Daniel Rosenthal has put a plate of two naked, cooked hamburger patties between us. He pokes at the first one, made with conventionally raised, factory-farmed, certified Angus beef—what Rosenthal refers to as “commodity beef”—and takes a bite.
“There’s a richness to it,” he says. “It’s what you’re used to eating.”
He moves on to the other patty, made with 100 percent grass-fed beef.
“It’s got a little tanginess to it. What I call a genuine beef flavor.”
“Aggressive,” I say between chews.
“Flavor foward,” Rosenthal suggests.
Well, fine. Rosenthal can call grass-fed beef whatever he wants. But if aggressive isn’t his chosen adjective for what these patties taste like, it is at least an apt description of his goal for them. Rosenthal is on a mission to get every burger in Chicago to be a grass-fed burger, and he’s moving toward this slowly, steadily—and unrelentingly.
He knows it won’t be easy. In fact, he knows that better than most. Rosenthal is in the process of switching all the animal products in his nine restaurants (which include the city’s Sopraffinas) to sustainable choices. (Grass-fed beef is widely accepted to be better for the environment, not to mention for cows.) But so far, he’s only made the switch at Poag Mahone’s. Now, the burgers at Poag’s (which GQ listed in its July 2005 article “The 20 Hamburgers You Must Eat Before You Die”) meet Rosenthal’s standards for sustainability. But the process of getting it there took two years.
It started when Rosenthal saw Food, Inc., the 2008 documentary (some may call it a horror flick) about the beef industry. “Watching that documentary made me realize that I not only was participating in, but—through my restaurants—helping to perpetuate a system that was not only not sustainable but destructive to the health of my clients and my community. And it was really a wake-up call to me to try to figure out how I, in the restaurant business, could make an impact.”
He approached the problem as a businessman. Traditionally, he says, a restaurateur’s priotities about ingredients were threefold: flavor, consistency, price. Now, Rosenthal had to take sustainability into consideration. And finding a blend of grass-fed ground beef that met his standards wasn’t as simple as going shopping. Local producers such as Tallgrass Beef Company couldn’t at the time provide the quantities of meat he required, so he looked elsewhere. He tried producers as far away as Uruguay before he settled on American Grass Fed Beef, based in Missouri.
But now the flavor and fat content of the grass-fed beef caused some problems. Grass-fed beef is leaner than its commodity counterpart, which spells trouble for hamburgers. American Grass Fed Beef kept sending samples of beef blends to Rosenthal, but he kept sending them back—they just didn’t taste good. Finally, on the tenth try, they settled on a blend Rosenthal was happy with. It had additional fat added from brisket cuts, bringing the fat content to roughly 25–30 percent, about 10 percent more than what you would find in a commodity burger.
That solved the issue of texture and juiciness, but grass-fed beef’s “flavor forwardness” can’t be masked. Which is why as we talked over those ground-beef patties that day, both Rosenthal and I occasionally stuck our fork back into the commodity burger. But those were undressed patties. “When you combine the meat with all that other stuff,” Rosenthal says, referring to a burger’s bun, cheese and condiments, you can’t tell the difference. (It’s true. For better or for worse, in Poag’s Guinness beef stew and cheeseburger, the beef’s punchy, almost gamey flavor wasn’t noticeable.)
It’s been more than three months since Poag’s switched all of its beef over to grass-fed, but the restaurant didn’t start promoting the switch until this month. In the time in between, nobody noticed or complained of a change (even as the price of the burger increased by 50 cents). Now, at the end of a meal at Poag’s, customers are given postcards touting the change. And Rosenthal has started touting the change to other restaurateurs, too: Last week, he threw State of the Plate 2010, an industry conference that included panels with titles such as “Industrial Farmed vs. Sustainably Raised.” It’s the first of what he hopes will be a yearly conference, and the beginning of a movement among restaurants—to go from the commodity patty on the plate to the sustainable one.
One of the hurdles Rosenthal faced when he was sourcing grass-fed beef for Poag’s was the problem of terminology. “Giant agrobiz markets products using terms such as ‘All natural!’ ‘Free range!’ and ‘Grass fed!’,” he says. But “very, very few of those terms are federally regulated.”
In an effort to give consumers a little more clarity, Rosenthal’s Green Chicago Restaurant Co-op presented a Glossary of Meat and Agriculture Terms at the State of the Plate conference. Where no legal or regulated definition (say, from the government) was available, the Co-op provided “commentary from one or more credible sources.” Below, some of the most enlightening selections from the glossary.
ARTISAN/ARTISANAL No legal or regulated definition. The terms “artisan” and “artisanal” imply that products are handmade in small batches. As there is no legal definition for these terms, anyone can use the term “artisanal”— even if the product is mass produced in a factory.
LOCAL/LOCALLY-GROWN No legal or regulated definition. The term is unregulated at the national level, meaning that individuals can define and regulate the term based on their own mission and circumstances.
NATURAL/100% NATURAL/ALL-NATURAL No legal or regulated definition. The terms “natural,” “100% natural” and “all natural” do not refer to growing or production practices, and therefore mean nothing in terms of how the animal was raised, fed, husbandry practices, animal welfare, use of chemicals, hormones or antibiotics, food safety or environmental impact.
PASTURED/PASTURE-RAISED No legal or regulated definition. Implies that animals were raised outdoors on pasture. However, since the term is not regulated or certified there is no way to ensure if any claim is accurate.