The full-service segment is finding its way back by offering an elevated experience that can’t be found at a drive-thru window, or prepared at home with ingredients sent through the mail. One of the ways some chefs are creating excitement this summer is by offering upscale barbecue that has unique elements.
Lamb is a trending protein that helps chefs differentiate their barbecue offerings from the competition. Chef Matt Abdoo, of Pig Beach BBQ in Brooklyn, New York, grew up eating lamb and has cooked every cut in every way imaginable. That’s made him enthusiastic about sharing the protein with his restaurant guests.
“Lamb is an ideal protein for barbecue because it delivers incredible moisture and flavor when you cook it,” Abdoo says. “Other barbecue proteins can be a little plain and need sauce to stand out and taste great, but smoked and slow-cooked lamb has flavor all on its own that can carry a dish.”
This slideshow will look at all of the different ways adding barbecue lamb applications to a menu can generate enthusiasm and drive traffic.
Chef Stephen Barber has a unique setup at his restaurant, Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch in St. Helena, California. A self-sustaining farm and ranch, Barber and his team bring the term “farm-to-table” to new heights by creating dishes with ingredients that grow within sight of the dining area, creating an unforgettable experience for his restaurant’s patrons.
One of the main ingredients raised on the ranch is lamb, which Barber believes is an experience in its own right. A customer-favorite application is the Denver Lamb Ribs that are smoked for hours and then finished on the grill. The ribs are served with pickled onion on top and a drizzle of tomato marmalade—the lamb does the heavy lifting.
“Many people who try our Denver Lamb Ribs tell us they’ve never had lamb ribs before,” Barber says. “And the feedback is always the same, people just go nuts for it. It’s one of those dishes that will win 99 percent of people over.”
There’s no end to the type of barbecue-style dishes that can be created with lamb. Barber reels off a list of lamb specials he and his team created just in the week prior to being interviewed for this story: Pulled Lamb Shoulder Gnocchi, Lamb Burgers with Harissa and Goat Cheese, or a Leg of American Lamb with Summer Succotash.
“Shoulder in particular is the most versatile, succulent, melt-in-your-mouth awesomeness,” Barber says. “If you let the shoulders cook very slowly and allow them to crisp over, it’s really a magical thing and can be used in so many different ways.”
Chef Barber and Chef Abdoo both cite different cuts of lamb as great barbecue candidates, but especially the shoulder. Abdoo runs a special of Lamb Shoulder with “NYC White Sauce,” as he calls it, which is a modified version of a yogurt-based, Mediterranean-style sauce you might find at a street cart in New York. It’s the type of dish where the sauce complements the flavor, but like Barber’s Denver Lamb Ribs, it’s the taste of the lamb itself that does the heavy lifting and creates excitement.
“Any time we promote an incredible new lamb dish on social media, or on our chalkboard signs out in front of the restaurant, I know that I’m going to sell out of that dish that night,” Abdoo says. “It feels like no matter how many lamb shoulders I cook, we will always run out because people want to seek out an amazing special that feels unique.”
Because many associate the protein with fine dining, menu items with lamb tend to have upscale connotations to consumers, says Abdoo. That can create higher margins, even if the cost of lamb is relatively higher than that of other proteins popularly used in barbecue.
“Let’s say the piece of lamb you are using costs $5 a portion,” Abdoo says. “I can put that in a sandwich and sell that for $15, because people here won’t think twice about a sandwich that costs $15. Now, those numbers might be specific to New York City, but the overall point is the same: there’s a nice margin to be had with lamb because people are comfortable paying up for it.”
Abdoo and Barber believe lamb is an underrated protein in the American foodservice landscape. They both also believe its unique flavor profile and versatility creates an opportunity for chefs and that it can be a difference maker at a time when they need to create some excitement in order to draw diners in.
“You always want to create things that are recognizable but still unique,” Abdoo says. “We love serving pulled lamb shoulder at our restaurant for that exact reason: People recognize lamb, they recognize barbecue, so even if they haven’t tried lamb barbecue they recognize that as something tantalizing and delicious.”
For more on adding lamb to the menu, visit the American Lamb Board website.