It’s no secret protein prices have reached an all-time high. Beef prices continue to increase, which the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association has attributed to supply and demand issues caused by severe droughts and rising agricultural costs. As a result, many restaurants have aimed to recover food profits by reducing the portions of pricey proteins and by marketing smaller dishes, from steak bites to tacos, according to Technomic’s 2015 Beef and Pork Consumer Trend Report. Still, no chef wants a perception of lost value on any plate.
“The challenge in today’s market is that guest value is often perceived by quantity, and that’s difficult when protein prices are going through the roof,” says Jimmy Papadopoulos, executive chef of Bohemian House in Chicago. “We’re all in business to be successful but we want to continue to serve great food.”
Menuing a greater number of low-cost proteins, like chicken, and mixing them with other proteins and ingredients can help offset costs.
“We’ve seen a huge rise in the use of chicken as an ingredient meat for other dishes in all parts of the menu, from breakfast to appetizers, soups, salads, pasta, burritos, and wraps,” says Chef David Jetter, culinary and senior training manager for Tyson Foods. Some operators have swapped out veal and pork for more affordable chicken in meatballs, and even in sausage, he adds.
Last year, Mintel reported that 39 percent of consumers were eating less meat, driven by both health and economic reasons, but many still choose to eat meat when dining out. To satisfy this demand while also conserving cost, chefs are bulking up dishes with seasonal vegetables, beans, and interesting grains like ancient quinoa, barley, and nutty farro, as well as adopting creative strategies to boost profits and enhance the diner’s perception of value.
Serve Fun-Sized Value
The good news in an age of rising meat prices is that small plates have maintained their popularity. “Not everyone needs that giant steak anymore,” says Chef Papadopoulos.
Increasingly, chefs avoid serving huge hunks of meat by beefing up the menu’s appetizer, small plate, or snacks section with more protein options to replace costly center-of-the-plate entrées. After all, consumers continue to order multiple small plates instead of large entrées as their main meal, as reported in the 2013 Starters, Small Plates & Sides consumer trend report from Technomic.
Chefs can also make entrée-size meat dishes even larger so they’re sharable between two or more people, thus justifying a higher price point on the menu. And then there’s the trick of stuffing pricier proteins into quesadillas, pot pies, and pastas like ravioli, or using them as value-added toppers for mac n’ cheese, poutine, and other dishes.
At Bohemian House, Chef Papadopoulos makes a homemade spaetzle for the base of various beef dishes, including braised beef cheeks seasoned with caraway, marjoram, tomato paste, veal stock, and lots of Hungarian paprika.
It’s nothing new, he says, “People didn’t always have a lot of money so spaetzle was used as a filler to stretch the small scraps of meat they did have.”
Use Economical Cuts
Beef cheeks are just one example of off-cuts that cost far less per pound than premium steaks and chops, but require a little more time, technique, and slower, low-cooking love.
While slow roasting and braising can take up to eight hours for fork-tender meat, these age-old techniques—and off-cuts in general—are making a trendy comeback. When it comes to beef, at least 20 percent of operators have said they plan to use more economical cuts this year, according to Technomic. Those cuts include chuck, brisket, and short ribs, along with shank, shin, and cheek.
In addition to the spaetzle, Chef Papadopoulos serves his braised beef cheeks goulash-style with a veal stock reduction and paired with poached eggs, rye toast, and savory oats for a rustic, peasant-style dish.
Beef heart, which currently costs the chef a mere $1.50 per pound, makes for a super-tender and rich tartare when trimmed and minced. For beef tongue, another economical cut, he will brine the meat for seven days, and then smoke it for six hours over hickory and applewood. He’s also braised it in beef stock for five hours to resemble short rib, and he’s spice-rubbed and cured it just like pastrami, serving it with rye toast, pickled onion, and aged Gouda cheese.
Chef Jered Couch of The Dish in Boise, Idaho, agrees. “The fibers in tongue are so short and fine that they break down as one of the most tender pieces of meat when braised,” he says. Chef Couch braises tongue Latin-style in a chili verde sauce for six to eight hours until buttery. He’s also brined and simmered tongue with spices, sliced the meat into strips, and battered and fried it for corned beef finger steaks that cost far less than traditional sirloin steak.
And, as a replacement for short ribs, Chef Couch orders the much cheaper short plate cut, which comes from the front of the belly of beef just below the ribs and includes part of the skirt and hanger cut. Similar to short ribs but very marbled and without the bone, short plate can be braised in a beef jus or beer, sous-vide cooked, or slow-cooked barbecue style for very tender meat.
He’ll serve short plate as an appetizer or shareable entrée that’s seared to order, sliced, and served with demi glace. Chef Couch says it tastes good enough to replace any traditional steak cut.
Take All the Trimmings
As in-house butchering grows in popularity, many chefs are ordering whole animals or larger primal pieces to make multiple dishes—but using every last scrap is the ultimate test of creativity.
At TWO in Chicago, Chef Kevin Cuddihee uses the leftover edge of a Spanish ham piece that can no longer be sliced for a ham paté. “We pressure cook the ham with onions, white wine, and aromatics, and purée it for a paste we use to garnish our bone marrow dish,” he says. For just 1 pound of scraps, Cuddihee can get 30 servings of the ham spread.
At Hutchins BBQ in McKinney and Frisco, Texas, co-owner and general manager Dustin Blackwell says they make sausage using the scraps of meat and the fat leftover after trimming brisket for the main menu. “Instead of selling the scraps back to our butcher, we make a sausage that’s 50/50 beef and pork,” he says.
The restaurant also chops up what Blackwell calls “burnt ends,” or leftover, blackened pieces from the brisket, as a topper for the house mac ‘n’ cheese.
Reducing protein prices takes time and effort before, during, and even after menu development. But with a little extra planning during purchasing and prep, it’s possible to recoup profits.