The Pros and Cons
April 2012 Chef Training
One of the most basic decisions a restaurateur makes when developing their concept is where his or her kitchen will exist on the continuum that starts with buying everything pre-prepared, and ends with doing everything from scratch. Very few restaurants occupy the terrain at either extreme, with most fitting somewhere in between.
They arrive at this position after many decisions have been made having to do with, to name some of the more important considerations: quality, consistency, cost of goods sold, labor costs, product availability, time constraints, customer expectations, vendors, the skill level and size of the staff, kitchen layout and storage space. Most of the decisions that have to be made are obvious. It probably doesn’t make sense to think about hiring a pastry chef to make puff pastry in-house if your most popular baked item is a Bear Claw that your customers won’t pay more than 80¢ for. On the other hand, if you plan on charging $12.50 for a ham sandwich you should, at the very least, consider baking par-baked bread every morning.
Meat is one of the highest cost items in most restaurants, with some of the highest customer expectations and one of the greatest potentials for profit as well as loss. In light of this, it behooves you to figure out just how much in-house meat fabrication makes the most sense for your particular operation. We’ll consider the different factors you should take into account when making your decisions, as well as looking at a few specific fabrications that many operators would benefit from incorporating into their procedures.
To begin with, let’s look at how an entire animal carcass is broken down into progressively more manageable stages prior to finally becoming the cuts we ultimately cook in our restaurants. Beef, veal, pork and lamb all follow a similar basic plan. First, the entire carcass is divided into two “sides” by making a cut down the length of the backbone. Then, each side is cut into two pieces between pre-specified vertebrae. The part from the front of the animal is called the “forequarter,” and the other, the “hindquarter.” Both these quarters are further divided into what is known as “primal cuts.” The primal cuts that come from the forequarter are the chuck, rib, brisket, fore shank and plate. The primal cuts that come from the hindquarter are the loin, round, flank and shank. Each of these primal cuts is then broken down into “subprimals” and then, finally, “retail cuts.” It should be noted that uniform standards are used at each stage of the process outlined above. For a very detailed description of the above, see The Meat Buyers Guide, produced by the National Association of Meat Purveyors. It’s an industry bible.
Realize that each of the primal cuts contain products that might be useful to incorporate on our menus, but some knowledge about just how to best use each cut is important. Some are great when sautéed or grilled, others do better when roasted, and others need long, slow simmering to bring out their best attributes. Some are expensive, and others are relative bargains; all can be profitable. This is a very important topic that will wait for another article.
Few kitchens have the prep space, trained staff, equipment or storage space to deal with forequarters or hindquarters, let alone sides or entire carcasses. Band saws and other specialized equipment, dedicated butchers and ample walk-in and prep space are beyond the scope of most restaurants. But, depending on your situation, many benefits might be garnered from processing primal or subprimal cuts of meat into the products you ultimately cook and serve on your menu. Simple, easily learned techniques that can be perfected with a little practice will yield benefits such as increased consistency of portions, product specs that may not be available from your vendors, increased product quality and reduced costs. And much of the trim that results from the butchering process, although this should always be kept to a minimum, can be used for other menu items such as stocks, garnishes, soups and sauces.
One of the main points to take into account when deciding if it makes more sense to buy a certain product ready to cook or to butcher it in-house, is to figure out how much trim is produced in the process of butchering it. With this information we can figure out what our actual price for the finished product is. The price we pay for the finished product is called the Edible Portion cost (“EP cost”). The price we paid for the entire cut we get the desired product from is known as the As Purchased cost (“AP cost”). Always use the EP cost when figuring out menu prices and food cost per serving.
An example of determining EP cost, using a fabrication common in many kitchens, can be seen in the in-house cleaning of a beef psmo. A “psmo” is a beef tenderloin peeled of most of its fat, with the side muscle still attached (“Peeled, Side Muscle On”). Its identifying number in the Meat Buyers Guide is 189A. The normal fabrication would be to remove the silverskin and the side muscle before either roasting the tenderloin whole, or cutting it into individual steaks to be grilled or sautéed. After removing the silverskin and side muscle, we end up with what is identified in the Meat Buyers Guide as a 190A. The price per pound of the psmo, as purchased, is the AP cost. To determine the EP cost, which is what really matters, weigh the tenderloin after removing the silverskin and side muscle and divide the AP cost by that weight. So, if the psmo cost $18 per pound and weighed 6 pounds, you paid $108 for that psmo. If, after removing the silverskin and side muscle, it weighs 4.5 pounds, divide $108 by 4.5. This tells you that your EP cost, the cost you’ve really paid for what you end up cooking, is $24 per pound. Although there is no use for the silverskin, you can use the pound or so of side muscle meat, once the connective tissue is removed, for something like a Bolognese sauce. If your vendor’s price on a 190A is $26 per pound, you’re ahead about $9 per tenderloin, plus you have a pound or so of excellent trim to use in another dish. There is also not a bad chance that, with some practice, your staff will do a nicer job of trimming this cut than the butchers working in the processing plant do. If, however, you can get a 190A for $23.50 per pound, you might want to reconsider. Another reason to opt for the more-processed cut is if you’re in the middle of a very busy season and value the time and convenience more than you do the savings in cost or usable trim. To take it a little further, for reasons of convenience, workspace, time or training, you might decide that the way for you to go is to buy individually portioned fillet mignons of a specific weight. Regardless, make sure that you are comparing apples to apples by checking to see that any prices you are quoted are all for the same grade of meat (prime, choice or select).
Another major point to consider in deciding whether or not it’s in your best interest to make a particular fabrication part of your operation is the labor involved. You must weigh the advantages of greater control of portions and quality, and savings in food costs, against the time and resources it will take to train and supervise the staff required to do the butchering and, of course, to schedule them to do so. If you can’t find a vendor who can supply a particular cut to the specifications you want, you may have no choice. But if a certain amount of in-house fabrication will give you the exact quality and specs you want, it will be worth the time and effort. Just don’t forget that, even though any increased labor costs won’t show up in your food costs, they are still there. A dollar is a dollar. That being said, there are often many advantages to fabricating certain items on premise. Even taking into account additional labor, many products will still end up being less expensive than buying them ready to cook, and you will also have the advantages of better consistency, quality and useful by-products. Plus, just like making your own stocks, doing a certain amount of butchering in-house is a sign of a more professional, well-trained kitchen.
With all this in mind, here are a few fabrications that save numerous operators money while enabling them offer a higher quality product to their guests.
Cutting and pounding cutlets, whether beef tenderloin, beef top round, veal loin, pork loin, or chicken or turkey breast is easy, results in a more consistent product and is more economical than purchasing them pre-made. A cutlet refers to a portion of meat pounded thinly to an even thickness across its entire surface so that it will cook evenly and quickly when sautéed or pan-fried. First, using an ounce scale, cut individual portions from the larger piece of meat. Put each individual portion between two pieces of plastic wrap on a cutting board and, using a mallet and working from the center to the edges, gently pound the portion until it reaches the desired thickness. If you don’t have a mallet, the side of a cleaver or bottom of a skillet can be used. Store the cutlets between sheets of plastic wrap.
Trimming a beef tenderloin, as mentioned above, is another simple fabrication that is almost always worth doing in-house. First, remove any fat that remains on the tenderloin. In an effort to not accidentally remove any meat, much of this step can be done with your hands instead of a knife. Then cut off the chain, which runs along one side of the tenderloin and contains a lot of fat and tough, connective tissue. Next remove the silverskin; this is the thin, silvery covering that will be very tough if left on. To do this, use the tip of a very sharp boning knife to get under a portion of the silverskin at one end of the tenderloin and release a couple of inches of it from the meat. Then, tightly holding this released piece of silverskin up away from the meat at about a 30-degree angle with one hand, slide the knife along the entire length of the tenderloin to remove a thin strip of the silverskin. Keep the blade of the knife angled slightly upward, away from the meat. Repeat until all the silverskin is removed. The goal is to have no meat on the strips of removed silverskin. At this point, the tenderloin can either be roasted or grilled whole, or portioned into individual steaks. Make sure to use an ounce scale! The chain can be trimmed of fat and sinew and used in sauces, soups or in a very good staff meal.
Frenching racks of lamb in-house will give you greater control over the extent of trim loss, as well as save some money. Figure out the EP cost, as described above, to decide if this fabrication makes sense for your operation. With a little practice, it becomes a very quick and easy process. First, find the two points on each side of the top of the rack that are about 3 inches from the end of the eye of the meat, measuring towards the end of the bones. Using a boning knife, make a straight cut connecting the two points, going all the way down to the bones. Then, along that initial cut, use the point of knife to cut all the way through between each bone. Turn the rack over and use the tip of the knife to cut through the membrane along the center of the length of each bone. Hold the rack on the cutting board with the ends of the bones facing up and curved away from you (so the top of the rack is facing you). Push the bones through the slit in the membrane with your thumbs, pulling the fat back with your fingers. At this point, the rack is “Frenched,” with the bones clean and free of any meat or fat. To finish, remove as much fat covering as desired from the top of the rack.