Friday, October 27, 2006

We Got the Beef!

See the people grilling down the street
Fall in line, just watching all their meat
They don't know where all the charcoal is
But they're grilling in time

They got the beef
They got the beef
They got the beef

It's been a while since I mangled a song...and the Go Gos were just screaming to wear little meat hats, don't you think? Okay, I guess we've just established exactly how much of a graphic artist I am not...

Today was the big field trip to the local national meat provider, Xtremely Fine Meats. We caravanned down and met, to our collective surprise, a culinary class from another technical college...we shall call them Other Technical College to differentiate from our Fine Technical College...oooh, so creative I am, meat hats and all.

We first watched a video of the company's head trainer breaking down a whole carcass. That was pretty darn interesting to see him just work through it in real time...took about 45 minutes, and it was amazing the way he took it apart. We then suited up in our little white visitors butcher coats and descended into the frozen pits of hell...well, it might freeze over someday, especially if I keep doing song parodies.

Our tour guide, who is the executive chef for the company, and what a nice little niche job that seems to be, took us on a tour of the entire facility. We saw the shipping and receiving department, the storage lockers, the ageing facility, and the cutting rooms. The way this company works, as I'm sure some others do, is they cut the meat to your order. (This is why it's important to get your orders in early during the week.) He stressed that they did not keep a par stock of beef on hand. They might have a couple hundred boxes, but that was it.

Now, it's possible that you have a contract with the meat purveyor, which is highly recommended by these folks, or at least by the meat buyer who spoke with us after the tour. The contract sort of locks you into specific pricing for a specific amount of time. Tour Guide Chef explained that November, December, and January are the high demand beef months, so the cost of beef will rise. Therefore, if you have a 12-month contract, you can lock in a good price and sort of offset that last quarter spike. Plus, it assures you of having enough product on hand.

They also age their beef, and this is why they don't sell their trim to just anyone. He said that it goes to companies that will cook the beef (like canned chili or spaghetti sauce folks) and not ground it into hamburger, because that could be dangerous, safety-wise. He said for hamburger, you want what is called "green meat" --sounds appetizing, doesn't it?--green in the sense that it's fresh and new, like green wood. According to Tour Guide Chef, that is the type of meat we see in supermarkets, and its flavor has no comparision to aged meat. But, you always want "green" meat for hamburger, because that product needs to be as fresh as possible.

The whole aging of beef just mystifies can it hang out for up to 45 days in some cases of dry aging, and still be edible? It's all in the process. Aging beef makes it more tender and flavorful. "Wet" aging is the most common method, because it's less expensive, because "dry" aging causes the meat to lose volume, which means it costs more. TG Chef said that the difference in wet and dry was like Beef versus BEEF! This article gives a good nutshell overview on aging beef and talks about Black Angus, which is the big buzz word for beef producers.

This company is a Certified Angus Beef (CAB) affiliate. And, during the Q&A session, I had to ask the burning question: "what the heck is so special about CAB?" TG Chef explained that the CAB Board has strict oversight of the member meat producers, and are always looking to keep the standard high. The CAB is attributed with better marbleing than any other breed, so this is why it's sought after...remember, marbleing = fat = flavor.

The CAB organization also keeps a tight rein on how much is produced and where the meat goes. He gave an example of they buy meat from Producer X. Producer X reports to the CAB organization that they sold 1 million pounds to our buddies at Xtremely Fine Meats. Xtremely Fine Meats then reports that they sold 1.2 million pounds, which is quite a discrepancy from what they bought, so somebody's got some 'splaining to do, Lucy!"

And, the inspections! Their quality control person talked with us as well about the amount of inspections they undergo...on a daily basis. There are state and federal inspectors, and they can show up any time and go anywhere in the facility. They have their own little office within the facility to use while they are there, which seems to be standard with this type of business. The inspectors show up on a daily basis, multiple times a day, and are pretty stringent...we passed 2 of them during our tour. TG Chef explained that if they found something amiss on the cutting line, they might force the company to shut down the line, completely clean and decontaminated the room, check it with swabs for contamnation, and if they found anything the least bit off, the company would have to re-clean it from top to bottom. They do a 6-hour cleaning period every day, and the inpectors have to sign off on it before they can open the line again.

The pork area is separated from the beef area, and the folks who work in each area wear different colored clothing to differentiate. If someone in the wrong color coat tried to come into a certain area, he or she would probably be tackled at the entrance to avoid any cross-contamination and then thrashed soundly...well, maybe not thrashed, but it's a very big deal and all the employees are aware of the consequences.

The fish room is completely on the other side of the facility, which makes doubly sure that no beef or pork contaminants can get inside. Xremely Fine Meats doesn't do the volume of fish compared to their meat or compared to the large seafood place we went to during first quarter. They specialize more in certain types of fish, and again they only do fish to order.

It really was a fascinating trip. TG Chef said he was trying to work out a deal with their corporate office to have some culinary students come in and do some fabrication training, since that seemed to be what was dropped more and more from curriculums because of the cost factors. He's not gotten approval yet, but he's working on it.

It was weird being with the Other Technical College Students, too, because I don't think our chef knew they were coming. Again, it was interesting to see how the uniform standards's becoming pretty obvious that we have the strictest uniform policy of any school. These folks all had jackets, pants, and hats that matched, but that was about it. They were all wearing different styles of guy had on Chuck Taylors, which I thought was nuts. Not that I have anything against Chucks, but baby, they have no support for your feet, especially if you are standing for hours at a time. And, they have no toe protection either. If someone drops a full hotel pan on his foot, it's gonna hurt, not to mention if a knife were dropped, he might be nicknamed "Little Half-Foot" or something along those lines.

And, they had their neck scarves tied in a funky knot that hung down low on the outside of their chef jackets...we were all trying to figure out what was up with that, because the neck scarf is meant to be a sweat band so you don't drip into the food. How's it going to work when it's hanging down on your chest and not really around your neck? Maybe we take this too seriously because we live under a culinary dictator (and I don't mean that in a derogatory manner, either), but it does instill a weird little sense of pride that we can at least look better than anyone in town, whether or not we can cook worth a flip!

So, what did we have for dinner when I got home last night? Beef, of course!

We got the beef
We got the beef
We got the beef
We got the beef
Everybody get some of your meat
We know you can grill up the beef
Jumpin' - get down
Ground Round and round and round



Linna said...

Facinating stuff. I would like to imagine that all meat is treated this way (rather than imagining my steak flopping to the floor, only to be picked up and packaged). Do these guys sell to any retailers at all? Or just to restaurants? Even cheapo-restaurants seem to have better beef than I can buy. Or more probably -- they know how to handle it to keep the flavor and texture and not lose the juice.

Your comments on the dress code for the other culinary school were quite funny. It sounds like you have fallen in with a more professional organization. I can imagine that culinary schools are a growth industry these days. Not only are there tons of restaurant positions (because America doesn't cook at home like it once did) but the Food Network has raised the charisma factor of chefs a thousand-fold. That market demand will have led to an expansion of culinary schools, some of which no doubt are more like diploma mills.

Food preparation jobs sound like hard work, no matter where you enter in the food chain.

You have been blogging up a storm this week!

Anonymous said...

Your post actually made me feel better about the state of food processing. Since I worked in an ER for 11 years, I have seens LOTS of cases of food-borne illness, and those things always nag at the back of my mind. At least i know there are some companies doing things the right, and healthy way!