Buying bigger cuts can actually help chefs trim costs.

By Stacey Ballis
Updated July 01, 2019
Credit: Photo by DebbiSmirnoff via Getty Images

Chefs these days have a mandate to cut down on food waste. They've always been keenly aware of the cost and mindful of tossing money in the trash, but now the impetus is coming from a more public and civic-minded place. Awareness of environmental issues connected to the agricultural industries, and an appreciation of what goes into farming the food we eat has spurred even the most high-profile chefs in the world to become much more thoughtful and creative about how they approach dealing with trimmings and offcuts of the products they use. Where it used to be fairly common that scraps that didn’t hit the bin ended up unceremoniously dumped into soups or stews for staff meals, Michelin-starred chefs are now challenging their cooks to get creative in their approaches and see if these things can become elements of dishes sent out to paying diners.

Certified Master Chef Stephen Giunta, who cooked for President Reagan, taught at the Culinary Institute of America, and is now Sterling Silver chef and culinary director, Cargill Protein Group, says, “Chefs in general hate to waste food and think very strategically of how to maximize their expensive food purchases while delivering exceptional flavor and variety. Dehydrating, curing, smoking, even creating a vegetable ash from trimmings are ways to take the waste out of production and turn that into wonderful food.” We see elements of this everywhere, from fried sweet potato skins, to pickled herb stems, to beet greens kimchi. Chefs are turning trash into treasure.

But how does this translate to meat? It can feel tempting as a chef to order only the cuts of meat that you know you intend to use. In menu planning, certain cuts jump out as enormously desirable, and dishes tend to design themselves around that central protein. Different times of year lend themselves to different styles of cooking, which also leans you in the direction of particular cuts. Ordering only those cuts can feel like a time, labor, and cash saver, but does it really have a positive impact on the bottom line?

“This philosophy certainly translates to beef, and chefs are getting more purposeful in menu designs that take advantage of modern butchery skills and growing consumer tastes.” Giunta says. By ordering larger primal cuts, a chef is presented with both a challenge and an opportunity. The upfront cost is significantly lower per pound for purchasing in these large format pieces, which lowers your overall product costs. And while it does require more skilled labor in your kitchen to break down these pieces, it is also a wonderful learning opportunity for your staff—many of whom would otherwise have to stage with a butcher or at a large restaurant where they do their own in-house butchery—to learn these very marketable skills. Line cooks and prep cooks in are supported in their journey to become better professionals, the better chance restaurants have to retain good staff because they will feel that their growth is being championed.

Chefs also love the control they have over trim for individual cuts. Every chef has their preferred look and style of meats, from how much fat is trimmed or left in place, to precise thicknesses. Being able to create these service cuts to custom standards makes for a happy kitchen.

Some chefs fear larger cuts because they don’t want to feel pressure to put too many beef dishes on the menu at any one time and think there will be too much waste. But look at the larger picture. Being confronted with this abundance of riches can be an exciting creative challenge. There is a needed push in the industry to minimize food waste, and many chefs are throwing their energy into being more creative with their approach to recipes. Having the bonus material on hand to use for recipe testing can be inspiring and make for some exciting daily specials in rotation. If you are actively encouraging the cooks in your kitchen to develop their own offerings, they'll have exciting ingredients to play with, and the extra can make for some lovely staff meals.

“Skewered meats and meatballs are two trends that really help make the most out of a piece of beef that the restaurant is committed to use more of. Striploin vein ends, beef tenderloin tips and tails, rib eye trimmings if the spinalis is separated from the loin—all can be used in ground or thin sliced applications,” says Giunta. “Pickling and slow simmering are also great techniques for beef trimmings and can be a creative part of a charcuterie board. A small glass jar of tender, simmered beef and some rendered bone marrow make an excellent beef rillette that begs for some crusty bread.”

The next time you are looking at your order sheet and your impulse is to turn directly to the prepped steaks section, ask yourself how the bigger picture in your kitchen might actually benefit from bigger meat.