Oak Steakhouse on Broad Street serves 40,000 pounds of beef per year. Tenderloins, New York strips, rib-eyes, ground chuck: all the red meat entering the restaurant's arched glass doors is Certified Angus Beef brand Prime.
Let's get one thing straight. There are many different quality grades when it comes to beef — and less than 1.5 percent earns the label Certified Angus Beef brand Prime. So when Steve Palmer, managing partner of the Indigo Road group, which owns Oak and O-Ku, asks us to go on a road trip to visit where these kind of cows are raised, we say yes. Right away.
The day starts at dawn when Joseph Jacobson, Oak's chef de cuisine, arrives at our house in his white pickup. Palmer is sitting in the passenger seat, and Jeremiah Bacon is in the back. Bacon has been the executive chef and partner at Oak for just three weeks. And as the sun rises over the Ashley River, he begins a long conversation about his commitment to sourcing food locally.
"Any aware chef out there right now is talking about sourcing local and sustainably," he says.
But this concept isn't new on Bacon's agenda.
At Carolina's, he built relationships with farmers and fishermen who gave him the freshest produce possible with a minimal carbon footprint — people like Clammer Dave, Mark Marhefka, and the family at Fields Farms. At Thomas Keller's Per Se in New York, Bacon worked in the opening crew of a three Michelin star kitchen that changed its menu nightly according to ingredient availability. And now he's taken the helm at Oak, incorporating the same farm-to-table philosophy.
"It's more than a revamp," says Palmer about the new seasonally driven menu Bacon's created for his restaurant. "It's a shift in consciousness."
The purpose of this field trip is educational. The destination: Yon Family Farms. Bacon, Jacobson, and Palmer want to meet the farmers who raise Certified Angus Beef cattle. They want to witness firsthand the care that goes into the cows that become their steaks.
Bacon's been cooking in the industry for 14 years. And yet, with his level of experience, the prestige of the kitchens he's worked in, Bacon still seems humble; more inspired by the passion of others — like Wes Melling who's growing hydroponic Bibb lettuce at Kurios Farms.
Meanwhile, I-20 West turns into Saluda County. Cell phone reception dwindles as we drive down dirt roads surrounded by barren peach trees. Two and a half hours have passed, and we've finally reached Ridge Springs, S.C. — farm country.
It is a very cold day in South Carolina. Christmas carols are playing from inside the Yon Family Farms central barn. Kevin Yon, who owns and operates the farm with his wife Lydia and their three kids, gathers us in a circle.
"Now, I don't want this to seem like an Angus revival," he jokes, after sharing his pride in Angus cattle.
Kevin and Lydia met as animal science majors at Clemson. His dream was always to own a farm, to raise his children around tractors and cows. After college, the couple managed an Angus farm together, and then decided to open Yon Family Farms 15 years ago with a portion of that cattle.
"We had three children under five, a worn-out pickup truck, a herd of cattle, and off we went," Yon says.
Yon believes in Angus beef. He started raising Angus cows when he was 14 and worked on a local farm in Anderson, S.C., in exchange for his first heifer.
Angus is a name that's marketed in everything from dog food to Back Yard Burgers. Some people will argue it's no better than a Hereford, or if you like your meat lean, a Belgian Blue. But Certified Angus Beef (CAB) is different.
In the '70s, CAB was created by the American Angus Association to ensure the quality of beef available. Their premium grade goes beyond the standard USDA choice and prime grades. They begin with an Angus cow, but then they grade the meat to make sure that it has the highest marbling, tenderness, and consistency possible.
Marbling is a predominant trait used to determine the quality grade of beef. The term refers to flecks of intramuscular fat, which makes a tasty animal's flesh resemble the layers in limestone. The more fat an animal has evenly dispersed in its muscle, the juicier it tastes and the higher the grade. Other factors, like the age of a cow at slaughter, tenderness, and color of meat, also play a huge part in flavor.
Of the cattle Yon Family Farms feeds out for beef, about 40 percent will make CAB requirements. Less than 1.5 percent of all beef makes the Certified Angus Beef brand Prime grade. And as Kevin Yon walks us back into to the blistering cold, we see the measures he and his family take to accomplish this.
The main staple in a Yon Angus cow's diet is Bermuda grass in the summer and rye grass in the winter. Each cow is ranked by a number of different production and maternal traits and mated with a partner who'll complement its genetic strength and weakness.
Further away on Yon's 2,000-acre property is a maternity ward where 800 pregnant cows give birth over a period of 120 days. Across the way, a row of cows are eating lunch from troughs of hay. They have tags and tattoos on their ears and are identified by letters and numbers.
In the commodity feed storage barn (which functions kind of like an outdoor pantry), tons of pounds of dry food like cotton seed, corn gluten, and hominy are stored for feed during the winter months when grass is scarce.
But even with all this work, the USDA never knows if a cow will meet the quality specs for CAB until they peel off its hide. The meat must be uniform: in marbling, ribeye thickness, fat width, and carcass weight.
"It should be good each and every time," says Kevin Yon. "All you have to do is not mess it up."
After Angus cattle leave a farm like Yon, they're sent to a feed lot and fed grains for 90 to 100 days to finish marbling. Next, at the packing plant, the live cow is first inspected by the USDA. It's harvested — an industry term for slaughter. The carcass is hung and then graded to see if it meets the brand's specs. From there the beef is shipped to distributors like Sysco, where it is wet or dry aged.
Oak Steakhouse gets three shipments of CAB brand Prime a week. And this makes sense, because their kitchen moves through 28 rib-eyes, 35 to 40 N.Y. strips, and about 65 portions of tenderloin on an average night.
Then the butchering begins. We're one step closer to dining.
Jacobson grabs his carving knife. A veteran at Oak, he's worked in that kitchen since the day they opened six years ago and knows what to do. On the tenderloin, he carefully cuts away silver skin and connective tissue, revealing a beautiful barrel-cut Chateaubriand.
He butchers the New York strip, shaves off the subcutaneous fat, and saves it to help fortify Bacon's bone marrow bread pudding. He carves the rib-eye around the fat cap, frenching the bone for Oak's 24 oz. bone-in rib-eye. Then he portions out thick cuts of each meat to fit the forecast for the evening.
When service starts, the beef is seasoned: au poivre, or however a customer requests. Jacobson places the steak on the grill, cooks it to temperature, and then finishes it with sauces like gorgonzola cream or bordelaise.
Steakhouses in general are product driven, and Bacon says he believes if the only thing on your plate is an expensive steak, it better be good. In fact, it should be the rock star of the show.
"We source our food from people who treat it with respect," Bacon says, about all his ingredients — from the CAB brand Prime to the Mepkin Abbey oyster mushrooms in his risotto. "What you're eating has been touched by a lot of hands. There are a lot of moving parts, and I'm the last link in the chain. In the deepest level of my execution, I want you to taste that."