Imported meats and proteins mix flavor and excellence to elevate full-service dining beyond what’s available domestically. From dry-cured Italian charcuterie to grass-fed, pasture-raised Australian lamb, restaurants are experimenting with countries, cuts, and categories in search of high-quality products for modern discerning diners.
“Availability is growing, and I’ve seen Australian beef in multiple grocery stores,” says Rena Frost, president/chef of ReWard Restaurant Group, which includes Mac’s on Main in Grapevine, Texas and Mac’s Bar & Grill in Arlington, Texas. If consumers see such products in stores, they’re going to want them in restaurants, she says.
Chefs agree some of the best grass-fed meat in the world hails from Australia. Frost adds that Australian meat is graded better than in America. Not only do they take more into consideration, she says, but the system explains which cooking processes are ideal for each cut.
“When consumers hear product comes from a certain part of the world, like Australian lamb, grass-fed beef, or wagyu, if they see a level of quality they may not get domestically, that’s what they focus on,” says Aaron Brooks, executive chef of Miami’s Four Seasons Hotel, which includes EDGE Steak & Bar.
For Michael Slavin, vice president of culinary and menu innovation for Houlihan’s Restaurants Inc., switching to Australian lamb meant larger racks that are richer and more flavorful.
With more and more customers looking for cleaner, more natural products, top-notch grass-fed, pasture-raised meats—many of which are imported—are trending on menus.
“Grass-fed or pasture-raised proteins can be menu quality cues. [They] command a premium and are often more consistently available from imported sources like Australia, Brazil, Argentina, and Japan,” Slavin says.
When Brooks added grass-fed meat to the EDGE Steak & Bar’s menu, he was surprised by how many customers gravitated toward it. “Americans are looking for something different, and this is giving them options like a fish menu,” he says. “Grass-fed is still a young industry. If other countries are doing it phenomenally, let’s embrace it, learn from it, and improve domestic or enjoy domestic and imported proteins side-by-side.”
As diners become savvier about cuts and flavor profiles, as well as types and breeds of animals they like, adding grass-fed, pasture-raised allows them to pick between rich, buttery grain-fed or leaner, cleaner grass-fed. For Frost at Mac’s, her 100 percent grass-fed Australian New York Strip has sold even better than USDA prime cuts.
Chefs are also rediscovering Italian ingredients like Prosciutto di Parma and returning to carving the whole bone-in leg, says Michael Pirolo, chef/owner of Miami’s Italian restaurant Macchialina. “It’s about taking it back to the basics and letting a superior product shine,” he says. “With Prosciutto di Parma, it’s in salads, or wrapped around prawns and grilled, or adding depth and flavor to stews.” He’s also seen an uptick of wild boar salami on menus.
Chefs are getting creative with imported proteins, too. Shifting from classic steaks, chops, and racks, chefs are modernizing imports by transforming less expensive cuts and interesting meats into familiar dishes for guests. Grass-fed lamb, for example, becomes the star of familiar favorites like burgers, tamales, empanadas, chili, bacon, and bao buns. This excites customers into purchasing unique dishes that still reside in their comfort zones.
At EDGE, Brooks looks to meld Australian flavors with Miami culture to make imported meats contemporary. His Aussie Cubano, with braised Australian lamb shoulder for the carnitas and ham made from the lamb leg, as well as his kangaroo empanadas, hit the mark for customers looking to eat something familiar yet exotic at the same time.
Utilizing imported meats and proteins, however, goes beyond working with an exceptional importer. “Follow customers’ dining habits and what they want to eat, but don’t steer too far from who you are as a restaurant,” Brooks says. “We follow trends without deviating from us being a steakhouse at heart. It’s important for customers to taste the community in the food as well as flavors indicative to what they want to eat today.”