Cypress chef Craig Deihl has a beef with beef. Grassfed beef, that is. He says it's a tough sell, literally.
"If grassfed beef was tender, there would be no beef with the beef," laughs Deihl, who has featured grassfed on his menu and ended up with far too many complaints from customers.
It all comes down to fat. American palates are used to the fatty, cornfed cattle that are finished on feedlots. The fat gives the steaks a pronounced flavor that's both mild and tender. "You're losing those nuanced flavors [of grassfed beef]," says Deihl, "but what replaces that is the flavor of the fat."
According to the chef, a lot of grassfed beef is not finished properly, meaning that instead of being left on the pasture to grow until they're the right size, these cattle are harvested when they're too lean. "Every day it sits in a pasture, that's money you're losing," he says, so they end up with a product that customers just don't like the taste of. "They say it's gamey, chewy, not as tender. If you produce 100 steaks and you get 10 complaints, that'll make you switch in a heartbeat."
For his money, Deihl says MiBek Farms in Barnwell raises the best beef. Their Black Angus cattle are pasture raised and harvested at precisely the right time, when they are neither too fat nor too lean.
But when he buys grassfed beef from other suppliers, he runs into trouble. Deihl says he can easily coax some delicious beefy flavor out of the cuts that need to be slow-cooked until tender: beef cheeks, shanks, short ribs. "You can find some value in those, but not in the New York strip, tenderloin, or ribeye."
What it comes down to for Deihl is that his customers sometimes don't like what he likes. "I like beef that tastes like beef," he says. "I don't like beef that has little flavor. I don't feel like our commodity meats taste rich and beefy. They're tender, and they have fat, but my palate is different from my customers, which could be my other beef. Nobody likes what I like," he laughs.
Another beef that comes with grassfed beef is the price. "The cost profile has to be low enough," he says, for restaurants to charge at an appropriate price point. "Charge $33 for a skirt steak (a tough bistro cut) and you're creating a beef with the beef the customer wants to buy."
In the end, Deihl is all about preventing beefs with his customers. If they want a tender and delicious piece of steak, then he'll be happy to sell them Certified Angus Beef ribeyes while he orders beautiful whole chucks from MiBek for beef bourguignon. And he'll continue to experiment because maybe, just maybe, the complaints he received about grassfed were a product of the tourist season. He'd had grassfed steak on his menu for six months without issue, but then the fall tourist season brought a flurry of complaints and he felt compelled to drop it.