John Curtas is …

A Kvetch About Kobe

We cannot think clearly about things until we call them what they are. – George Orwell

NOT made in America

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Let’s talk about Kobe and “Kobe” beef for a minute, shall we?

A FB friend (let’s call him Don) writes:

So….I was at Le Cirque the other night where they were charging an extra $140 for a wagyu ribeye which in the description was noted as “kobe” (yes, the quotes were included in the description). The waiter says this is real kobe beef. I questioned that since it is my understanding that real kobe never leaves Japan. I’m thinking I’m wrong or this waiter just thought I was some dumbass hick. Any thoughts?

Why yes, Don, I do have some thoughts and here they are:

The picture at the top of the page is true, Japanese, A-4 wagyu beef, certified as such by the Japanese Meat Grading Association, and available at CUT (where the picture was taken) for $165 for a strip steak, or $175 for an 8 oz. rib eye.

This meat has not been available in the United States for the past several years (due to an outbreak of hoof and mouth disease), but our government’s ban has now been lifted and our luxury restaurants (like CUT, Le Cirque, et al) started stocking prime cuts of this fatty cattle last week.

Le Cirque has informed me that their beef is graded A-5, which means slightly higher marbling, and their steaks run $142 for a six ounce filet or $192 for a ten ounce rib eye.

CUT Executive Chef Mathew Hurley showed me his rib eye cut, and spoke of how its more speckled mottling of fat:

True A-4 rib eye

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More fat than lean, both richer and blander at the same time

…is desirable for the tenderness it brings to the beef, while the more striated fat in the top picture leads to (slightly) more chewiness — chewiness being the thing that is frowned upon in these steaks, which, like 0-toro tuna, are supposed to practically melt in your mouth. (It’s an Asian texture-thing, just go with it.)

So the answer is: yes, you’re getting true Japanese wagyu beef (which may or may not actually come from the Hyogo Prefecture) but which the Japanese official board that controls these things has certified as being of that top quality. (BTW: wagyu is just the generic name for “beef cattle” in Japan — it is decidedly not a breed (no matter what the American Wagyu Association tells you) — and has no special significance, that is, until fraudulent American and Australian marketers got a hold of the concept. More on this below.)

The kicker in all of this (at least before we get to all the fraudulent marketing practices involving “domestic Kobe” and “American wagyu”) is that there’s a BIG secret that no steakhouse or fancy burger joint wants you to know, and that is: you really wouldn’t like true Japanese Kobe or Mishima beef if you ever tasted it. It’s too rich for you and basically flavorless at the same time. Quite a paradox I know, but one that lies at the heart of many an inscrutable Japanese meal (or foodstuff).

Now to fraud. Or as I like to say: the American government’s legal sanctioning of lying . As author Larry Olmsted points out in this excellent analysis of the “Kobe” beef phenomenon, the American government has, for over 100 years, passed laws that legalize and  encourage the fraudulent labeling of foods, especially when those foods involve famous foreign products. This is why you can buy fake “Parmesan” cheese, fake “Chablis” wine, fake “Champagne” and fake prosciutto here. As Olmsted says: “Anywhere else in the world you would go to jail for selling (these)… here you can make a profit.”

As for “wagyu” beef and other gimmicks used to add snob dollars to the price of steaks, the issue is slightly complicated, but boils down to this: any cattle breeder can take bull semen from any Japanese bull, impregnate his herd with it, and claim that his beef is “wagyu” and thus, better and worth more than the steaks coming from a regular, good old American steer. But it’s not, and you shouldn’t pay for it.

Kobe beef is merely the latest victim of American greed and duplicity. Perhaps, now that you can buy the actual Japanese Kobe-style and wagyu beef in America (at a price), every hambone waiter and greedy owner will be a little less eager to extol the virtues of their “domestic Kobe.” But I think not. If American avarice and stupidity hold true to form, the top down effect from our best steakhouses will be an increased interest in the real thing (by those who can afford it), followed by our national trait of happily overpaying for something that claims to be “just like it,” even though we know, and they know, and they know that we know, that it’s not.

The real thing

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With Mathew Hurley and Kyle Londergan at CUT

CUT

In The Palazzo Hotel and Casino

3339 Las Vegas Blvd. South

Las Vegas, NV 89109

702.607.6300

www.palazzolasvegas.com/cut/aspx

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38 Responses to A Kvetch About Kobe

  • I wish I’d read this a month ago. I took the leap “up” from USDA Prime and tried a Wagyu steak in your town a month ago. I tried the cut and preparation the waiter suggested — the cut and preparation touted by some national magazines. The steak was as underwhelming as it was expensive — at once charred and bland.

  • You mentioned true Japanese Kobe, and then said that “This meat has not been available in the United States for the past several years”.

    In fact, true Japanese Kobe had NEVER been available in the United States prior to the beef embargo. True Japanese wagyu, from several prefectures, had been available, but not Kobe.

    Are you sure CUT now offers true Kobe, not true Wagyu?

  • ELV responds: The cuts at CUT are certified Japanese wagyu — and graded A-4 as such — but do not come from the Hyogo prefecture. When I say true Kobe rib eye, I am, in essence adopting the generalization of the Japanese Beef Council which grades these things. I will change the caption accordingly. Thanks.

  • Kobe beef was, and is, almost never intended to be eaten as a steak, but rather, in shabu-shabu, where the richness of the fat adds to the texture of the dipping broth. The fact that some overindulgent diners wish to eat it in steak form wastes it, as much of the fat melts in the cooking process, unless it is ordered blood rare, in which case, to me at least, it reminds me of a wet dish rag. But go ahead and consider it gourmet food, suckers. I’ll take American beef at half the price, thank you.

  • Max, that’s an interesting take. And one I would be inclined to agree with had I not enjoyed the A-4 ribeye at Cut several years ago, prior to the Hoof and Mouth outbreak. Truly and extraordinary piece of meat. Impossibly rich- such that six ounces is PLENTY (this coming from a big guy who can usually kill a 30 24-30 ounce steak without difficulty.

    Nowhere else have I ever had anything close to that piece of meat. However, I have had a number of “Kobe”, “Wagyu” etc… for which your description is dead on.

  • Mark-I ate that too, at CUT, Beverly Hills, when it first opened. Yes it was delicious, but TWO ounces was enough for me. It was like eating a pat of beef flavored butter.

  • Bradley Ogden used to serve a triple seared “kobe” steak appetizer (pre-embargo), which was represented as A-16 grade.

  • I must say that Max j very eloquently spoke to a huge aspect of the Kobe ruse. It’s a two-sided steak knife if you will–the money-driven marketing schtick perpetrated on diners that ELV argues on one side, cut on the other side of the knife by the cooking technique that Max describes. Kobe, or whatever you want to call it, is specifically bred and raised to be used in dishes where the beef is thinly sliced–not cut into “caveman ribeyes” and incinerated over a gas flame.

    Such is the state of steaks in Las Vegas. It’s big. It’s rich in flavor. It costs a lot. One could even say that applies to people who sell their own meat.

  • I’m sorry, but these comments have truly pissed me off. Max described the Kobe (wagyu, whatever) rib cap at Stripsteak as the “pinnacle of great American beef” in a review. Rubes like me read that as an endorsement, end up ordering it, and are disappointed. I’m troubled to read, now, that either 1) this was an expensive cut that should not have been prepared in the manner it was or 2) I overpaid for a piece of Angus beef that may have been cross-bred with a Japanese bull at some point.

  • Not that at matters to most, but my cousin owns one of the larger beef cattle operations in the Northwest. The family has been in the cattle business for over 150 years. They sell a small portion of prime-grade beef, but none of the Kobe stuff. If you ask us what we think is the “best” steak, we’ll probably tell you a steak from Angus or Hereford cattle, raised on pasture and fattened on grain. And it doesn’t cost $150 for 6oz. of ribeye.

  • I’m among those who really enjoy the stuff. It has a certain feel on the tongue that’s hard to describe — and to me, the flavor is very good. Is it worth it? Probably not, but since I eat steak about once a year (less since the embargo), the price doesn’t matter a lot.

    Of course, I’m a bit of a peasant when it comes to steak. I found the Carnevino Riserva steak interesting, but still prefer a normally aged steak — and might even enjoy a hamburger just as much.

  • I’ll take the ribeye at B&B any day over Wagyu.

  • Andy A – I think Max’s description was accurate, the issue was that you missed that he used the terms “Kobe” and “American” to refer to the same beef which is legally possible in the US and therefore an accurate description of the product. Truth is many Kobe or Wagyu branded beef products in the USA are of the best possible quality, but it is certainly not Kobe or Wagyu – and frankly you probably would not want it to be because true Kobe is too fatty to be eaten as a steak as Max described in the above comments.

    So although there is some false-yet-legal advertising regarding beef bearing the name Kobe or Waygu on the strip, chances are it actually is one of the best cuts you can get at that steakhouse nonetheless, sadly that is the paradox we cannot escape.

  • “I’ll take the ribeye at B&B any day over Wagyu”

    I assume you are talking about the Grand Riserva, and I agree.

  • I agree with Max…fat is fat, and who wants 10oz of it.
    But then again I’m a filet guy, so take my position with a grain of Læsø Saltsyderi salt…

  • One more thing, I see the Cut chefs showing off the Kobe and think how hypocritical. There they are, holding a Ribeye with the cap on it, yet they are the same guys who send a ribeye to the table with the cap removed. Who the hell wants a ribeye with no cap and how could a steakhouse do that ? I was saying to myself, you know I think I ought to go back there then I remembered why I stopped going in the first place. Ribeye with the cap removed… come on guys..

  • They do that so they can charge for the full ribeye–then take the cap off back in the kitchen, trim it, and cook it for staff meal. Even more egregious if it’s a high-grade like Kobe.

  • Max Jacobson, was dead on correct.

  • Interesting thread… And one I’m particularly close to for many reasons.

    So I will rant a bit.

    George and Dr….. you are so wrong about the restaurants motivation for removing the rib cap its laughable. To accuse an operation like Cut of stealing from the guest is downright libel. Anyone who orders Japanese marbled beef rib and expects a cross cut (untrimmed) slab is an uninformed consumer who deserves to pay for all the extra fat that the chefs typically trim from the cut in order to provide the BEST experience for the guest.

    That operation trims the beef and then sets the price, not charging first and trimming later. Its not the same piece but a swap out to present to the guest. The kitchen keeps a trimmed and portion ready piece in the back and cuts to order by weight. Its the absolute most expensive way to do it (for the operation) but yields the best outcome/value for our precious guest.

    The fat to meat ratio is the key and the guests who are paying upward of 23$ per oz deserve to have the tightest trimmed most appealing part. You also cant sear or get Maillard reaction flavor profiles onto fat so you want to sear exposed meat. If you want the Rib Cap you can specifically ask and if the chef hasn’t already sold it will most likely provide it for you unless they have other plans for it (I assure you staff meal isnt part of that plan).

    So instead of accusing the restaurant of stealing you should be grateful to them for providing value where there is admittedly very little unless that product is your thing.

    But that gets me to another point, where Max J is 100% correct. Nobody in japan eats marbled beef that way. It is always served shaved in Shabu Shabu or cubed cooked on the Teppan. If they saw what we do with it they would be horrified and laugh at the fat stupid Americans.

    “When the only tool youve got is a hammer everything looks like a nail”

    American beef is amazing and delicious but is the nail most chefs are used to driving. Japanese beef is something entirely different and isnt suitable for cooking the way we cook our delicious beef. Instead of ordering 10 oz of over charred Japanese beef to prove to your buddies from the country club how manly you are show some restraint and do as the Japanese and enjoy an OZ or two in a Shabu Shabu.

    I was actually in Japan last week and had the opportunity to visit a Japanese beef slaughter house and see firsthand how beef is processed, graded, and auctioned. It was EYE OPENING. The truth is we really know nothing here about it and the whole process is a bit of an enigma. We get some great beef but nothing compared to what is available to consumers in the average department store in japan. That’s probably a good thing considering the crimes most restaurants commit with it.

    Scott mentioned the Appetizer at Bradley’s (where I was the chef de cuisine in those days) as A-16. I recall that item but never representing it at that grade….because it doesn’t exist. The japanese grading system is A-B-C 1-5 or 15 possible grades based on marbling, color of meat, color of fat, and firmness and texture. There is a separate BMS or beef marbling standard which is a score of 1-12. I was able to get A-5 with a BMS of 9-10 several times but it was rare and off the charts expensive. Very cool though.

    As for American “Wagyu” and Andy’s comments there are several things to note.

    1) Its all angus with a % of japanese beef genetics. Most are 50% or so and dont exibit true japanese beef character but more of what they are a hybrid.

    2) its expensive but not for the reasons why most consumers think. Its driven by marketing and marketing says “we can cross japanese genetics into our beef for a minimal cost adding marketing value, feed them a lot more grain than standard commodity beef and then charge the pants off everyone by calling it wagyu.” They really dont make that much more money buy are able to offer a “value added” product above the commodity market.

    You are getting more marbling and ostensibly more tender meat as a result of paying for a lot more grain and a genetic boost for our delicious cattle. That’s the deal with American wagyu and some of it really is outstanding, or chefs wouldnt serve it.

    3) Its delicious and worth it when cooked properly the way good chefs in America cook beef. Forget all the hype and whatever you may or may not believe Andy, did you enjoy the taste and texture of that american wagyu ribcap at Strip Steak? Proof is in the pudding and if it was good for you than it was good. Its a pretty awesome piece of meat in my opinion and one Im proud to represent any day.

    -DV

  • David-I appreciate the response and now have a much deeper understanding of the issue. I think you summed it up best when you said “if it was good for you then it was was good.” The customer taste experience is really what matters in the end.

  • First of all, Max is dead on. Second, thanks to David for clarifying the BMS scale vs the A-5 designation. I was about to do the same. Finally, sorry John, but while my Japanese is a little rusty, yours is just slightly worse. Wagyu literally translates into “Japanese cattle” or “Japanese style cattle.” Max can weigh in, but as I recall Gyu is the generic term for beef/cattle. Thus wagyu does, in fact, refer to specific breeds that are very different from American breeds such as Angus. And as david Varley points out, in America, a cow must only be 51% wagyu to be labeled as such. Australian wagyu, however, is generally 100% wagyu.

  • ELV responds: As usual, Mancini gets it wrong. He proves his own error in his own sentence when he says: “….wagyu does refer to specific breeds….” That’s the point. There is no breed of wagyu. It is just a generic term. As Olmsted points out in his article, it’s like someone saying “grape wine” is the same thing as “cabernet sauvignon.”

  • One of the more informative and interesting discussion ELV has afforded his readers. I especially note David Varley’s comments as useful. I agree that if one wants to enjoy the real deal Waygu beef, Sahbu Shabu is the correct way to do so. Any one paying $88 to $140 for an 6oz ribeye on the Stripe has more money than brains. I really have to laugh at the schmucks that get taken everyday by these highend steakhouses. But hey, its Vegas Baby!

  • ….and I want him (or Varley) to explain to me how a cow or steer can be 51% wagyu. If I inject a cow with wagyu bull semen, the resulting calf is 50-50 right? You’ve gotta go pretty fucking far down the genetic line to start parsing percentages that small.

    All this false, presumably “scientific” detail does is prove what a scam “wagyu” is. I love David Varley, but on the whole, the whole wagyu thing boils down to nothing but a marketing ruse.

  • ….or, as we like to say around the ELV offices, nothing but a pile of bull semen.

  • No John — there are breeds of cattle that fall under the wagyu banner. You’re mistranslation of the term as meaning “beef cattle” would mean that an impoirted American cow would qualify as wagyu in Japan, since it is in fact a “beef cattle.” But of course it wouldn’t. Only certain breeds qualify. As usual, you can’t admit your mistake. But of course, you’re a lawyer, so facts never get in the way of your argument do they?

  • BTW — If you really want to talk abotu scams, check out the restaurants offering “A5″ American wagyu. Lavo, for example, talks about A5 Kobe meatballs on its menu. When I asked, I was told it was American. Of course, the American grading scale doesn’t work like that — so who the hell graded it? (BTW — our highest grade, Prime, would only justify a 3 ranking on the 1-5 scale.)
    Another huge quesiton people have to ask themselves is why on earth anyone would grind up wagyu into a hamburger or meatball? The beauty of Japanese beef isn’t just the fat content. It’s the way that fat is distributed. Grinding it up makes that irrelevant. If you want a burger like that, just use US Prime and throw in some extra fat!

  • Love you guys.

    Here goes.

    John, If I take a 50/50 hybrid and breed it back to 100% japanese genetics then the resultant offspring is 75%. Its an equation…. and this genetic cocktail goes on and on at varying percentages.

    I fully disagree with you that its a scam from a product perspective. That breeding gives the animal a higher propensity for marbling under the right conditions (lots more grain than standard commodity practice) which is delicious under the right conditions. The premium you are paying is for the grain and marketing but mostly the grain which represents the incresed cost of production.

    If you like highly marbled beef this is one way to get there. Ive seen some awesome prime commodity stuff but never as consistently and highly marbled as the american/wagyu hybrids. It tastes good to some people and is worth the price TO THEM.

    Its attractive to us restauranteurs because it represents an increase in average check which hopefully drops more to bottom line per cover without a corresponding increase in expenses outside of food cost.

    Thats the deal with that.

    And Al you are right about the “A-5 American” hoax. That is nothing more than bullshit designed to seperate rubes from their money by well meaning people that dont know better or villians who do.

    As far as burger is concerned Al The economics that drive farms and production are the same for wagyu as they are for any other animal. There are only so many steaks you can cut from a beef. so what to do with other stuff, trim etc? something needs to happen to the trim and again we are talking about value (perceived to the consumer and very real financial value to the producer) The producers can charge more for hamburger that has wagyu genetics even if it is a standard 80/20 lean fat ratio because of the marketing helping to offset the total cost of the carcass. Im ok with that because its a function of the business even though I can take 80 dairy cow (why even bother paying prices for prime when it is irrelevant once it passes through the grinder) and grind 20 fat into it and create something similar on paper. Im even ok with selling it knowing that that sale helps sustain a farm and my business though added perceived value to what is a typically undereducated consumer. (try as I may people dont want to be told to eat or not eat something and to challenge their beliefs is often more painful than an extra 3$ per burger and not worth the confrontation in a hospitality situation)

    The scoundrels are the ones who are armed with this info, take the dairy cow and grind 20% fat into it and call it wagyu and sell it at the value added price.

  • Dave — I agree that using the trim for burgers isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s simply economics. But I think we both agree that the fact a burger comes from wagyu in no way makes it a better burger. So paying more for it is foolish on the part of the customer.

  • 100% correct Al. But boy do they love it! Its the placebo effect that makes them walk out of the restaurant and scream to the hills “that was the best damn burger I ever had”. It tastes better to them because they are wrapped in their mental safety blanket the marketing people and restaurant industry provide for them by saying it is better, and happier more satisfied guests are better for the restaurant industry. Catch 22

  • Great. Now I don’t know where to eat my one extravagant meal when I return in a few weeks. ;)

    Informative posts. I’ve enjoyed following this thread. Thanks, all.

  • David,

    I wasn’t referring to specifically the Kobe having the cap removed. They do it with all their steaks. For what it’s worth, a restaurant should at least tell the consumer that they do it as the cap is the probably the main reason I order the ribeye.

    btw, I miss your clams ; )

  • re: comment #27
    AL – suggestion: work on basic contractions, then move along to content.

  • Jesus. Let’s just start posting these menu options-
    -Simmental Rib Roast
    -Braised Limousin Shank
    -Seared Scottish Highland Tenderloin
    -Smoked Texas Longhorn Tongue

  • Nosmo — I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: When I get PAID for my work (unlike John I’m a professional journalist), I’ll check my spelling and grammar. When I’m shooting off a quick Internet post for free, I’ll leave it to you to figure it out.

  • It’s going to be ending of mine day, except before ending I am reading this wonderful post to increase my know-how.

  • David,

    Thank you for taking the time to explain. It may very well be that the rib cap is simply not my thing. It tasted, to me, like a grainier filet mignon. So, no, I did not particularly care for the taste or texture. Everything else we ordered that night was really good, though.

    Thank you,
    Andy

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