Lamb chops roasting on an open fire.
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Lionizing Lamb

Tia Harrison / June 25th, 2012

As chefs, we have the power to channel our passions, our palates, even our convictions into a generous and delicious plate of food. What we may not realize is that we also have the power to influence change. Food trends start in our kitchens, and over the last decade, chefs and butchers have risen to rock star status. The consumer’s eyes are upon us, their ears bent in our direction. What should we say?

As followers of the “Alice Waters Cookery Club,” most of us have already experienced the rewards that seasonal produce, sustainable seafood, farmstead cheese, or locally raised meats can bring to our plates and our communities. The ripple effect of our menu choices doesn’t stop at the farm or the plate—it goes right through to our customers’ homes. More successful local producers mean more options for eaters, more awareness of food’s effect on the environment, and more supply for good food demand. We are influencing change. It may be slow, but it is real.

Buying whole animals from local farms and serving them in your restaurant is one powerful way to affect this change. A couple of years ago, using whole animals in my restaurant felt like an immense challenge (and I co-own a butcher shop—sounds ridiculous, right?). Sociale operates in a tiny kitchen, with no walk-in, and never enough refrigerator space. I run a tight, very capable kitchen staff that is always working at 110 percent. I thought we wouldn’t have the time or the space, and I couldn’t figure out how to work it into my menu. For us, the solution was to order one whole animal a week and sell the parts as dinner specials. It ended up being an enormously rewarding experience; my kitchen staff is proud of butchering the meat by hand, the servers love it, and our customers are more flexible and adventurous than I thought. They are also more tuned into my values as a chef, because of the conversations they have with the servers.

One of the first animals many chefs choose to buy whole is a lamb. It’s a costly protein, but when you purchase the whole carcass, you’re getting racks for the same price as legs. As long as you put every ounce on a plate, you will make cost back on the loin and make profit with the legs, belly and shoulder.

Here is an example of how we break it down: Chef’s note: Sociale typically does around 80 covers a night during the week, and 130 on Friday and Saturday.

Wednesday: 3 p.m.: accept lamb delivery 3 - 4:30 p.m.: break down lamb into primals. Fabricate lamb racks and loin chops for the night’s special. Leave the shoulders, shanks, neck, and legs whole for the remainder of the week. 5:30 p.m.: Serve lamb rib chops and loin chops for dinner special until they run out. (Grilled lamb chops with seared figs, celery root gratin, and saba is one of my recent favorites)

Thursday: Braise lamb shoulder ragù and serve with fresh pasta. (Rosemary lamb sugo, Tubo di Stella, chile, capers, mint, and pecorino)

Friday: Grind trim and the leg, use half of it to make lamb crepinettes for dinner special. (Lamb crepinettes with fresh cranberry beans, currants, pine nuts, and watercress gremolata)

Saturday: Use the remaining ground lamb to make a lamb bolognese, or meatballs. (Lamb bolognese with pici and grana, or lamb polpette with herb mash and chanterelle mushroom demi)

Monday - Tuesday: Use the left over bolognese for a lasagna with béchamel, etc…until your next animal comes in. Voilà!

Using whole animals in your restaurant is a rewarding, profitable endeavor. This is just one example of how you can take a lamb and special it out during the week. It is a great compliment to your already existing menu. Be creative, be brave.

A thousand simultaneous whispers can be heard as one quiet voice, and when amplified and in greater numbers, it can become the powerful roar of a movement. As more of us take on these challenges, good food grows. This is an exciting time in food, there are so many ways to keep ourselves inspired and we have the power to choose. To me that is one of the greatest attributes of being a chef.

Click here to see a simple summery recipe for grilled lamb chops.

Tia Harrison is the co-founder of The Butcher’s Guild, executive chef/co-owner of Sociale, and co-owner of Avedano’s, both located in San Francisco.