Some readers expressed concern about product sourcing in my "First Impressions" piece on Juno's Kitchen & Delicatessen. Specifically, in this farm-to-table, local-first restaurant town, they were not thrilled that chef Mark Helms uses beef from New Zealand. I may have raved about his burger, but some wondered why he didn't get his beef from around here.
It's an excellent question - and a tough one.
Before I address it, let's begin with a digression. Way back in 2004, The Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op went through a red meat controversy (the Co-op wanted to carry red meat, while opponents didn't want anything more, animal-wise, than seafood and chicken in the store). After much debate, the very ethical store opted to carry organic beef from Prather Ranch in Klamath Falls, Ore. It seems so long ago, because well-sourced beef is such a big-seller at the Co-op now - and so mainstream. Back then, I went to Prather Ranch to check out what it was all about and learn why it met the Co-op's very stringent guidelines. I note that it was a five-hour drive, one-way, which meant I passed a lot of other beef ranches large and small just getting there.
I won't go into Prather Ranch too much here, but what was really noteworthy was that it had a genetically closed herd, meaning there was no chance of mad cow disease. This is where it gets slightly weird. The 15,00-acre ranch did this initially because it had become an exclusive supplier of pristine hides to a California company that would extract collagen from those hides and sell it to plastic surgeons -- the collagen makes the wrinkles go away. With this unique herd, Prather only later decided to get into the beef business. Prather hides are worth thousands of dollars more than the premium organic beef the hides enveloped.
As for Juno's wonderful burgers, it's safe to say Helms' skillset and attention to detail could make practically any beef taste great. When he opened the new place several weeks ago, he had plenty of options for his beef. He went with the grass-fed Wagyu from New Zealand. Several weeks earlier, I did a tasting of this beef with John Paul Khoury, corporate chef at Preferred Meats, the company that supplies Helms with this product. It really is excellent -- lots of deep flavor, and there's a richness to it without seeming fatty or greasy.
After the "First Impressions" piece on Sunday, and the subsequent concerns from readers, I asked Khoury to weigh in on my Facebook page. Here's what he wrote:
"I supply the beef to Juno's and it is NOT possible to get this beef from California. The New Zealanders do not have a Mad Cow issue so they can take their cattle up to 4 years on grass. It is necessary to get the marbling on the Wagyu that they stay on grass for longer than 2 years, which is where we need to slaughter cattle here in US. So to get this unique grass-fed Wagyu, you need to go to the pristine pastures of New Zealand. Don't get me wrong- we do local grass-fed. We do local Wagyu. But this particular product is unique to the region and I have not had anything like it domestically. Hope this makes sense."
Makes sense to me. It's a specialty item, and there are plenty of other options out there. The Alice Waters edict to be local and sustainable has become something of a religion in San Francisco, but this is a Bay Area trend that I hope we don't mimic to that extent. As the New York Times Magazine wrote about a year ago (in a piece about the creative flavors of ice cream, of all things, offered at Humphrey Slocombe), the farm-to-table mantra had sucked the creativity and risk-taking out of much of the city's dining scene.
I just drank wine from France on Friday, Italy on Saturday. I hope that's still OK. My olive oil is from Italy, too. Sometimes, so is the pasta I buy at Corti Brothers. Come to think about it, Helms uses salt from the Himalayas, and Lounge ON20 is using a finishing salt from Vietnam.
I would imagine that Helms, like many excellent chefs, is always looking for an edge, whether it is with equipment, products or techniques. This is the beef he chose for what he's doing now and the results speak for themselves. It is different beef than he used when he also made an incredible burger at Ravenous Café a few years back. A chef of his caliber and one with his high-minded outlook on sustainability and farming should be given the benefit of the doubt in this instance. Besides, as I suggested in the piece on Sunday, there's another great burger at Formoli's just up J Street. Try them both. Keep an open mind. Compare. Contrast. Discuss.