Why 'Carrot-Fed' Might Be the Next Big Thing in Beef
The idea sounded gimmicky to Hilary Henderson, chef de cuisine at Wolfgang Puck’s CUT in Beverly Hills. Angus cattle from a couple of hours north at Santa Carota ranch (“holy carrot,” in Italian), working essentially as giant vegetable recyclers, mow down 25-ton piles of carrots culled from nearby carrot farms. Getting fat and happy on beta carotene and B vitamins, the cows are spared the feedlot, reach prime grade as fast as a grain-fed cow, and produce a juicy, virtually unrivaled steak (whose juices, incidentally, skew Hermès orange). And then she tasted it.
“I thought, If I tell Wolfgang what this is, he’s not going to want anything to do with it,” she says. “He’s heard everything, he knows everything about food, and he’s been everywhere. When you find something that he’s never heard of, he almost doesn’t believe you.”
So, having already introduced some cuts as specials on the menu without preapproval (“risky business in my line of work,” she notes), she set up a blind tasting for Puck. “The classic Wolfgang response when you actually surprise him is that he just raises his eyebrows and looks at you,” she says. (His real imprimatur, she says, was when he began requesting Santa Carota steak to cook at home for his wife and kids.)
With its millennial-magnet branding (its logo is a carrot with steer horns and a halo, and the frolicking cows on its Instagram feed stampeding to Day-Glo orange piles of carrots), Santa Carota registers more as agricultural startup than traditional ranch. But for the restaurants that are now selling it out as fast as they get it, it really doesn’t matter what you call it. I’d heard about Santa Carota from David Walzog, executive chef of SW Steakhouse and Lakeside restaurant in Las Vegas, an early adopter of the beef on his Las Vegas menus. He’d grilled a ribeye in the Lakeside kitchen that he’d received from a distributor and described a “great depth of flavor and richness like you almost exclusively find in corn-fed beef.” Once he found out that the cows were grass-fed and carrot-finished as well as hormone- and antibiotic-free, “Then it became a really interesting proposition.”
Walzog had been purchasing grass-fed, so-called “never ever” beef, which comes from animals that were fed no animal byproducts and did not receive antibiotics or hormones, from cooperative ranches in the Midwest, “But I hadn’t seen anything like this in the West, and they didn’t have the depth or richness that this beef has,” he said. At the beginning of the year, as he prepared to expand his menu from the porcini-dusted Santa Carota filet mignon he was already serving at SW to strip steak, ribeye, and other cuts, he made a taste-testing trip to the ranch itself—and I invited myself along.
The Pettit family has been raising cattle in Edison (an unincorporated community just seven miles from Bakersfield) for 30 years, and much of that time they have been supplementing their grass-fed cattle with culled carrots from nearby producers like Bolthouse Farms and Grimmway Farms, which produce more than a million pounds of carrots each in a day—the most in the world. But until two years ago, Justin and Corinne Pettit and Justin’s father, Mike, were growing their cattle to 800 pounds on grass and carrots, then sending them to a feedlot to be bulked up and finished to nearly 1300 pounds on grain. They had never considered finishing a cow on carrots, until, Justin describes, they conducted a single experiment, which they planned to try for Justin’s birthday in April of 2017 (with a pizza order as a back-up plan). Just one bite of the steaks, and they put down their forks and looked at each other. “And we said, Oh, now we have to go to work.” And they literally bet the farm. “We sold all our equipment, put everything on our credit line … had packing boxes all over our conference tables. We have everything riding on it, but we believe in it.” Within 18 months, they’d developed their logo and began selling to some of the best restaurants in the West.
Their marketing might appeal to youth culture, but Santa Carota is pure, old school Western ranch. When Walzog and I arrive, seasoned cattle rancher and longtime former professional rodeo cowboy Marv Hurley has taken the axles off a trailer and fashioned a massive grill. Long tables line the barn, which is stacked high with hay and waiting for the Pettits’ rancher neighbors and fellow cowboys. As Hurley sets up equipment, he’s trailed by his rescue mutt Pancho and faithful rooster, Brewster. The Pettit kids and their friends are on horses, practicing their roping. Walzog sets up a makeshift kitchen and the entire party moves out to the grill, where he piles a seven-bone prime ribeye, an entire striploin, a whole filet mignon, cowboy chops, tri-tips and marrow bones, along with potatoes infused with rendered beef tallow and roasted in a cast iron pan with garlic and fresh herbs; root vegetables; cast iron skillets of Portobello, maitake and cremini mushrooms, and cipollini onions. The best way to describe the steak is intensely beefy and rich, with a crusty char on buttery meat that, incidentally, does not taste of carrots.
The taste of the meat was what first struck Jen Murphy, who opened Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen in Las Vegas as executive chef and is now executive chef of restaurant operations for Caesars Palace.
“I’d heard mention of this carrot-fed beef, and I was intrigued,” she said. “But I didn’t think much of it until we did a blind tasting, and it was definitely the best one. The texture is very tender, you get nice marbling, a great mouthfeel, and all those things that you’re looking for in a steak. When you have cuts like a filet, you don’t have that minerally flavor that you’d get in lesser-quality meats. Typically, American beef is finished on corn and that’s something that’s high in sugar, and so are carrots. When you think about it, it makes sense.”
Hell’s Kitchen is now using Santa Carota for all its a la carte steaks (Murphy’s favorite is a New York strip finished with roasted garlic compound butter, shishito peppers, and maitake mushrooms sautéed with whine wine glaze and finished with a red wine demiglace.) And, she says, she loves watching Santa Carota’s IG videos: “You can tell that those cows are really happy.”
For the Pettits, promoting cow happiness really is a major part of what they do.
“When mom [cow] goes up the mountain to graze, a lot of ranchers will have to lock their calves in the pen to get weaned, and they’re crying and bawling,” Justin says. “When our calves see that carrot truck showing up, it’s like mom coming with a bottle. They have hills they can climb and they can go up and get a breeze. They still get to be cows.”
And despite its fun, grassroots marketing efforts, word-of-mouth is selling Santa Carota better than any hip logo. “I introduced my boyfriend to it [Roy Ellamar, of Harvest by Roy Ellamar in Bellagio Hotel and Casino], and he loved it so much he started using it in his own restaurant,” Murphy says. Despite Bellagio being a Caesars competitor, she says, laughing, “I feel like when you find something this good, you shouldn’t keep it a secret.”