By Martha Mintz
Heat reaches out desperately from the grill as jittery orange flames jump and dance in excited expectation. Both are practically calling out, begging for the massive ribeyes flecked delicately with flavor-bursting white fat held just inches from their grasp. When Kachina Southwestern Grill Executive Chef Jeff Bolton finally connects the beautiful cuts of beef with iron, the grill sizzles and snaps its delight.
A 4-minute sear on each side and 8 minutes in the oven transform the red and white perfection into a caramel-colored, mouthwatering medium-rare delight. Expert plating with shreds of this and swirls of that turns the Prime cut into a work of art, as pleasing to the eyes as it will be to the palate. It’s a treat those partaking in will savor with every sense, but they may not have the slightest inkling as to how long it truly took to prepare.
“The process for getting that product to the consumers starts 24 to 30 months ahead of time,” says Bronc May, Simplot custom cattle feeding manager. Simplot runs both expansive cow/calf herds as well as sizable feedyards, and the company certainly know good beef.
It all began with those ranchers carefully poring over their sale catalog this spring at the Riverbend bull sale. For this amazing culinary creation to be realized, they first have to pick genetics capable of producing the perfection that is a Prime cut.
The folks at Riverbend may argue the timeline for producing a great steak should be stretched even further back, as the strategic breeding decisions they made three years prior to the sale resulted in the genetics that May and other ranchers will use to get moving down the right path.
Once genetics are locked, ranchers have to carefully steward the health and nutrition of the cow and calf and ease them through weaning. The baton is then passed to the feeder at around 6 months, and a delicate transition in diet must be navigated. The following months require close monitoring, scientifically crafted rations and expert sorting to coax a calf into reaching his full genetic potential. Finally, harvesting must occur at exactly the right moment.
“We might sort a group of calves into three or four marketing groups to get the perfect, consistent product to the packers,” May says. “When we get down to harvest we may take a calf 20 days early or leave him on feed 20 days longer. We want to wait until we know the finished product will be perfect for the consumer.
“To get that perfect ribeye to Chef Bolton’s grill, everything has to go right at every moment spent on that two-year journey. One wrongly placed shot, an agitated animal running into a gate, a battle with a respiratory challenge or any number of other seemingly small things can send an animal on a one-way detour off the road to greatness.
The years of hard work from breeders, ranchers, feeders and processors come down to Chef Bolton as he takes a carefully crafted steak down the final stretch to the plate. With a great cut of meat, his process is simple: a smattering of salt and pepper and grill to perfection.
“Why I like steak so much is just the flavor of the meat itself. It’s not the sexy visual appeal or the presentation–as long as it’s cooked right that’s it for me,” he says.
Watching Bolton fluidly navigate his perfectly organized yet chaotic kitchen based in the Westin hotel in Westminster, Colorado, it’s easy to draw comparisons between this final steward of a steak and the early stewards. He works long hours in an often unforgiving and sometimes dangerous environment, and time off is a fleeting luxury. He has an immense and lifelong passion for what he does, has educated himself on how to produce a responsible and quality product, and considers himself a steward of the land.
And just like every link in the chain before him, Bolton’s business thrives on consistency.
“Inconsistent products definitely raise my blood pressure,” he says. It’s one of the reasons he keeps a full-time butcher, Zach Blatter, on staff. All meat served in the restaurant comes in as whole carcasses or primal cuts so quality and consistency can be carefully controlled. “We can look at the outside of a primal cut of beef, see that the fat cap is clean, that the marbling is there and can cut it consistently. We can make sure we’re holding ourselves accountable for the quality we serve our customers.”
The people and businesses in this article series are doing their best to make sure particular chefs such as Bolton can keep their blood pressure well in check. The uniform herds they’ve built through years of breeding and the data flowing back and forth from processor to feeder to producers to guide the production of quality cattle really pay off in consistent performance.
Relationships with and knowledge of many of these fine-tuned herds allow Simplot to amass large groups of cattle capable of making the grade and delivering cut after cut of uniform, flavorful perfection to untold numbers of kitchens.
Spreading the word
As with many of those followed in this series, Bolton doesn’t just put on blinders and do his job; he makes an effort to extend his knowledge and impact on both ends of his business. He knows many of the farmers and ranchers who supply his business and works to educate his consumer.
“I think the connection and camaraderie between farmers and ranchers and chefs and supermarkets has grown,” he says. A movement he feels is brought on by the consumer’s desire to know where their food is coming from and how it’s produced. “The more we can get ranchers to get out there and communicate with us and educate the consumers, the more beneficial it will be for everybody.”
He notes that especially with large beef enterprises, there’s a public perception that in his words, “bigger is badder.” Those large operations couldn’t possibly be focused on producing a quality product in a manner that takes careful heed of animal welfare and environmental impact.
“They think they’re so big they can’t be doing it right,” Bolton says. “Ranchers need to reach out to consumers and say, ‘We’re still doing it right. We’re still treating our animals properly, rotating our crops and doing all these right things and still producing killer cuts of beef.'”
Bolton does his part to educate consumers. He has taken groups of people to supermarkets with full butcher shops and taught them about dry aging, cutting and the quality of steaks. At the end of the day he prepared Choice beef, dry aged Certified Angus Beef and an 18-day dry aged bison steak.
“We just grilled them up with salt and pepper, and people were blown away at the difference in flavor and tenderness of the Certified Angus Beef. That’s what I look for is our customer’s reaction to what the steak is in terms of quality and how it’s prepared,” Bolton says.
One of Bolton’s satisfied customers included Steve Harrison, Riverbend Ranch general manager. As he tucked into a perfectly cooked 24-ounce ribeye fresh from Bolton’s kitchen he reflected on what he could glean about the animal’s life from every juicy, flavor bursting bite.
“I just think how everyone had to do the right thing at every step of the way to make this happen,” Harrison says. The chef, the processor, the feeder, the veterinarians, the nutritionists, the ranchers and the breeders all had to hit a home run.
Looking at its recipe, many countless steps and a very long prep period all take part in making a truly amazing steak.