Chowzter Awards + Interview with Mark Schatzker
In light of Chowzter’s The Tastiest Feast 2014 Awards we interviewed Mark Schatzker, a steak enthusiast with a fascinating new book devoted to steaks from all over the globe.
When dining, what do you look for in a steak?
I look for a steak that is good, as they say, in and of itself. I’m not looking for a good sauce, a good rub, or artistic plating. I care about tenderness and juiciness, but the main thing I’m after is flavour.
How do you like your steak restaurants to be?
I don’t care. I prefer a restaurant that is pleasant – not too loud, too dark, uncomfortable seats, poor service, and so forth. But like love, a good steak can happen anywhere.
At what point did you realize that you were a steak enthusiast?
I suppose the realization was gradual. When I was in my teens, my dad and I would go up to the family cottage (that’s what we call a cabin next to a lake) for a weekend and there would be a discussion about what cut we were going to get, how thick and all that. I traveled to South America in my early 20s, and eating superb steak featured prominently in that adventure. But I probably didn’t fully realize I was an enthusiast until I began writing about steak. Part of the problem is that there isn’t an organized body of enthusiasts, as you have with wine or cheese. That’s changed quite a bit in the last decade or so. But back when I first got interested in steak, asking questions about things like breed and feed marked you as an eccentric.
If you had to name your top five foodie cities, what would they be?
That’s a tough one. We often think of cities as the places to go for great food, largely because you find the loudest voices in cities as well as the most expensive restaurants. My advice is to be wary of loud voices and expensive restaurants. But I will say this: Two of my favorite countries to eat in are Italy and Mexico, and in both countries the best gastronomic experiences – at least for me – have never been in the big cities.
In comparison to the US, what do you like about the London restaurant scene?
People in the US always talk about a new restaurant as a “concept”. There’s a sense of contrivance to it, as though they’re trying to hit upon the next big thing. I lived in London for two years and what I loved most was that chefs seemed to be speaking more from the heart. They were sharing what they thought was good.
High-quality steaks are one of the growing trends in the London restaurant scene. What kind of new trends are you interested in?
Since the steak book I have become extremely interested in how and why food is flavorful (This is what my next book is about, which will be published in about a year.) That isn’t exactly trendy, and I’m not sure it ever will be. I don’t care. I find myself becoming more and more disillusioned by the whole idea of trends. For example, hay oil got trendy a couple years back. Now you don’t hear much about hay oil (at least in Toronto). Why is that? If hay oil tasted good two years ago, shouldn’t it taste good now? Or were we all just pretending it tasted good two years ago? I recognize that, as with all things, food is subject to fashions that come and go. But I really wish the people who write about food would devote more attention to how food tastes, and why, than whether or not it’s hot or trendy. Which brings me back to the question of high quality steaks. I desperately hope this is not a trend. I hope it is an end to the long dark age of steak mediocrity.
What were the most surprising things you learnt while writing your new book; Steak: One Man’s Search for the World’s Tastiest Piece of Beef?
A) That most of the world is eating mediocre steak. B) That most steak enthusiasts know very little about the meat they love – they’re rolling the dice every time they eat steak. C) That outside of Japan, the beef industry doesn’t much care about quality.
The steakhouse culture in UK is very much still growing in the UK. What kind of drinks go well with steaks besides red wine?
Drinks that contain alcohol.
Seriously, I would advise that people stay away from sweet drinks. But I don’t like sweet drinks, even without steak. Acidity is seen as good because it cuts the fat. But there’s a danger there. Good wine can enable a bad steak. A lot of steaks, especially here in North America, are fatty and tender and have no flavor. A steak like that doesn’t have much to recommend it. But if you take a bite of a steak like that, then cut the fat with a sip of Barolo, the interplay of fat and acid tells its own little story. This is the very model followed by many steakhouses – serve people crappy tenderloin bathed in butter with a decent red and everyone will think the food was good. My own preference, when it comes to a great steak, is a more subtle red, like a good Burgundy. The problem is I can’t afford as much good Burgundy as I would like. Donations are welcome.
You’re coming to London to lead the world’s first steak symposium on April 26th. What will the event involve and what will you hope will be the outcome?
I’m going to be delivering a talk about where flavor comes from in beef, and how steak lovers should think about flavor. There is also going to be a a steak tasting.
Finally what was the best steak you’ve ever had?
Impossible to answer. It’s like asking which of my three children I like best. I have had a handful of steaks in my life that have nearly scarred me they’ve been so good. Doesn’t happen often. And then when it does happen, you run out trying to find it again but never seem to until eventually you begin doubting that steak ever was that good. And then – blammo! – it happens again. The last extraordinary steak I had was in Calistoga, California, with my friend Douglas Hayes. The steak was sent from Alderspring Ranch, in Idaho, which I wrote about in the book. I hadn’t had an Alderspring steak in quite some time, because it’s hard to get them over the border into Canada.
Steak: One Man’s Search for the World’s Tastiest Piece of Beef can now be purchased in the UK on Amazon.