Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Cut the Bull Wolfgang

A few weeks ago my wife returned from a trip to Los Angeles with a menu from Cut, a steakhouse owned and operated by Wolfgang Puck and an amusing, if questionable, anecdote about how the restaurant procures it's supply of Japanese Waygu Wagyu beef. In response to a question about the provenance of the Japanese Waygu beef a server told my wife that ever since the Japanese stopped importing beef from the USA following the report of the occurrence of Mad Cow Disease (BSE) in a Washington State dairy cow in 2003, it has been illegal to import Waygu beef from Japan. However, Puck's restaurant (s) are able to serve Japanese Waygu because they buy it from a distributor in Australia where the import and export of beef from Japan is entirely legal.

I don't want to make too much of Puck's tap dance around a law that is clearly designed to be a bargaining chip in negotiations with Japan. I'd probably do the same if I were in his place. But I would like to point out that by serving Japanese Waygu beef, Chef Puck is breaking a promise that he made to his customers and his allies at HUSUS (The Humane Society of the United States ), The Farm Sanctuary and PETA when he banned foie gras from all of his restaurants and adopted a nine point program to relieve animal suffering. Specifically, item 4 of the nine point program "created in conjunction with The HSUS and Farm Sanctuary"

Wolfgang Puck will not serve veal from producers that confine their calves in individual veal crates. This inhumane intensive confinement practice prevents calves from even turning around or walking for months on end.
Everyone who knows how Wagyu cattle are raised in Japan recognizes that most of them (probably all of them) are confined in stalls for as long as 3 years while they are fattened on grain, beer and sake. By comparison, American formula fed veal calves spend no more than 20 weeks in confinement before slaughter while American foie gras producers raise their ducks in large barns and finish them in pens with 4-5 ducks per pen. 

So how is it that Cut won't sell confined veal, caged chickens and foie gras, but it will sell beef that comes from cattle that have not been allowed to walk at will for three years? I suppose only Chef Puck and those who  convinced  him to adopt and implement his nine point program can answer that one. 

8 Week old ducks at Hudson Valley Foie Gras


Jessika said...

I'm going to be a spelling fascist.
It's wagyu, gyu being cow/cattle.

I do agree with you on ethics. If it is poorly managed and you have adopted an ethical approach to what to serve or not, then follow it. Finances rule being that wagyu is such a pricy beef.
Japan is overall a poor producer in terms of quantity of meat you can "produce". The land sources are so scarce that even a small farm can have problems with it's terrain and what it can farm. Enter traditional japanese foods, notably rice and fish.

Tags said...

Note to Wolfgang;

Bring back pucks
of foie gras from ducks.

Natalie Sztern said...

good for you!

(r my posts getting through to you cause this is my second..did my first show up?)

Natalie Sztern said...

aaah i see it now...I meant to say 'Good for you' to bring this to a post. In another life I believe I was a rights activist which is why I am so outspoken at times...i could swear i hear a familiarity in some of your words...

where one breaks one law they are liable to be breaking many more. In the restaurant business you don't want to hear this kind of story

Heath said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Heath said...

A few points:

Servers don't always know where the stuff comes from, or they don't care and just say whatever think will please a guest, because they work for tips.

I think the key problem is that he attacked certain practices (confinement in the case of veal) - and did it in a very public fashion. If he's going to serve meat raised in confinement, to keep people trusting him he'd have to do a campaign and explain why his choice wasn't hypocritical.

For what it is worth, it isn't clear the Wagyu cows mind being indoors.

As ugly as it looks, the cattle have been selected over many generations to live in exactly that sort of system. The ones that thrive get to pass on their genes. The ones that are miserably stressed don't get to pass on their genes. You see the same thing with other animals that peopel raise.

I'm going to guess the Wagyu cattle are very dumb and low-energy and don't mind being inside - as those would tend to survive that sort of confinement.

Sure, he can argue that Wagyu beef isn't veal, so point #4 doesn't apply. But he's not going to do that, because it would be a PR disaster.

He set himself up for this problem when he decided to enter the make-people-feel-he's-morally-superior business, instead of sticking to cooking good-tasting food that people want to eat.

If your charges are true - that is, that he's serving confinement-raised cattle, don't you think it is interesting that it took so long for someone to figure it out and bring it up? Why does it have to fall on Bob del Grosso to do it?

My understanding: most chefs/guests don't care about this stuff. They just care about taste, price, consistency and availability.

What they actually serve/eat and say/believe about it are two entirely different things - and that's exactly how people want it.

Proof: it took Bob to figure it out, not some other guest. You can bet that a lot of self-righteous people who say they don't want to eat "factory beef" at there before Bob's wife, yet we haven't heard from them. You can bet that a lot of smug people:

1) Have been eating it the Wagyu at Puck

2) Think it tastes incredibly delicious.

3) Spent a lot of money on it.

4) Pat themselves on the back about how their steak was produced (even while being ignorant of the entire pricess).

5) If/when they hear they ate confinement-raised beef that tastes incredible, they will try to convince themselves that somehow it was OK.

6) Will promptly forget aobut the whole thing until it is time to procure some extremely delicious beef.

Here's a tip for chefs: there's no need to talk about animal welfare, how local your food is, how sustainable, etc.

Just serve food that tastes great. People will rationalize on your behalf if you just feed them excellent food. People really don't want to know about that other stuff, especially if it gets in the way of them eating the stuff they want to eat.

It sounds cynical, but that's been my experience.

Zalbar said...

This is what happens when a chef hits a certain celebrity status. They're no longer the ones making all the decisions from a personal point of view. They become a brand. They are global and corporate. Look at Gordon Ramsay, it's all managed and slick.

So while Wolfgang says something, he might be going on secondhand information provided to him.

Yet another reason not to yearn to be famous. Sort of like politicians, you go into it full of ideals, and then the system corrupts you.

Beau said...


So, based on your logic, a Chef could serve great tasting Berkshire pork, but advertise and price it as Mangalitsa? Sure, it may not taste the same, but most patrons are either too ignorant or too hypocritical to care, right?

A Chef serving a product that he hasn't done his homework on is forgiveable. A Chef that serves a product that isn't what it's advertised to be is not.

If Slow Food spokespeople can't be open and honest about materials and methods of production, then we're no different than our commodity based counterparts.

It boils down to integrity.

Heath said...

"So, based on your logic, a Chef could serve great tasting Berkshire pork, but advertise and price it as Mangalitsa? Sure, it may not taste the same, but most patrons are either too ignorant or too hypocritical to care, right?"

The sort of fraud you are describing is a bit different than what Puck is accused of - but, for what it is worth, that sort of fraud goes on all the time. There are many dishonest people in the meat business, and there are a lot of dishonest people in the restaurant business.

Most patrons are too ignorant to care. So long as the food tastes good enough, they probably won't press he issue of whether or not the menu accurately described the food.

Wolfgang's problem is quite different: some time ago, he positioned himself as doing certain things. Now he's doing things appear incongruent with what he did in the past, yet he isn't advertising the change. That's different than selling a chicken and calling it goose.