An epic cross-country road trip ends with amazing steak.

By Chris Himmel
Updated May 24, 2017
© Chris Himmel

This winter, a group of Boston-based chefs piled into an RV and embarked on a cross-country trip to California. The goal: Meet the people that grow the ingredients they love, cook with some of the country’s top chefs at pop-up dinners, gain inspiration and eat—a lot. Documenting the journey was Chris Himmel, Executive Vice President of Himmel Hospitality Group in Boston (Grill 23 & Bar, Post 390 and Harvest). Here's his final dispatch—from Brandt Natural Beef in Brawley, CA, which supplies Grill 23 & Bar with its steaks. (Read about the rest of the trip here.)

Fifteen years: That’s a long time for a friendship let alone a partnership in an industry built upon cost controls, overhead and revenue enhancement. For more than fifteen years our Grill 23 & Bar family has partnered with Brandt Natural Beef, the Brandt family and our distributor Cambridge Packing Co to build one of the truly special beef programs found anywhere in the country. Together, long before it became industry standard, we made a commitment to raise all of the beef for our restaurant without the use of hormones or antibiotics and to source exclusively from one single family-owned ranch that shared our passion for producing the most consistent, highest quality, 100-percent source-verified natural beef on the market.

© Chris Himmel

Fifteen years and hundreds of thousands of steaks later I’m proud to say that the finished product speaks for itself, and while I truly value all our vendor relationships there is no family I value more or am more proud to call our partners than the Brandt family. It’s fitting, then, that the final stop along the “Himmel Hits the Road” cross country culinary road trip should lead our HHG team to Brawley, CA (about 15 minutes from the US-Mexican border) for a visit to Brandt Cattle Co.

Upon arriving to town we’re greeted by Brandt Cattle Co’s Director of Operations Scotty Chapman who oversees the family’s feedlot. He lets us know that the Brandt’s have planned a dinner at the Cattleman’s Club in downtown Brawley to welcome us to town so with no time to waste we park the RV, drop our things and head straight over to the club to meet the family. We are treated to a dinner of sirloin steaks with all the fixings along with some of the best pork ribs I’ve ever had. I don’t throw in the towel until after my third helpings. Together with some great conversation and a few adult beverages we top off the night with a night cap back at the RV and head straight to bed to rest up for what will be a full day’s schedule touring the entire Brandt operation.

© Chris Himmel

I’d remembered the night before that Mark Brandt, head of farming operations for the Brandt family, had told me that they had a large Duroc pig that was bullying the others in the pig pen and that by the morning the ranch hands would be turning that pig into our breakfast before our tour of the Brandt Cattle Co feedlot. Sure enough upon our arrival the next morning we are welcomed by freshly prepared carnitas with homemade tortillas, rice and refried beans and salsa which the ranch hands let us know is “so spicy that it won’t wait to hurt you the next day, it’ll hurt you tonight!”

On the farm, Mark Brandt and his farm team grow the alfalfa that is mixed with corn to create a natural diet for Brandt Beef’s animals. Walking the fields with Mark you get a sense for his wealth of knowledge and begin to understand that his families commitment to sustainability is not only applicable to their cattle operation but also to their agricultural division.

© Chris Himmel

We finish up our tour of the ranch with Eric Brandt taking us through the details of the processing operation. Eric takes a hands-on approach to processing, inspecting each animal and hand-tagging the “best of the best” exclusively for Grill 23 & Bar. By exerting a high level of control over cattle selection and harvesting practices, Brandt Beef is at the forefront of implementing the most humane techniques of animal husbandry known today.

Having spent the past five years hunting elk in Idaho with Eric, Mark and Scotty, I wasn’t a bit surprised when upon our arrival back to the feedlot we were invited to do some hunting right on the ranch for Eurasian dove which are an invasive species in the Imperial Valley. Our bounty of birds aren’t out of the sky for more than 15 minutes before they are plucked, breasted, wrapped in Brandt Beef bacon with jalapeño and cream cheese and grilled up for pre-dinner hors d’oeuvres right on the ranch. Feeling the euphoria of a perfect day we head back to the RV to change and travel to the home of Bill and Sue Brandt who will be hosting us along with their entire family for the final night of our “Himmel Hits the Road” journey.

© Chris Himmel

To say that Sue Brandt is as talented at planning an event as her husband is at raising cattle would be an understatement. We arrive to a home radiating with natural beauty along with a backyard set up with a long, communal table covered in Holstein cowhides, colorful flower arrangements resting in an assortment of mason jars and hay stacks covered with beautifully adorned fabric for seating. We enjoy an outstanding dinner, which includes Brandt Beef Southwestern-style prime top sirloin with grilled lime, roasted garlic and grilled cipollini onion as well as Brandt Beef prime New York strip served in a cast-iron skillet with balsamic-glazed brussel sprouts and chanterelle mushrooms. After ending dinner with “Oma’s Famous Chocolate Sundae” my team and I are full of food and admiration for one of the kindest, thoughtful and most hospitable families we’ve ever had the pleasure to meet.

As we end the night by raising our Champagne glasses and toasting a dinner for the ages, we also celebrate the conclusion of our cross-country culinary journey to visit some of the countries finest restaurants, farms, fishermen and producers of fine foods throughout the country.