Flex your muscles

Flex your muscles

Whether your role is in purchasing, in the kitchen, in front-of-house or as the head of the table, you’re likely to have noticed that meat and fish have been getting some bad press.

From contributing to the release of greenhouse gases to severely reducing the fish stock in our oceans and questions over animal welfare, such concerns are resulting in consumers cutting down on their meant and fish consumption, with some ridding them from their diet altogether.

We’ve seen the impact of this trend across casual dining, as restaurants increase or promote their vegetarian options, but it’s also put the spotlight on meat and fish even more so. Not only on what produce is used and how and where it’s sourced, but – and we can’t stress this enough – the importance of doing them bloody well.

There’s so much pressure on operators including meat and fish on menus, that if you’re going to use them, you need to make sure they shine on the plate. Some of the best chefs in the industry are doing exactly this by celebrating the animal and making some truly delicious dishes, which is causing all types of operators to up their game.

A cut above the rest

When it comes to which species or cuts of meat that chefs are working with, there are two main points that appear time and time again in the criteria – quality and sustainability. A high-quality product should result in a high-quality dish, which in turn results in customer satisfaction and a higher price point. Meanwhile, sustainable sourcing of produce should mean that the operation isn’t harming wild fish stocks or encouraging low animal welfare standards.

“One mantra that I live by is – if the supplier, chef or butcher in front of you cannot tell you where the meat is from and how it is raised, don’t buy it,” says Jonny Farrell, head butcher at Jimmy’s Farm. “Sourcing is so vital in this day and age. I like to invite chefs I deal with to come up to the farm and see for themselves how our animals are cared for. There’s so much scandal around and it’s so important that customers feel reassured in where and what they are eating.”

Much of what we are seeing on menus is being driven by sustainability. Cuts of meat that were once not present on menus, and may even have been discarded due to their lack of popularity, are now being used. This has grown the practice of using the whole animal.

“We use the whole animal, with no wastage, so much so we cure the skins of the deer and make hats from the hare fur, as well as making stocks, broths and sauces from the bones and seam out the legs for bresaola and biltong,” says Nutbourne Restaurant co-owner Oliver Gladwin. “We use the blood for blood pudding, and we have our own mincer so any trim we make into mince for lots of amazing dishes.”

This practice is not exclusive to land animals. Fish can be treated in a similar way if chefs know what to do with the ‘leftovers’.

“There is a use for every part of the fish,” stresses M&J Seafood business development chef Jason Calcutt. “Sometimes the profit in fish can be found by using the bones to create a rich broth, the shells for a bisque and the skins to make crisps. The trimmings can even be used as ingredients for fishcakes or trendy dumplings.”

Not only is sustainability influencing how the fish is used, but what fish is used. While the ‘big five’ are still present on menus, operators seem to be making an effort to champion local or less popular species where overfishing isn’t as big a threat.

Wright Brothers head chef Richard Kirkwood comments that “hake is a massive seller…due to guests’ awareness of sustainability” – which suggests that consumers are conscious of which species are more sustainable than others. This is supported by research by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) that found that 61% of consumers believe that restaurants should offer sustainable seafood on menus. The rising presence of hake on menus has been noted, as 80% of Cornish hake that was formerly exported is now mostly domestically eaten, according to the MSC.

You may know which meat and fish products you want to use and you may have a desire to adopt the whole-animal philosophy, but a restaurant dish requires more to guarantee customer satisfaction. The flavours, presentation and experience that you offer guests with meat and fish from kitchen to table is the end result. Whether you’re using hake or salmon, pork belly or rib eye steak – give it the attention it deserves so that the sacrifice wasn’t for nothing.

Sing to your own tuna

Meat and fish products are widely diverse. How you would cook, flavour, serve and accompany one cut or species varies hugely to another. As a result, the range of dishes that are coming out of restaurant kitchens are just as varied. Add to this the influences of global cuisines, premiumisation and experimentation, and you get some of the most impressive activity you’ve ever seen with meat and fish. Not bad for a category that is supposedly being overshadowed by the rise of the plant-based diet.

The celebration of fish and seafood within different concepts is proving how versatile it can be with different flavours – and therefore a must on many a menu. Bombay Bustle in Mayfair has taken the delicacies of India’s coastline for inspiration in its Seafood Summer menu, which sees clams seasoned with peppercorns, cardamom and desiccated coconut, while The Fisherman’s Seafood is a stew of prawns, catfish, squid and crab claws made with freshly squeezed coconut milk flavoured with turmeric and green chilli. Meanwhile, Tomos Parry’s Brat strips back the seasoning to focus on the main ingredient.

“We use highly gelatinous, flat fish such as turbot and halibut,” says Parry. “As a rule, we generally like to keep accompanying ingredients simple to let the flavour of the fish do the talking. We keep dressings simple, mainly using vinegar and emulsions to complement the fish rather than overpower it.”

Presenting diners with a whole turbot also serves to satisfy the demand for an experience when eating out. According to Parry, it is the most popular dish on his menu because of its ‘feasting style’ that requires customers to work their way around it with those they’re dining with.

Crab & Lobster in Sidlesham, West Sussex, has taken the experience element one step further with the launch of its Catch & Cook experience, which takes guests out to sea to catch their own fish to cook in a masterclass with the restaurant’s chefs.

“I love to go out fishing and bringing home fish to cook and, when chatting to our guests, I realised a lot of people would love to try it too,” comments Crab & Lobster owner Sam Bakose.

The different flavours that also work with meat show how diverse it is – and we’re not just talking red versus white. Gladwin gives examples of pigeon and barley, rabbit and nettles, lamb and turnips and pork and apples as ingredients that go with certain meats due to nature – “what grows together, goes together”, he says.

The meat or fish may be the ‘star’, but it clearly takes a little more to make a finished dish or meal. The addition of fruits, vegetables, sauces, seasonings and dressings can bring more flavour out of a beef dish and add more excitement to chicken, which can in turn add more value to the plate.

“Great dishes depend on craftsmanship and no detail is too small,” says Nestlé Professional savoury food manager Charlotte Ponti. “By investing in savvy products, such as all-natural, bought-in stocks, concentrates, sauces and seasonings, operators can serve high-quality dishes and claim back vital time to concentrate on creativity, creating standout in a competitive market place.”

Stripped back to let the natural flavours of fish sing or smothered in an authentic sauce made with a myriad of spices; opting for traditional cuts of meat and serving styles or experimenting with fish burgers and brisket tacos – the work happening with proteins in restaurants today defies the notion that cooking with animals is off-trend. Probably because cooking and eating animals is not a trend. A practice for hundreds of thousands of years, we are simply seeing a changing tide in the way they are cooked and eaten, which is only making casual dining all the more delicious.

Playing with fire

Barbecued meats or cooking fish over hot coals has become something of an ongoing trend in the UK. This method has had great appeal due to its theatre, flavour and style. However, as it becomes more prevalent across the country and customers get used to seeing it on the high street, the standard is forced to increase to the extent that only the best will survive. It takes a bit more than some smoke and aroma to make it ‘well done’.

“Great barbecue can’t be rushed and grilled meat needs to rest,” says Joe Carroll, founder of Brooklyn barbecue restaurant Fette Sau, which popped up at Mare St Market in July. “A common mistake is cooking the meat to temperature and not to doneness. The collagen and connective tissue in the meat takes a lot longer to cook and breakdown than the meat itself. If you cook only to temperature your meat will be cooked but not done and it will be tough and chewy.”

Think outside the burger

That’s right – people are still talking about burgers. Casual dining operators, whether small or large, whatever the cuisine, are likely to have a burger on the menu. In the same vein as any other meat dish, quality ingredients are paramount – be stingy on your standards and prepare to be likened to fast food chains over gourmet game changers.

“With so many restaurants offering a burger menu, the demand for quality, consistency, flavour and variation has driven up consumer expectations across the sector,” says Jestic sales director Steve Morris. “The inclusion of different meats, toppings, ingredients, flavours and colours has all added to the demand for standout burger dishes on menus.”

With events like National Burger Day coming up, operators can utilise this time to celebrate the burger in all its glory. Given the publicity that can be gained by joining in, it’s important to stand out from the crowd and stay on brand.

“We knew most people would go down the traditional route of a meat patty, with cheese and smoked meats. We do things slightly differently at Señor Ceviche. We wanted to create a burger that would challenge the status quo,” says Señor Ceviche founder Harry Edmeades on last year’s Nikkei Burger, which contained a tuna and sesame seed patty with soft shell crab. “Homing in on Peru’s huge Japanese influences, known as Nikkei, we decided everything had to be based around these flavour profiles.”