While reading the
paper Twitter this morning, some meat folks that I follow linked to a New York Magazine “Restaurants” piece where gastropub chef April Bloomfield of the Breslin detailed the various cuts on a pig that she uses at her restaurant. The piece, “Know Your Pig,” shows hand-sketched drawings of the various cuts of pork that chefs such as Bloomfield use. You could say, “everything but the oink,” but rest assured that Bloomfield does use the snout, and there are even some chefs–cue Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck–who may very well have served the oink through some sort of recording and amplification device. The point is, to some chefs, there’s no such thing as “throwaway parts,” and they intend to show you just how versatile these off-cuts can be.
image credits: dailymail.co.uk
One of Bloomfield’s comments about a particular cut, the tenderloin, drew some attention. The tenderloin, Bloomfield said, has the least fat and flavor. “I never use it on its own, it goes into my sausages,” she said. This brazen approach to the highest-valued cut of the animal (monetarily speaking) is not surprising to me and can describe a chef’s attitude (“meat-titude,” to be cheeky) when it comes to his or her approach to meat cookery. It’s also important to note that “throwing into sausage” may not literally refer to grinding the tenderloin, rather, it could refer to dicing the meat or laying strips of it in the sausage to lend the finished product textural and visual appeal.
When I say “attitude” I could care less about the popular image that is attached to professional chefs these days. I’m more interested in the chef’s attitude as it is expressed in his or her work. The sketch of the tenderloin in “Know Your Pig” is slightly cryptic and bears resemblance to what is known in the industry as a butt tender. This is slightly confusing, though, because butt tenders are not a common specification. Pork tenderloins are relatively small, weighing on average between one and one-half pounds each. “Butt” this is besides the point. The point is that tenderloin, in general, whether pork or beef, is often the butt of head-to-tail chefs’ jokes.
If tenderloin is so popular, why is it poo-poohed by so many chefs? There are several factors that a chef and operator must take into consideration when deciding what kind of food, including meat, to serve the public. Such factors as trends, traditions, ethnicity, economy, resources, and arguably most important, audience, are all taken into consideration and will influence what ends up on a menu and what is cut up in the kitchen. If serving tenderloin on the menu makes sense, then that is what will be served. But assuming that a head-to-tail approach in the kitchen will be supported, why would the “most desirable” cut, like the tenderloin, be literally and figuratively drawn so poorly?
There are several explanations for this. Looking at the simple science of meat, there are only two tenderloins on an animal. On a pig the tenderloin amounts to two or three pounds of meat. Two beef tenderloins amount to about 10 or 12 pounds. That’s not much product if you are looking at the hanging weight of a couple hundred pounds for a hog or 1,000 pounds for beef. So right off the bat, simple economics will tell you that you are going to pay a premium for this muscle, which not only happens to be one of the smallest on the carcass but also happens to be the most naturally tender (aka, most desirable by the public). So, yield and price are two very real factors that can put limitations on the chef. If the yield is low, then the chef simply doesn’t have enough portions to serve in a busy restaurant. If the price is high, the chef may not want to put so much money into one cut.
Chefs don’t like to feel limited, and by saying that they “throw” tenderloin into their sausages, it may seem as though they’re being rebellious–and to a certain degree, they are. They’re saying, “I don’t need this expensive cut to define me.” Or, are good chefs just being smart economists themselves by making money off the other 90-plus percent of the carcass? Everything from skin to tails, ears, and sirloin? This awareness becomes even more apparent when you sit down at a head-to-tail restaurant and find your bill for this off-cut dinner is the same as those of a restaurant that serves only premium cuts. It could even be argued that head-to-tail chefs are a microcosm of the enormous beef industry, paying the farmer a per-pound price for a whole or half animal, and adding their own value to the meat however they choose. This is how a little muscle like the tenderloin could have the same value as ground beef. If the chef pays $3 per pound for a half steer, then every piece of muscle, bone, organ, and fat is $3 per pound.
I’ve spent many years preparing thousands of pounds of tenderloin. And just as many years preparing asparagus. People love it. Asparagus is the tenderloin of the vegetable world, by the way. Nobody can dispute that beef tenderloin and asparagus can be a delicious and profitable combination. I’ve been functioning in a tenderloin state of mind for a long time. Chefs may scoff at tenderloin because of its ease of preparation and mass appeal. It’s easy to prepare and easy to like. It’s a clean meat with little fat and little chew. And little character. Sure, there are creative ways to prepare tenderloin, and everything has its place, especially on the holiday table. But head-to-tail cooking, which is arguably just “the way we used to cook,” is about keeping an open mind when it comes to cooking and eating meat. A head-to-tail meat-titude is about thinking outside the box, both literally and figuratively.