ARUN RATH, HOST:
It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. Trevett Hooper was one of the first chefs in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to promote the farm-to-table movement. Now he and other chefs around the country are expanding their locally grown menus to include meat. Hal B. Klein from member station WESA in Pittsburgh reports on the challenge these chefs face embracing a hot new trend, ranch-to-table, while still meeting customers' expectations for a fancy night out.
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HAL KLEIN, BYLINE: At the end of 2012, Chef Trevett Hooper of Legume Restaurant asked a question.
TREVETT HOOPER: What would it look like if we just limited ourselves to local pork and beef and, you know, lambs and goats?
KLEIN: And just about every bit of meat he served in 2013 was raised in Pennsylvania. Mission successful.
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KLEIN: But then just a few days after the calendar flipped into 2014, Hooper promptly announced that he's not going to repeat his 100 percent commitment to local meat again. His decision upset some people we know as locavours.
HOOPER: People want things like in absolute terms. They want it to be 100 percent this, 100 percent that. It's always way more complicated.
KLEIN: In this case it's complicated because ranch-to-table usually means buying a whole animal. That's not a big deal when a chef buys a lamb or a goat, even a pig. But a cow? Well, the cow is gigantic, at least 1200 pounds. And the high demand for cuts like New York strip, rib eye, filet mignon are only a tiny percentage of that cow.
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KLEIN: Downstairs at Legume, Hooper embraces the cow's culinary challenge by sawing a leg for a rich stock and to prepare luscious marrow bones for roasting. Basically, nothing goes to waste and many people in Pittsburgh love Legume for that. But that's still a lot of beef, and you risk alienating some customers when you tell them you're sold out of the prime stuff until the next cow is delivered.
HOOPER: It's like, yeah, this is our anniversary. Why is your only meat option kielbasa today? And I understand that.
KLEIN: So Hooper decided it's better to have rib eye steaks shipped all the way from Oregon than to have no rib eye at all. The chef says that while some things are not negotiable, he won't use meat from an industrial farm or any cows with growth hormones or antibiotics. If the best steaks he's tasted come from across the country, that's OK with him.
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KLEIN: And on a Thursday night in Pittsburgh, diners were gobbling up the Oregon rib eyes.
John Hill and Jessica Shoemaker were visiting Legume for the first time, and they were on a mission.
JOHN HILL: Steak is the test. That's the overall test of the quality of the kitchen.
JESSICA SHOEMAKER: It was beautiful. It really was. It was so tender it literally melted in my mouth.
KLEIN: So did it matter that the steak took an airplane to get to Pittsburgh?
SHOEMAKER: I definitely think that local sustainability is something that is very important, but a good cut of meat is a good cut of meat.
KLEIN: Still, according to Hudson Riehle, Hooper was onto something big when he made his 2013 commitment to Pennsylvania meat. Riehle researches trends for the National Restaurant Association.
HUDSON RIEHLE: When you look at the result of this What's Hot chefs' survey, out of that list of over 200 food and beverage items, the top item as a hot trend this year is locally sourced meat.
KLEIN: It's just that chefs like Hooper might be a little bit ahead of the curve when it comes to cattle. Many diners still associate certain cuts of the cow with luxury, but, slowly, that's changing.
RIEHLE: When you think about the typical American restaurant customer today, their palate is much more sophisticated than at any point in time. Consumers in general view restaurants as a place to experiment with new flavor and taste experiences.
KLEIN: Riehle says that the ranch-to-table trend is likely to stick around and that it's just a matter of time before it trickles down from adventurous eaters to everyone else. For his part, Hooper says he'll sell more locally raised meat in 2014 than he did in 2012. But, for his customers who still want steaks for dinner, he'll keep selling those Oregon rib eyes, at least for now. For NPR News I'm Hal B. Klein in Pittsburgh.
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