Yellow Bell Farm organic chicken with orzo at Sweet Grass Grill. | Photo by Joseph Tagarelli, Cherry Media House
Eating organic is nothing new, but Westchester menus illustrate an increasing interest in meats from humanely raised animals.
There was a time not all that long ago when the terms “pasture-raised” and “free-range” were only tossed around at farmers’ markets, and even then, just one or two booths advertised the feature. It’s also a safe bet that many market shoppers eager to nibble a sample cube of “grass-fed cheese” didn’t fully comprehend everything the terms implied.
Lately, it’s a challenge to find a Westchester menu without at least one such mention (often more) or a Westchester consumer who is utterly clueless as to what it all means.
“There’s a growing percentage of diners who are becoming more aware of what they’re consuming,” says Michael Kaphan, chef/owner at Purdy’s Farmer & the Fish, in North Salem, where, “all of our beef, poultry, and fish, since day one, is sourced from small family farms and coops where the animals are free-range and ethically raised.” As a result, he says, the meat boasts a richer, fuller taste. “The better you treat the animal, the better your product will be. It’s that simple.”
Drew George, chef/owner of FarmEats BBQ, a farm-to-smoker restaurant in Irvington, elaborates. “Humanely and pasture-raised animals are out there doing what they want to do, what they’re supposed to do.” He continues, “They’re walking the fields, eating fresh grass; they’re not fattened up with corn and commodity grain. They live their whole lives on the pasture, and they’re not confined.” In essence, he opines, “They’re raised correctly.”
Jack Algiere, farm director at Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture, a nonprofit farm and education hub in Pocantico Hills, points out that “all animals have a service to provide, and that’s respectable, and it should be revered and celebrated.”
Particularly when it comes time for the inevitable slaughter, says Kaphan, who points out that concern for the animal is paramount on farms that abide by ethical practices. “They’re held and handled nicely, they have food and water until the end, and the end comes quick,” whereas at large, conventional farms, animals stand on long, assembly-type lines leading to the slaughterhouse. “This is stressful to the animal. It causes them to release stress hormones that affect the quality and taste of the meat.”
At Peekskill’s Apropos Restaurant & Bar, Executive Chef Jared Secor says all of the beef on his menu comes from a farmer who grows his cattle near the slaughterhouse, thereby decreasing the stress on the animal and easing the transition from what he calls, “a snuggly creature to a quality product.”
John Crabtree, owner of Crabtree’s Kittle House Restaurant & Inn, a longstanding pillar of farm-to-table dining in Chappaqua, first noticed such quality and taste differences in 1981, when his family bought the restaurant and local farmers knocked on the back door with free-range chickens for sale. “I’m also a real animal lover,” he says, which further cemented his commitment to serving only humanely raised meats in his restaurant and at banquets. “The meat is more tender, and the taste is much more appealing.”
There’s also a “seasonality” to the meat, George observes. “Pasture cows eat a lot of hay over the winter to stay warm, and by spring, they’re nice and fat. In the summer, they trim down a little, and you can really taste the difference.” Plus, he continues, different pastures are rich with varying types of vegetation, which brings “a whole other dimension” to the meat.
Nancy Allen Roper, chef and owner of Truck, in Bedford, has a similar appreciation and affection for animals raised as food. “Brisket is our second-most-popular menu item, and it breaks my heart when a customer complains about a quarter-inch of fat. That’s just part of the whole flavor profile of the animal.”
Algiere suggests that restaurateurs are the strongest influencers of food and agricultural trends, as they’re the ones feeding the masses. “Restaurants have a huge responsibility in this, and it’s a burden to carry.” He adds that consumers need to realize they, too, have the power to effect change. “Every time you shop or dine out, you get to make a choice about how much meat you eat, it’s quality, and where it comes from.”
Crabtree sees this burgeoning realization about how food is raised as a generational thing. “Younger people are more aware than we were growing up. It’s more pervasive in their culture; they just know this stuff naturally,” he says.
For Kaphan, that signals change on the horizon. “The more consumers demand humanely raised meat, the more farming practices will change. Prices will come down, and the result will be better quality food for all.”
In the meantime, “There are a lot more backyard chickens these days,” laughs Roper, who believes COVID is to thank for an uptick in gardening, homesteading, and people “trying to be more self-sustaining.”
And that is key, according to David Starkey, who owns farm-to-taco Tomatillo, in Dobbs Ferry, and Tarrytown’s Sweet Grass Grill and Grass Roots Kitchen: “As we get closer and closer to our food, we realize its true value.”