, calls them. He attributes a recent butchery renaissance to the trend, along with what might be called ingredient “stories” and menu narratives.
“Chefs are looking to diversify menus to satisfy the consumer, who is a food explorer and always seeking something new. Featuring braising cuts such as shortribs on the menu has been a great way to diversify cut and menu options,” Carpenter says. The tale is told through dry-aging, too. At a butcher, such as Kitchener’s Victoria Street Market, dry-aging beef for several weeks enhances flavour and tenderness by allowing natural enzymatic processes to occur. At Toronto’s Jacob’s & Co. Steakhouse, the dry-aging technique the 185-seat restaurant started 10 years ago is focuses heavily on primal cuts such as tenderloin (6 oz. is $39), ribeye and striploin. “At that point in time, it seemed like we were the outlier,” says Jacob’s general manager Robert Gravelle. “Now, it’s been a growing trend to see dry-aged beef being offered regularly at many restaurants, not just steakhouses.”
At Cut Steakhouse in Halifax, N.S., general manager Melissa Carey says beef is dry-aged in-house for 35 to 45 days. A cart visits table-side with a presentation of various cuts so customers can learn about flavour profiles and marbling content. “People really enjoy the dry-aged beef. In our market, there is not a lot of it around,” Carey says.
THE LANGUAGE OF HORMONES
There is growing interest in what is vaguely called “natural” beef. For Gallagher, it’s the most significant beef trend he’s witnessed in his 25 years in the business. “That’s beef raised without the use of antibiotics and growth hormones,” he says. The way the animals are treated has also become more important, he adds, “but the overuse of antibiotics in the beef industry in some people’s minds has become a big issue.” Carpenter says hormone-free is a term that can be misrepresented as “marketing positions that are grounded in food-fear [tactics].” All beef contains naturally occurring hormones, substances that are produced by the animal and which are vital to the regulation of its metabolism, reproduction and natural growth. When diners ask for “naturally raised” beef, what they are asking for is a piece of meat from cattle grown without added growth-promoting hormones, antibiotics and animal by-products. That request is becoming popular, according to Aaron Jourden, of Chicago-based Technomic Inc.
“Local sourcing, animal welfare and beef free of hormones and antibiotics all speak to this demand for better ingredients,” he says.
However, geography can determine demand. Located in Longview, Alta., in the foothills of the Rockies, Longview Steakhouse is a product of its economic and political terroir when it comes to sales. According to co-owner and chef Karim Belmoufid, meat sales have jumped 80 per cent over the last year.
“It’s easy for us to get organic chicken or salmon and hormone-free food. But in terms of beef, the development has been miniscule.” While Longview’s beef dishes are what the majority of the nearby ranchers produce, they do offer variety — and let their customers know about it. “When we buy local cattle from one of the ranchers that is natural and hormone-free, it’s advertised based specifically on who we purchased it from. If we have an organic product, it’s put on our specials menu,” Belmoufid says.
Jourden cites statistics showing over the last 24 months, ginger and dill have become the fastest-growing flavours associated with beef dishes at top restaurants. “Asian flavours such as sesame and teriyaki also appear on the fastest-growing flavours list,” he says. In its niche market in western Canada, Longview might add some Vietnamese influence to their cooking, says Belmoufid. “We have some flexibility in playing with flavours and something like a short rib banh mi-style.”
At Earl’s, Gallagher also experiments with different flavours, marinades and rubs to a degree, but when it comes to traditional cuts such as sirloins and strips, he says people prefer plain old salt and pepper.
According to Jourden, despite the rise in popularity of more vegetable-forward dishes, beef continues to have great appeal for diners, especially in craveable dishes such as burgers and burritos. At Earl’s, the number of beef items on the menu hasn’t changed, but the size and price-point has. “For us, the days of the 12-ounce New York and the big ribeyes are gone. We have a veggie burger and a tofu add-on for a stir-fry — it allows vegetarians a way in to our menu.”
A&W’s Newitt points to alternative ways to eat beef, including a lettuce-wrap dish under development. “We see sales growing for our veggie burger and chicken, so there’s clearly a demand for vegetarian and non-beef options.”
Yet beef — burgers or steaks — continue to inspire creativity, according to Carpenter. “Customization is getting to be a key feature, like building your own burger at McDonalds,” he says, adding other beef cuts can also hold their own. “Crafting is gaining ground with chefs of independent operations focusing on techniques such as in-house smoking, charcuterie and dry-aging. Braising dishes such as shortribs and pulled beef have become new standards and global cuisine influences lead to new flavours and cuts that are shaping new menu options.”
Volume 49, Number 11
Written by Andrew Coppolino