Monday, November 20, 2017     Volume: 18, Issue: 37
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Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on September 12th, 2017, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 18, Issue 27 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 18, Issue 27

Where's the beef? Central Coast chefs, hell-bent on sustainability and community sourcing, have a tough time getting their hands on local beef

By REBECCA ROSE

As she swings around a tight curve in her John Deere Gator, rancher Katie Parker-McDonald’s eye is keenly trained on the horizon, trying to spot one of her elusive cattle.

By now, she could probably drive this route blindfolded; these are the same narrow dirt paths she’s navigated since she was a child. As we search, she reminisces with me about her grandfather, the legendary Davy Crockett actor and local rancher Fess Parker.


PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM

“He was really big on family ventures,” Parker-McDonald tells me. “He was above and beyond a dreamer. When my grandpa passed away, I thought I should really honor what he’d been plugging away at.”

I’ve come here to linger among Parker-McDonald’s memories of her grandfather and learn more about her cattle production, hoping to catch a glimpse of their signature dark hides. But today her animals—carefully bred and nurtured by Parker-McDonald herself for use at The Bear and Star Restaurant in Los Olivos—are hiding, either from the hot sun or from interloping visitors like me.

We’re not the only ones looking for beef.

As the Santa Barbara County cattle industry continues to wane and struggle, chefs and restaurateurs willing to pay a higher dollar for local beef are having a tough time getting their hands on it. Obtaining locally sourced beef is a challenge, as die-hard farm-to-table and ranch-to-table chefs try to maintain sustainable practices and keep their menu as local as possible. They point to issues of availability and strict government slaughter guidelines as some of the biggest barriers.

Chef John Cox of The Bear and Star (who works with the beef Parker-McDonald produces) said it’s a lot harder than it looks to stringently source local foods like beef. He said that when it comes to beef, there are very few chefs who are able to source from the region.

“It’s really that whole farm-to-table or ranch-to-table misnomer,” he said. “From what you read in the media, you would think that every time you go to any restaurant that’s not a massive chain you’re getting food from right down the street. And that couldn’t be further from the actual truth.”

For many, the solution is to turn to meat distributors, often operated by corporations that source meat from around the country to resell to California retailers and eateries.

But some chefs aren’t happy about giving up their local sourcing. 

Looking for local

As he unlocks the doors of his chicken coop, Chef Drew Terp warns me that his turkey is kind of a jerk. The animal, which will be served for a holiday dinner, lives a few yards behind the back door of his restaurant Pico in Los Alamos, along with chickens that will also one day be on the menu.

The chickens clumsily leap out of their hold, bouncing like scattered tennis balls into the gardens at Pico, swarming between rows of peppers, herbs, and other vegetables the restaurant uses. For Terp, this micro-farm is a passion project, one born out of a zealous belief in farm-to-table practices.


BIG BUBBA
Katie Parker-McDonald’s Wagyu operation, which provides locally sourced beef to The Bear and Star restaurant, includes her bull, Bubba. Parker-McDonald said Bubba is a “direct descendent from world-class Japanese bloodlines.”
PHOTO COURTESY OF KATIE PARKER-MCDONALD

“If you can know that your chicken was raised a specific way, slaughtered humanely, cleaned and done correctly, and it was handled in the best possible way,” Terp told the Sun, “when it’s on the plate and in front of you, it’s going to change the way that you look at that bite of food.”

Terp is part of an ever-growing community of local chefs drawn to the Central Coast in areas like Los Alamos and Santa Ynez, followed by a lot of buzz, and supported by an expanding foodie culture. Terp (who has worked in the kitchens of renowned chefs such as José Andrés and Masayoshi Takayama in New York) is seeking to carve out his own name as a chef, and he wants to do it by adhering to the practices that are almost his religion.

But when it comes to putting a beef dish from local ranchers on the menu, chefs like Terp hit a wall.

“There’s really only one one way that it happens,” he said. “A farmer will call me up and say, ‘Hey, I’m taking these cows to slaughter, I’ve already sold [certains cuts], and this is what I have available. What would you like?’ That’s really the only time that it comes around for me.”

Beef is already one of the more expensive ingredients utilized at Pico, but Terp said he is more than willing to pay extra for a locally sourced product.

“If I find local cattle and we can get them, then I’m putting money directly back into my client’s pocket,” Terp said. “The customers that come in to eat, their neighbors are the ones raising these cows. And if I could buy these cows, I’m supporting the community that supports me. ... That to me is much, much more important than paying an extra $1.50 a pound.”

But it’s not as simple as just pointing to a cow or asking for a few filets from local ranchers. Animals such as chicken, pigs, cattle, goats, and more must be slaughtered in United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)-approved facilities before they can be sold or served to a dining room full of customers.

“We have a lot of farmers right here that do farm kills,” Terp said. “But it’s totally illegal to use farm kill [in a restaurant]. It has to go through a USDA-approved process. And there’s just not a lot of options for that around here.”

One of the more local options is Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. At the university’s J and G Lau Family Meat Processing Center, students learn all aspects of meat processing, from slaughtering (or “harvesting,” as many in the industry refer to it) to packing. The center can process meats such as beef, veal, lamb, pork, goat, and much more.

The facility is USDA approved, which requires rigorous screenings to be Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) certified. Without that, butchers or farmers can’t sell slaughtered meat to restaurants for public consumption.

While it does take in commercial products for processing at a fee, the facility has its limitations when it comes to servicing the public. Cal Poly’s facility is foremost a teaching installation and students come first. Morgan Metheny, a graduate student in the animal science department who helps manage the facility, said they try to get at least one day of commercial harvest in a week, but it’s not always a guarantee.

She said that because of the classes and teaching schedules, it can be difficult to give an exact idea of what they can handle or even when they can do it.

“That’s kind of the golden question,” she said. “It really depends on the school and what’s going on at that time. We host four to five labs a week with students, and then we have other things we do, like research.”

Parker-McDonald’s cattle are taken to Old Country Kitchen, a butcher in Santa Paula, for processing, which she prefers for its humane and more traditional methods.

Cox said that in a dream world, the venue would have access to a mobile butcher. Mass production slaughter methods are contradictory to best sustainability practices, which harbor a strong belief in respect for the animal throughout the entire process, even up to its death. Locally, there aren’t many options that fit that. The nearest would be in Los Angeles, at a facility which processes thousands of cattle per day.

“For us, that’s just not acceptable,” Cox said. “It’s not what we want to do with the cattle that [Parker-McDonald] is raising here.”

Their preferred butcher is located about an hour and a half from the ranch. This brings up another major issue for local producers: transportation costs.

“They have to bring in grains, they have to bring in feed, right, so that costs more because they have to drive it from somewhere else,” Terp said. “And then to transport the cows back and forth to slaughter and then do the shipping back and forth—all of that is on top of what it actually takes to purchase and raise a cow and do all the things to maintain the operation.”

For chefs like Terp, left without options up to his standards, he turns to sellers in other regions outside of Santa Barbara County and California that follow sustainable practices.

“It gets frustrating because I would love to use local product,” he said. “I would love to use the cows that are from here. ... But it’s one of those things that, as a chef ... you just get used to those barriers.” 

Changing landscape

Before the 1970s, before the word “foodie” existed, before chefs started using words like “hyperlocal” and “farm-to-table,” before landowners on the Central Coast realized the ground they were standing on bore an oh-so-striking similarity to the soil that grew the most acclaimed wines in France, and long before strip malls and prefab housing swallowed the grazing land, cattle was king in Santa Barbara County.

According to the Santa Barbara County Agricultural Commissioner’s annual report, in 1960 there were 104,399 head of cattle in the county, generating $17 million that year, just nudging out vegetable crops for the top spot. In short, it was good to be a cattle rancher.


CUT TO PERFECTION
The Parker family ranch’s Katie Parker-McDonald raises cattle exclusively for The Bear and Star restaurant in Los Olivos.
PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM

Brandy Branquinho’s cattle have roamed the hills since she and her husband, John, started their operation in 1972. At one time, they had as many as 1,000 head of cattle. That number has dwindled after years of drought and other factors. Today, the Branquinhos lease much of their land to other ranchers, some of whom struggle to pay for basic costs such as fencing (which can cost upwards of $10,000 per mile).

“We’ve been slowly building our herd back up,” she said of her calf and cow operation. “Right now we are at, give or take, about 400. We raise them up to a certain age, that’s when we send them off to auction.”

Branquinho cattle are shipped to Western Stockman Market in McFarland, where they are generally sold to feedlots across California and the U.S. From there, the cattle move to slaughterhouses, and the meat is either packed and processed onsite or transported to additional facilities for packaging and labeling. Then the meat moves to distributors who work with networks of restaurants and stores, or to butchers and chefs directly.

Branquinho said one of the biggest challenges in local ranching today is the loss of cattle pasture. Much of the region’s pasture land has been sold to commercial real estate developers, converted to row crops such as strawberries (Santa Barbara County’s current No. 1 earning agricultural product), or to grow grapes.

“If you want to stay in the business, you have to find a place to keep your cattle,” she said. “A lot of people have taken their cattle out of state.”

By 1980, the number of cattle in Santa Barbara County had dropped to 54,808, bringing in nearly $27 million. That same year, vegetable crops such as broccoli and lettuce were generating $93 million. Income from avocados alone (classified as a fruit/nut) was more than $55 million, more than double the money cattle brought in.

In 1990, Santa Barbara County began to feel the impact of the wine boom. Grapes ranked as the fifth earning product; by 2000 they leapt to the No. 2 spot. That same year cattle brought in a little more than $23 million. That’s almost $4 million less than what it generated in 1980.

Last year, cattle fell out of the top 10 altogether, earning a little more than $30 million. Strawberries and wine combined generated a staggering $565 million.

But then a strange thing happened in the Santa Ynez Valley.

As local wineries exploded in popularity, so did the demand for boutique eateries. Tourists from Los Angeles and San Francisco want to snap photos of where Paul Giamatti sniffed glasses of red wine in Sideways, and they especially want to eat food that dazzles them as much as the $400 cases of wine they’re taking home.

The region began to attract a foodie following, as restaurateurs and hotels gambled on the high-quality intimate eateries that had flourished in places like Napa. The buzz caught the attention of many chefs in cities like New York and Las Vegas who see a chance to be on the ground floor of a food revolution and make a lasting impact.

But chefs with spreads in glossy food magazines and cult followings in Los Angeles and Napa don’t want boxes of frozen beef processed in far-off factories they’ve never set foot in. Once you make a name for yourself touting hyperlocal cuisine and sustainability, it’s hard to slide back into ordering from corporations headquartered in states thousands of miles away.

“That’s a new phase with the new restaurants and the new chefs coming in,” Branquinho said of the local farm-to-table movement. “But you can’t just go to a ranch and get it butchered. It has to be USDA inspected. There are some local grass-fed beef that they can buy, but it’s expensive.” 

Beef in a box

When I asked Tim “Woody” Woodbury, owner of Woody’s Butcher Block in Santa Maria, if he sells locally sourced beef, he told me he doesn’t.

“Is that a bad thing?” he said.

But the issue is not so black and white. For many businesses, buying locally produced beef in the current system simply isn’t a practical option because of the elaborate hurdles it presents to obtain the product. That’s not to mention the sheer impossibility of a small, family-run operation handling the massive demand of Santa Maria’s famous steakhouses.


OUTSIDE THE BOX
At The Bear and Star in Los Olivos, Chef John Cox serves up dishes of Wagyu beef from cattle raised down the road at the Parker family ranch (when herds are ready for harvest).
PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM

Right about when some of the first winemakers on Foxen Canyon Road were nailing the barrels shut on their debut production of wines, Bill Ostini was slowly taking over the reins of The Hitching Post in Casmalia. When he started, there was no such word as “hyperlocal” in the restaurant industry.

Today, he runs one of the most successful and long-running steakhouses in the Santa Maria Valley. Customers have been coming to the Hitching Post for decades, and Ostini said they want consistency in the meal they get each time.

“We don’t use local beef,” Ostini explained. “We use all Midwestern beef. The best beef in the world comes from the Midwest. … The quality is really unmatched.”

Ostini said that for him it’s a personal preference and a matter of taste. He buys his meats from Newport meat company, which delivers weekly cuts of beef from cattle out of Nebraska, Kansas, and Iowa. To keep the restaurant supplied, Ostini said he purchases more than 50,000 pounds of beef from Newport on an annual basis.

At Shaw’s Steakhouse on Broadway in Santa Maria, diners eat more than 800 pounds of tri-tip in one week alone. This is Santa Maria, after all, where the demand for steak—and especially tri-tip—has venues seeing long lines of devoted customers who want the same steak and same cuts they’re used to getting.

According to the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, one 1,000-pound steer yields up to about 430 pounds of retail cuts (including 102 pounds of round, 39 pounds of sirloin, and 39 pounds of rib). Butchers can get two tri-tip roasts from the sirloin or about 3 to 4 pounds of tri-tip meat total from that steer. Once you do the math, it becomes obvious why local restaurants like Shaw’s have to resort to mass producers.

Like The Hitching Post, Shaw’s and Woody’s Butcher Block in Santa Maria said they get their meat from Newport or companies like it.

According to its website, Newport, based in Irvine, has a 100,000-square-foot processing plant and works with ranches and producers all over the U.S. to sell beef and other meats in California. A representative for Newport declined to comment on the record but pointed to the list of ranches on its website where it buys its beef from.

Newport also provides beef to a rather impressive slate of high-end restaurants and celebrity chefs, including Wolfgang Puck and Tom Colicchio’s Craftsteak. Newport’s meats are also served at acclaimed chef Thomas Keller’s group of Michelin-starred restaurants including The French Laundry and Perse, among others.

Newport is owned by Sysco, a corporation out of Houston that specializes in food sales and distribution. According to Sysco’s website, the company is “the global leader in selling, marketing, and distributing food products to restaurants, health care and educational facilities, lodging establishments, and other customers who prepare meals away from home.”

The speciality meat companies under the Sysco name “provide custom-cut fresh steaks and other meat, seafood, and poultry, giving customers dependable quality, selection, and freshness.” In 2016, Sysco generated more than $50 billion in profits.

Due to Hurricane Harvey, Houston-based representatives for Sysco were not able to respond to requests for information regarding the company’s beef sales in California.

“There are some great meat companies out there,” Cox said. “But most of those meat companies source meat from cooperatives. So if I get meat from Newport or from Durham Ranch or from Snake River, not only is it not local … it’s a group of ranches that comes together and co-markets a product.”

Faced with the choice between fighting for local beef or resorting to outside distributors, chefs like Cox are finding some unique solutions. 

Hyperlocal cattle

Parker-McDonald’s Wagyu cattle, her pride and joy, have taken refuge in the shade by a creek. As she points them out, I can just barely see a pair of inky-black eyes, skeptically examining me through a thick patch of leaves as we finish our trip around her property.

“I wanted something that was high quality, that was unique, and that we could weave into our family,” she said. “So I chose Wagyu. I didn’t know where I was going to sell it or what, but my main goal was to create the best herd that I could and to keep growing.”

Parker-McDonald explained that she “stair-stepped” her way up in the Wagyu breeding process starting with a pair of Longhorns she obtained from a ranch in New Mexico. They weren’t quite what she was aiming for, but it was a start. She began selling calves and reinvesting the money into better cows over six to seven years.


BEEF, IT’S WHAT’S FOR DINNER
Santa Maria Valley will always be known for its passion for steak and especially tri-tip. Restaurateurs such as Frank Ostini of The Hitching Post can use up to 50,000 pounds of beef annually to fill the demand.
PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM

“Through that process we were breeding our Wagyu bull to those cattle,” she said. “We were just playing around with ideas and different [genetic] crosses. … We didn’t jump into it buying the nicest thing we could buy. We definitely worked the ladder to get to where we are now.”

According to a press release from The Bear and Star, “The cattle are raised and finished with the spent grains and pomace from the family brewery and winery.”

Parker-McDonald now has 125 head of cattle, including her bull Bubba, a rare and impressive beast who is one of the largest bulls in the world at nearly 2,300 pounds. She said Bubba is also ranked No. 1 in marbling fineness, an important marker for quality Wagyu.

According to the American Wagyu Association, Wagyu is “a Japanese beef cattle breed … selected for their physical endurance. This selection favored animals with more intramuscular fat cells—‘marbling.’” Wagyu is typically pricier than other types of beef; Costco, for example, currently offers a 13 pound roast for $1,300.

But you won’t find Parker-McDonald’s beef online or in the specialty meats counter at the grocer. The ranch supplies beef exclusively to The Bear and Star, owned by the Parker family. It’s an ambitious and unique project launched to ensure that the restaurant is as hyperlocal as possible.

Enter Cox, a masterclass chef with a penchant for chemistry and the soul of a chuck wagon cook. Today at The Bear and Star, Cox cooks up what he calls “refined ranch cuisine,” featuring the Waygu steaks from the cattle Parker-McDonald raises a few miles down the road. The ranch also provides the restaurant with vegetables, fruit, chickens, and much more, getting close to being fully self-sustaining.

“The reason that I’m in Los Olivos doing this whole project is because I want to specifically feature the products from this ranch,” Cox said. “I’ve cooked a lot of places and never cooked in places where we raised our own beef. “

Aside from the limitations of availability, chefs also face barriers when it comes to public perceptions of cost and pricing. It’s one thing to understand the benefits to the economy and the community. It’s quite another to commit to plunking down more money for it.

“One of the things that people don’t want to talk about is the price,” Cox said. “It’s very convenient to go into a restaurant and eat a $30 steak. … I think Americans in general have to recognize the fact that there is a premium for small, family-produced foods. Whether it’s meat or whether it’s vegetables, you’re going to pay more.”

It’s hard to say what will become of the venture (the restaurant has been open for less than four months), but rethinking the model is a start to the challenges faced by chefs and ranches in an increasingly changing economic environment.

But no matter what happens in this niche foodie community, with its fickle rotating trends, ranchers like Branquinho just hope that anything will help ranching survive.

“I sure as heck hope that [ranching] is sustainable,” she said. “I really do hope that this way of life lasts for a long time.” 

Eats Writer Rebecca Rose can be contacted rrose@santamariasun.com.




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Spending time with family and friends.
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