The copyright came before the cows.
It’s three years later and restaurateur Michael Dene laughs lightly at the memory as his car drives across New York City. Before the banner reviews, Top-10 rankings, and thoughts of possible expansion, Chianina Steakhouse was a love at first bite tale at its truest level.
“Next thing you know I’m searching the Internet and I’m calling cattle farmers all across the United States,” Dene says.
Dene, whose Michael’s Restaurant Group includes the celebrated Michael’s on Naples Ristorante, Michael’s Pizzeria, and Working Class Kitchen—all in California—first crossed paths with Chianina beef during a trip to Florence, Italy. He sampled the region’s famous Bistecca alla Fiorentina and, unintentionally, filed the memory away for future use. When an old-saloon style property opened up in Long Beach, complete with “smelly rug” and dated booths, Dene decided it was prime time to enter the steakhouse game. “We wondered, ‘What are we going to make it? And how are we going to accomplish that?’” Dene recalls.
Oddly enough, shortly after, a Chianina beef discussion aired on NPR while one of Dene’s business partners was tuned in. The concept didn’t need a lot of debate. It simply needed research.
Browsing the Web, the reality turned out to be both a challenge and a blessing. For the most part, nobody in the country seemed to have any idea what Chianina beef was, let alone any experience serving it.
“We found that there was nothing in the United States with this style of meat, which is less fat, less cholesterol, more dense, but very tasty because it’s raised on a natural existence, and the animal is typically 1,800 to 2,100 pounds and 67 inches tall. It’s a big cow,” Dene says. “It was used primarily to tend the field years ago, in Roman times, and we said, ‘How can this meat be any good?’ But having it in Florence with a little olive oil and salt, it was fantastic.”
Before charting logistics, Dene was hooked. “We named the restaurant before we had the animals,” he explains.
Let’s take a quick look at the present. Dene’s conviction resulted in a brand that remains totally unique, and completely successful. This year, Chianina Steakhouse was named the third best steakhouse in America by Gayot.com, and the eighth best restaurant in Los Angeles by Zagat. Check averages range from $85 to $90 and the 80-seat venue is turning twice on the weekends, despite the leisurely paced setting.
The fervor hasn’t exactly caught Dene off guard, either. For that explanation, it’s best to rewind again.
Once the plan was officially set to move forward with Chianina Steakhouse, Dene began searching for sources. He honed in on a farm in Goldendale, Washington, run by Texas native Bob Morrow. He had a herd of about 30 cattle of the rare breed, which have a history dating back more than 2,000 years.
Morrow suggested Dene visit the farm and live on site for a couple of days. “Well we did,” Dene says. “We went up there with the chef, we went up there with my general manager, and we were served a phenomenal product. The meat was incredible. We tried different meats against it, kind of like a blind tasting, and we just loved what we tasted. I said, ‘Can we raise this cattle?’ And he said, ‘Of course we can.’”
Naturally, operations have expanded over the years. Dene’s restaurant now raises its own herd up in Ogden, Utah. He says there are currently about 50 Chianina cows there, with spring and fall offspring on the way. Morrow is still involved—an important fact considering Dene is selling all he can raise.
One of the interesting notes about Chianina Steakhouse is its continuously moving supply and demand. The restaurant hands its guests two menus, one with Chianina offerings, and one with everything else. It’s first come, first served for the rare, signature steak, which comes in Florentine Steak, Bone-In Ribeye, and Bone-In New York cuts at $5 an ounce. The sizes are sometimes ordered large enough for a table to share. Dene says the price matches up with typical high-quality offerings. "If you look at it against prime cuts, we’re not that much higher. It’s relative to what’s in the market," he explains.
Originally, especially as the restaurant experienced its “honeymoon period,” where everyone wanted to try the intriguing steak, the restaurant limited the Chianina menu to certain days of the week. Still, to this day, all of the product is butchered at the group’s commissary and prepared in a way that lets the beef do the talking. Dene says its best to order rare or medium rare, otherwise the meat’s natural density becomes distracting. Unlike the popular preparations in many steakhouses, which he explains as “buttered steak, and it’s tender, and it’s mushy, and people have gotten used to that,” Chianina has a meatier, more substantial flavor profile. Dene thinks it has the ability, some day, to transform the industry.
“I think we’re on the leading edge of something that I really think is going to be, I believe, a change like Kobe beef or Wagyu, where I think this is going to be the alternative to all of that,” he says.
Chianina’s popularity has drawn interest in other markets. Dene says they passed on the chance to leap into the crowded Las Vegas pool, but can see a future in downtown Los Angeles, Chicago, and perhaps New York City.
“I think we needed to bring forth a more healthy alternative—nothing with injections, nothing with infusions, no antibiotics. Those are all important features from my perspective,” Dene says. “And I think if the public is aware of that, and the public understands that, especially now in light of what they’re finding, and everything else, they’ll be more inclined to try it. Our philosophy is to take that same process and continue to roll it out. Not to change it one bit. If it becomes scarce it becomes scarce. If it becomes plentiful, that’s the goal.”