The lamb carcass was the first thing Jeff Jackson, executive chef at A.R. Valentien at the Lodge at Torrey Pines, wanted me to see. He brought the carcass out of the freezer and plonked it onto a table, where I could get a good look at the headless, skinless, raw and uncarved version of the evening's dinner. Jackson had received two lamb carcasses the week before; the lamb's cousin had already been taken apart and was, at that moment, bubbling or roasting in ovens and pots all around me, an “after” picture for the “before” that lay upon the table.
But this was why Jackson had invited me in—to see how he puts into practice the cooking philosophy of “nose-to-tail,” wherein every part of the animal, save the hooves, skin, and brains (which are illegal to eat in the U.S.), is prepared and fed to suspecting diners.
“It's been done for hundreds of years in Europe and Asia,” Jackson had said in an earlier interview. “As for American chefs embracing that, and American diners starting to embrace it, it's just taken off in the last five years.”
Indeed, Western culture has developed a certain prissiness toward its meat. For all that steak and hamburger we eat, and as much as we like to point to cows as we drive north through the Central Valley, we prefer not to think of the intermediary stages between Moo and Mmmmm. For most of humanity's existence, hunting an animal and killing it demanded so much effort that people made use of every part of it that they could, from the protein-laden muscles to the nutrient-rich organs. In the 20th century, the rise of factory farming and supermarkets allowed us to create a mental separation between what we eat and where it comes from. The markets have pretty displays of drumsticks and lamb chops, while the unpopular parts of sheep and chickens find their way into hot dogs, bologna and feed for livestock. Even restaurants often prefer to order their meat pre-cut into plate-sized pieces, and some even order it pre-seasoned.
In 2004, British chef Fergus Henderson revived the notion of nose-to-tail eating with his book The Whole Beast, which contained multiple recipes for lamb brains, pig tail and pig blood. Henderson's manifesto immediately caught on in specialized New York and Los Angeles eateries but only reached San Diego early last year, when Jackson started ordering entire beasts from his suppliers, and other restaurants, like Cowboy Star and WhisknLadle, hit the scene with similar philosophies.
For Victor Jimenez, chief chef at Cowboy Star in East Village, whole-animal cooking is the obvious way to go. He grew up in San Diego, but his parents are Spanish and Mexican, and he spent summers with his grandmother in Manzanillo, Mexico. It was his grandmother who taught him cooking fundamentals, including how to prepare most of the animal after slaughter.
At La Jolla's WhisknLadle, as well as A.R Valentien, nose-to-tail cooking is also a way to turn gourmet cooking into environmental activism.
“We're a little bit spoiled in America,” said Arturo Kassel, co-proprietor of WhisknLadle. “You look at other countries, nothing goes to waste.
So, just what do they do with all the strange parts of the animals? Jimenez and Jackson like to turn the heads of animals into tureens, a thick broth that I can attest has a rich, meaty flavor totally different from traditional broths. Jimenez says he takes organs and turns them into sausages. Sometimes, he'll take particularly high-quality cuts of meat and shave them into a carpaccio.
For Jackson, securing a whole animal means preparing a multi-course meal for a select group of diners at what A.R. Valentien calls The Artisan Table. Up to 20 diners, many of them strangers to each other, sit together and eat whatever it is Jackson and his team have come up with. When I visited, the theme was the lamb, in all its glory. Head: Broth, served over tortellini and fava beansShoulder: Braised with white beans, cream and Rosemary butterLeg: Roasted with peas, tarragon and mintLiver: Skewered with rosemary sprigs, grilledRibs and chops: GrilledOrgans: Ground, stuffed into merguez, a kind of spicy sausageBones, neck: Stock, with headJackson let me taste a few of the items on the menu. The fava beans had a certain heady richness (get it?), while the broth itself had a sour undertone beneath the meaty goodness. Regardless of which part of the animal is used, it still looked like food in the end. Just more interesting.