I recently had the honour of being invited to a butchery demo in the basement of Cowbell (a very unique restaurant in Toronto). Our friend Margaret Mulligan (the fabulous photographer) was shooting the session and, along with Head Chef, Mark Cutrara, I was offered to come along. I always love the chance to explore something I haven’t seen or tried before – we only write about the experiences that we liked or loved. This was one to love. Today’s article is art 1 of 3 and is a serious comparison of a butcher, a chef and a vegetarian. All of the photos are hers. To see the entire series of posts, click here.
The concept of Cowbell seems easy enough to understand on it`s surface: it`s a sustainable restaurant that works closely with select Farmer`s concerned with animal husbandry and provide top quality (and top dollar) product to the restaurant for them to butcher in-house and then cook nose-to-tail with a sustainable focus.
Chef Mark Cutrara starts to explain some of his dilemma when he explains that an 800 pound carcass could have less than 20 steaks. There are plenty of other great cuts beyond steak but it`s clear that he could sell out of steak the night he butchers a cow and still have meat for weeks (or longer) and no steak offering on the menu. This was a struggle when they first opened – customers would enter with anticipation of ordering a steak and be disappointed or confused about the offerings on the menu.
Speaking of said menu, it is written in chalk. Some cuts yield three or four dishes per animal. As the dish sells out, it is replaced and may not return (if at all) for several weeks until the current animal is consumed and replaced by the next animal.
A revelation hit the restaurant around the price they paid for their featured product. When they bought an entire cow for $3.50 a pound, filet was worth the same amount as silverskin, bones, fat and tongue (more on their approach to butchery and Ryan Donovan tomorrow). Everything was just as valuable as everything else – ethically and financially. A different method of approaching large proteins was needed in the kitchen and staff would have to be trained extensively to describe and educate the patrons of the restaurant.
A single dinner will likely include several different preparations from the same animal. You may get a piece of steak paired with charcuterie, a sausage or other cut from the same animal to ensure the restaurant cycles through the whole animal in the course of it`s use. They make their own charcuterie in-house, render fats and cook with as much as 99% of the animal.
I love the story of their hamburger as an example of their vision. The beef is ground in-house. It is matched with greens from a farm that used compost created by the cows to fertilize it`s vegetables. Buttermilk (from in-house churned butter) is part of the bun which is baked in the basement. Mark explains it`s a series of tightly entwined closed concentric circles that make up the dish.
The restaurant recently eliminated olive oil from the menu, replacing it with their own rendered fats, canola and soya oil – items that can be sourced locally and are part of our own terroir.
There is a lot of things happening here that add to the localization and sustainability of the menu. Connections with farmers allow them to provide input into diet and exercise based on what they are receiving from the farmer. Preserving a local bounty (curing charcutire and pickling included) allows the flavors of the spring to come through year around. Locally sourcing produce (including in the winter) and working directly with farmers allows the restaurant to consistently provide stunning flavor without compromise. In-house baking, sous vide and using a variety of animals (fish, venison, pork, lamb and potentially bison and others) allow great diversity.
Cowbell allows us to truly taste what it is to eat with a sense of HERE; it also helps us learn what that means.