Many of the agricultural advances of the past century have focused on two things: providing convenience and lowering costs. And while those advances have led to plenty of astonishing feats, the drive toward innovative production has often been more concerned with quantity than quality. Of course, that’s no longer the case. When Chef Alfred Portale first started at Gotham, one of his primary concerns was sourcing ingredients: finding purveyors and farms that were producing premium products. Niman Ranch is certainly one of the organizations leading the charge, and we’re thrilled to be able to partner with them.
A little while back our Managing Director, Bret Csencsitz, had the pleasure of sitting down with George Faison of Debragga & Spitler Butchers, and John Tarpoff, Vice President of Beef for Niman Ranch.
Bret Csencsitz: John, what is your job at Niman Ranch?
John Tarpoff: My job is to raise the best quality meat possible. It is one thing I focus on: quality.
George Faison: What Niman Ranch does in terms of quality is unprecedented. They have thought through the whole process so as to make the best beef possible.
BC: Certainly at Gotham we believe in the Niman quality, as do our diners. I think we have the best steak in New York, thanks in large part to you two men. John, how do you do it?
JT: It starts with caring… caring about getting the highest percentage of prime-graded meat. And what we have learned is that the best way to get that is by caring about your product from the very beginning, all the way through its journey to the plate. It starts with genetics, then how the animals are fed and treated, and then, of course, George’s dry-aging program at Debragga & Spitler. Finally, it’s about the process, the preparation here in the restaurant.
BC: I’m curious about your workday. What does that look like?
JT: My office is in Denver, my home is in Illinois, and I am rarely at either. My work takes me to the fields and farms where the cattle are raised. I might be inspecting a new rancher or advising someone on how to get into the Niman program, looking over new calves for genetic qualifications or overseeing a testing of a rancher’s feed to assure they are following guidelines. Basically I spend a lot of time in the field. Literally.
BC: Sounds challenging. Why would a rancher want to work with Niman.
JT: Well, first we pay a premium, and secondly, I find farmers feel better about our approach. The beef industry right now produces only about 1.5 to 2 percent prime meat. At Niman Ranch, 35 to 40 percent of our beef is graded prime. So I think it proves that our systems work, and given that we pay more, we think ranchers will continue to want to work with us.
BC: How hard is it to be a rancher for Niman?
JT: It is more difficult to do things the Niman way. That is why we pay the ranchers an extra $150 to $200 per head. That makes the paperwork worthwhile. It takes cattle longer to finish our way. That is another cost that has to be added in. (Using antibiotics and hormones finishes the cattle much faster.) We’re looking for family ranchers and farmers, people who are willing to slow things down a little to produce a better product. It’s a whole different model from commodity farming.
BC: Now once the beef is raised, there is a whole other process of aging. And that is where you come in George, right?
GF: Absolutely. We are that middle ground between the making and the dining. We source the best beef and then treat it accordingly, so that we can provide places like Gotham with an exceptional product. What I do is, like John, I look for the best-quality product out there and find a way to get it into your restaurant. All along the way it will cost more, so the product is going to be more expensive. But our perspective is: eat less, but eat better.