It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it. Before a restaurant can add a creative new steak dinner to its menu or before a retailer can stock a ready-made meal, someone has to develop the recipe, test it and taste the results. That, in part, is chef Dave Zino’s job, as executive director of NCBA’s Beef and Veal Culinary Center in Chicago.
In Zino’s line of work, he says there is no such thing as an “average day.” Sometimes he is in the kitchen testing recipes or cooking methods. Other times he’s working with chefs, consumers, food writers or representatives of food companies, leading a “Beef 101” course to teach them how to make the most of beef in their own kitchens.
Zino says he also helps support the efforts of the U.S. Meat Export Federation to promote beef to international markets. USMEF has brought teams of chefs from Korea, Russia, Egypt and elsewhere to tour the culinary center. He leads demonstrations on preparation methods for various cuts of beef, then turns the visiting chefs loose in the test kitchen. Once in the kitchen, he says, language barriers break down as the language of food takes over, and the visiting chefs come away with greater understanding of the quality and versatility of U.S. beef.
Chefs need to understand how flavors work together, along with texture, aroma and appearance, to create a pleasurable dining experience. Zino spends much of his time teaching how the science of flavor applies to beef.
We’re all familiar with sweet, salty, sour and bitter tastes, but Zino says understanding of a fifth taste, called umami, is critical for beef cookery. Umami is a Japanese term that describes savory, meaty and earthy flavors in meats, cheese, mushrooms and some other foods. The concept of umami is not new, but Western chefs are just beginning to understand and apply it toward their art of combining food ingredients and preparation methods.
Understanding umami helps explain why certain foods, ingredients or beverages complement beef so well. By combining umami-rich foods or ingredients, such as a steak paired with mushrooms, aged cheeses and rich red wine, Zino says chefs can intensify the flavor, helping assure a great eating experience.
In the foodservice sector, Zino says beef is experiencing a renaissance, with restaurants at all price levels looking for new and innovative ways to offer beef to their customers. When he was attending culinary school, Zino says steak houses were not “destination jobs” for young chefs, but today they are.
“America has a passion for beef,” he says, “and chefs are fueling that passion with choices.” In an effort to differentiate their restaurants, they are using unique combinations of ingredients, cooking methods and side dishes to create signature styles for their steak offerings. Some restaurants are turning to niche beef products or specific attributes, such as natural, locally produced, breed-specific, grass-fed or others. The common thread is that all chefs are looking for high-quality beef that provides a consistently positive eating experience and keeps customers coming back.
Chefs increasingly use value cuts such as the Flat Iron Steak, Zino says. After checkoff-funded muscle-profiling research identified the first wave of value cuts, the center helped develop and test preparation methods. But initial adoption among meat processors and chefs was slow, Zino says, as the cuts, from the “shoulder clod” portion of the chuck, required a change in meat-cutting methods. Now, as chefs and retailers recognize the quality and value of the cuts, demand has grown and processors have responded.
That growing acceptance helps lay the groundwork for other introductions. NCBA and the culinary center now are working to introduce a new line of value cuts, taken from the chuck roll. Because they have experienced the success of the Flat Iron Steak or other earlier value cuts, Zino says chefs and processors are more receptive to these new cuts.
Recognizing the need for educational materials, NCBA and the culinary center last year developed an instructional program titled “Beef U: A foodservice guide to beef.” The two video discs contain 17 instructional modules covering beef production, beef safety, cooking methods for different cuts and flavor concepts. Chefs or foodservice managers also can use the program to build their own presentations. Zino says several large restaurant chains, research chefs and culinary schools are using the program to educate themselves and others about beef.
Zino and the team at the culinary center also contribute to information targeted to consumers, such as the Healthy Beef Cookbook. The center tested all the recipes in the book, which is a collaborative effort between the Beef Checkoff and the American Dietetic Association.
Zino calls the cookbook a “labor of love,” as the team worked to add flavor and palatability to the leanest cuts of beef with minimal use of fat or sodium, resulting in delicious and healthy recipes. Zino personally tasted all the recipes before they went into the book. “I know that beef is what’s for dinner,” he says. “But for a couple months, I didn’t need any dinner.”