Brian Wolfe is the executive chef at Kimball House, a restaurant in the Atlanta that serves “food and drinks that reflect the seasons, farms, and personalities of the people preparing them”. Brian brings a long-time interest in butchery to the kitchen, and he spoke with us about his choices as a chef in the protein-ordering process at Kimball House.
How does your kitchen approach buying meat?
Brian Wolfe: At Kimball House, I purchase all proteins for the restaurant except oysters. For our oysters, Bryan Rackley [Kimball House owner] knows all the oyster farmers and has visited most of the farms. So I try to base my ordering within that kind of ethos – ordering as local as possible, as sustainable as possible, and trying our best to know all the people we get our stuff from.
Evans Meats out of Birmingham has taken a lot of our business. They’re family-owned and small, which I’ve learned is a great sign for ordering proteins. We get seafood from them, caviar, a lot of stuff.
We do get some non-regional beef. Beef is hard – most of our beef comes from coops in the Midwest, and we buy prime beef because I think the taste and quality of prime beef is better than grass fed. But we also do work with local farms- we get rabbits from a guy in southern Georgia, pigs from a guy in southern Georgia, pigs and beef from a place in Nashville, lamb from a farm near Athens.
What are other approaches to sourcing proteins have you seen?
I’ve been cooking for 13 years or so, and in control of ordering only in the last 5. But you see all kinds of different systems at different places – some places rely on orders that are completely questionable. You should order from people you trust; you shouldn’t want to only look at dollars per pound. I mean, ethically, you should be driven by what you think is the best-sourced product, the best animals. Some places, you get a list and you order from cost analysis only – that was always really frustrating to me because I wanted this sustainable practice that wasn’t really there.
If you’re dealing with a purveyor who does a super high volume, when they’re purchasing they only think about money. It’s only about monetary value and quantity and profit. I get it; it’s a business. But that said, when they buy large amounts of meat, their quality control is very low, and the variance in quality of the product we receive is wide. Some of it will be beautiful, some of it will be awful.
What cuts of beef do you buy?
We order “subprimals”, four to five whole ribeyes and/or strip loin a week, and we break everything down in-house from there. We don’t order individually purchased steak.
I’m pretty proud of our beef program, because we don’t buy that much but we’ll use literally everything. There’s no waste at all. All the fat gets rendered to cook in, bones and silverskin are roasted for stock, all lean trim gets ground for family meal, for the menu we get bone-in ribeyes – we confit and deep fry the ribs and use it as an entree.
For example, we get hanger steaks, which is on the diaphragm of the cow. There’s only one of them per cow. It’s kind of an odd muscle with a large piece of meat separated by cartilage that runs through it, and people typically trim that middle part out because they don’t cook it properly. But we cure it and cook it for 24 hours at 135 degrees fahrenheit, low temperature, basically make a perfect mid rare and melt the cartilage – so we get to a full yield.
The quick turnaround to getting it butchered, cleaned, cured, cooked, and on the menu within the week is necessary – because that’s a large expense, and margins are thin for every restaurant.
You have to be organized and use every single thing – not all of it turns into profit, but most of it does. Our outlet for beef, mainly, is a steak dinner portion of our menu and hanger steak entree. Steak is popular on the menu, but there’s not much else we can do with it. I prefer buying a whole loin as opposed to a tenderloin, so I have all of the other parts, the bits and bobs, to use.
Most people in our kitchen are trained to break down the steaks – they already have their vessels and containers, they know what they’re going to get. We have it pretty streamlined and make it quick.
Why the focus on a quick turnaround?
For any beef loin or half hog (I never get a whole pig unless it is smaller) or lamb, the quick turnaround to getting it butchered, cleaned, cured, cooked, and on the menu within the week is necessary – because that’s a large expense, and margins are thin for every restaurant.
For us it is more cost-effective to get a half hog. There’s only so many cuts on it but if you utilize it well, and it doesn’t go to charcuterie and remain standing inventory, you can make your money back pretty quickly. But getting it on the menu and sold has to be the priority.
We get incredible, show-quality lamb from Two Brothers Sheep Company, out near Athens, Georgia. It’s expensive, but when we put it on the menu, people buy it and love it and we can get that good turnaround. But I need to have a goal in mind from the second I start, because the guy will ask if I want a big lamb or a medium one when I order – so I need to know how busy I’m going to be that week and what I can sell.
What’s the key to making your money back on selling local meat?
Whenever our food cost allows, we try to get ahold of a whole or half animal, because it is really cost-effective in the long-run. Then, as a team, we figure out what we’re going to do with it. But having an endgame in mind – from the beginning – allows you do make your money back, not waste things, use it appropriately, and move forward from there.
For example, if I buy a pig, we might buy multiple heads. A lot of people don’t use the head because they think they can’t make money off of it, or they think people won’t eat it. But we do head cheese or Coppa di Testa, sell three slices of a pig’s head for $16 with a bunch of garnishes and accoutrements. But from that $25 head you can get 50 slices, and that’s a ton of money – you can almost make enough money on the pig’s head to pay for the whole pig. That’s what I’m looking for.
A lot of people just want it to be simple. They want easy, they don’t want to have to worry about what am I going to do with this, they just want to open a vacuum seal bag. But for me, this is more interesting.
Another example: we get trout from Bramlett Farms in North Georgia, non-eviscerated, and my butcher processes them. If we get enough eggs to cure for caviar, we can cure our own roe and sell it on a caviar service for $30-$50 a piece. If I sell five of those, I purchased all the trout and then I’m still selling trout fillets, and every bit of those sales are profit.
A lot of people just want it to be simple. They want easy, they don’t want to have to worry about what am I going to do with this, they just want to open a vacuum seal bag. But for me, this is more interesting. You start with an endgame in mind, and know how much everything is going to cost – that’s what allows me to buy local, high quality proteins like that.
So how do you sell an entire animal to a public that prefers certain prime cuts?
Part of buying whole hog, whole sides of beef is knowing what you’re going to do with it – but it’s also educating guests to value all of it, not just the cuts that they’ve heard of.
How do you educate the guests then?
I’ve never worked with more interested, engaged servers than the ones at Kimball House. The staff, the front of house, they want to talk about things before service, and they’ll watch me butcher.
I talked about the pig head earlier – people think that they won’t be able to sell it, but that’s the job of the front house staff: to sell. Guests usually want to be told what they need to get. People want to be sold an experience.
Our sales are funny, especially in proteins. With interesting proteins like head cheese, terrine, offal, weird stuff, if our sales aren’t good I’ll first look at the way it’s worded under the menu. Because it’s wild, how that manipulates our sales to an insane degree. So I look at the menu first, and then I’ll cook the dish for the servers. I’ll make them eat it, I’ll plate it for them, I’ll show them pictures of the farmers, we’ll discuss it – and the sales will go up.
People who know what head cheese is, love it. It’s probably like 70/30 for people who try it for the first time. The 30% who don’t like it just think about it too much, with their own head cheese.
So you find a generally positive guest reaction to using all the “bits and bobs” of an animal?
We are very fortunate to have a relatively knowledgeable clientele for the most part. I’m very lucky. We don’t have a big sign out front, we don’t get many people who randomly walk in not knowing what they’re getting into.
Of course sometimes servers will come back and be like “Well, table 12, seat 3 wants to know where this is from, where this is from, where this is from” [editor’s note: please watch this Portlandia sketch] When that does happen I feel decent about the fact that I have an answer for every single one of those questions. And most of it is very local, I know the names of some of these animals.
The animals you get have names? Or numbers?
No, some of our animals have names. It’s not sad for me, but the lady who brings the pigs in is sometimes crying when she delivers them, because she helps raise them. We had one named Socks – they fucked up, because that’s too cute – and she came in crying and saying, “I know I fucked up and spent way too much time with this pig, but I saved it for you guys because I know you’re going to do a really good job”.
And then that night after service we butchered this pig and I told everyone, “the lady who delivered this literally cried in our kitchen, so you need to be really careful with how you handle this animal.”
It goes down the line, from the people who raise the pig all the way down to the servers who are selling it. People take it really seriously and respect it.
What is it like to run a kitchen with a butchery focus?
Cooks who get to work with the whole animal get creative. It’s a morale booster; people enjoy it. It gets people’s creative juices flowing. A lot of restaurants literally never butcher animals, because it is more work than one person can do in a reasonable amount of time. But it’s something I’m really passionate about, and it completely runs down the line and I can get people involved with the different parts of it.
And looking at the animal, you get acquainted, you can see the kind of life that it had. That’s changed who I’ve ordered pigs from in the past. If you get three pigs in a row that obviously had tons of kill stress – and we test the pH of the pork when it comes in, and you can see what happens when a pig has released hormones and adrenaline and was stressed out – it does change the feeling, the texture of the meat. It has everything to do with the final taste of the product.
In the culinary world, there’s the growing consciousness of eating seasonally – guests are increasingly willing to pay for local fruits and vegetables in season. But we rarely talk about eating meat seasonally. Is there a season for local pork belly?
Historically there was seasonality, but we don’t see it as much anymore. Feed and shelter are so readily available now, so the fat and the health of the pig should be good year-round. A hundred years ago, that wasn’t the case – you had a long spring and summer into fall, and when food is plentiful the pig is plentiful and healthy and fat. So you would kill your pig in the fall, because that’s when it is the largest, and you need all that fat for preserving things in the winter.
But now we don’t feel that seasonality as much – there are lamb and goats, animals that reproduce at specific times, there is a seasonality to when that animal is becoming ready. Rabbit is something I brought under the menu in the last couple of months, there are rabbit breeding seasons when they are healthier and more plentiful. But really, we’re only affected by the volume that we can get, not the quality, because animals in the modern age are taken care of way better.
Where you see seasonality in protein more is with fish and shellfish. You can only get flounder a couple times a year because of their migration and reproduction patterns. Crabs, crustaceans, bivalves, sure, but you don’t see it in meat on the sourcing side.
Do you ever apply the seasonal, local ideals we use for fruit, vegetables, etc, to the meat you buy and use on your menu?
You do see the seasonality in the preparation. Seasonally, when it’s cold, people want comfort foods, we’re going to braise more things, so pork sells better in the winter time because there are more large braising cuts. But the seasonality is mostly based on what we want to be doing at that particular moment, which is exciting and fun.
The choices we make in proteins honestly comes from what vegetables we have available. That also leads to creativity – “oh, we have these dope carrots in the walk-in, we’re going to do something with that”. It’s full-circle.
We’re very well connected with proteins, and we can get whatever we want whenever we want it for the most part – but I kind of wish it was harder to get, you know what I mean? I like a challenge of you “we have these things to work with, what do you do?” That’s kind of where we are with produce. Because we can get the same meat each week, but the produce is going to determine the menu.
I get excited by the seasonally available produce. Sometimes you have a lot to work with and sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you want to have a beet dish, but no one’s growing beets and you can’t. It was like that this year here, not many people grew beets for whatever fucking reason.
A majority of my produce ordering is with farmers. Chefs and farmers are built way different, but I love working so closely together with them.
Why are sourcing your proteins this way and butchering so important to you?
Fitting in whole animal butchery is difficult. I don’t want it to be like that, but you have to have practice or learn under somebody. I’ve had years of practice at it and I’m finally getting better at it. But a lot of people get a whole pig and then they don’t know what the fuck to do with it and then they just go back to precuts. That’s why they get pre-portioned steaks and they don’t give a fuck about utilizing whole animals. And that’s a shame.
I’m learning and I’m able to teach people and I enjoy both of those things equally. When I have a deer that I or my dad killed at the restaurant, and I’m there late at night, listening to music and butchering it, it’s like an ethereal fucking experience that I really enjoy. It means a lot, and I think a lot of people miss that.
When I have a deer that I or my dad killed at the restaurant, and I’m there late at night, listening to music and butchering it, it’s like an ethereal fucking experience that I really enjoy. It means a lot, and I think a lot of people miss that.
I started to get this series of epiphanies at the beginning of my cooking career. One of them was about how I had watched my dad hunt my whole life. Eventually, I understood the importance of knowing where everything comes from – it was a crash course of “you go get it yourself or you don’t get one”. My dad had that hunting background, and he grew up working on farms, every summer from 7 until he was 19.
But I missed out on that agricultural experience that is a major part of his background, so I feel like I’m trying to make up for lost time in what I do. I deal with farmers everyday. I also help maintain our garden at Kimball House, and I think I look at things differently than some chefs who have never had the opportunity to be on the farm side. I was fortunate to be exposed to it, and now that makes it very, very important to me.