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Fuqua doesn't dispute that prime beef quality has hit the skids over the past 30 years, but he doesn't buy the argument that it's caused by dumbing down USDA standards. If that was the case, he says, the percentage of beef grading prime wouldn't have plummeted to such low levels. Instead, he pins the decline to 1974, when ranchers started mixing English breeds that produce robust marbling with inferior breeds that boost yields and resilience. "Somebody got the bright idea that meat was meat and more pounds were all you needed," he says. "But if you're producing crap, more of it doesn't help."
Dikeman and Fuqua contend that both beef quality and quantity are poised to rise sharply over the next decade as ranchers get savvier applying genetic information. "I think we're trying to come back and improve marbling again and do it genetically, which makes it a more permanent change," Dikeman says.
This has prompted Richard Chamberlain to chuck prime altogether. "There's a lot of crossover," he says. "I've eaten steaks at prime steak houses I didn't think were prime. I didn't even think they were high-end choice."
Chamberlain says he still can't tell the difference between high-end cuts such as Certified Black Angus and prime. That's why five years ago he changed not only his menu, but the name of his restaurant from Chamberlain's Prime Chop House to Chamberlain's Steak and Chop House. Now he tenders Kobe beef as the premium lid over his Black Angus offerings. "The step from Angus to Kobe is substantial," he insists. Chamberlain says he also has deployed organic beef on his menu, buying cuts from Davis Mountains Organic Beef in Fort Davis, which founding partner Rocky Beavers claims far exceeds the quality of prime.
Pappas Bros. Steakhouse also has been seduced by Kobe, offering cuts for $15 per ounce with a 6-ounce minimum. "That's a $90 steak--we still move it," says general manager Judd Fruia.
But Gene Street, whose company operates Silver Fox Steakhouse and Cool River Café in addition to III Forks, says the Kobe/organic paradigm is hogwash. After assembling tasting panels to test both Kobe beef and Davis Mountains Organic beef, Street was unimpressed. "We didn't get the flavor profile," he says. "We had six or eight people lined up and testing this stuff, and I mean, it was slam dunk--didn't have it." Street is sticking with prime and Black Angus.
But does the hunger for prime breed fraud? Beef professionals are certain some operators load their menus with counterfeit prime, although they admit they have no proof of it. "I personally think that it has happened in some restaurants," says a high-end beef purveyor who spoke on condition of anonymity. "I have [heard of it], but I'm not at liberty to say," Fruia says.
But Matthew Mabel, president of the hospitality consulting firm Surrender Inc., snickers. "That's one of those urban myths," he says. "'I've heard of it, but I can't say I've ever seen it.' It's a great story. I mean, how many guests really know what they're getting?"
Fuqua thinks it's a myth, too--in part. Over dinner at a Quanah steak house, he explains that if counterfeiting prime was widespread, supplies would be looser. "There probably is fraud," he says. "I mean, there is in every damn walk of life. But I don't think it's rampant. If it was rampant, then the price wouldn't be as high. It'd be hard to cover it up."
When the dinners arrive, he scans the steaks, most of which are huge 16-ounce T-bones. But hiding among those T-bones is a single 6-ounce prime rib eye. It's wafer-thin, gray and parched, with the edges curling up from the plate. Fuqua shakes his head and laughs--and orders a platter of fried catfish.
Where’s the Prime?
Prime steak is an enigma. It's the grade steak aficionados incessantly crave, steak houses incessantly promote and almost no one can spot.
There are reasons for this elusiveness. Thirty years ago, cattle ranchers began breeding cattle for yield and efficiency instead of meat quality--that means more meat, less fat. Prime beef supplies promptly plummeted. In 1976, for example, 1.4 billion pounds of beef were graded prime. In 2003, just 608 million pounds made the grade. But even that doesn't tell the whole story. Because cattle weren't being bred primarily for taste quality, more of the beef stamped prime settled at the bottom of the prime rung (slightly as opposed to moderately or abundantly marbled), blurring the distinction between prime and lesser choice grades. The aging process, which tenderizes meat fibers, shifted as well. There was a time when almost all prime beef was dry-aged, a process by which the meat is stored uncovered in a refrigerated room for up to 28 days. Dry-aging deepens and concentrates flavors, but it is also expensive because weight falls as water evaporates from the meat. Since the 1960s, with the advent of vacuum-packing, wet-aging, a process by which the meat is vacuum-packed in plastic bags to mature for up to 21 days, gradually became the norm.