The humble steak is having a major moment. Zoe Williams charts the renaissance of the rib eye and beyond
Steak used to be the prawn cocktail of the meat world: it was naff, but you liked it anyway. Suddenly, it’s become the oyster: it’s not naff, it’s cool; it’s not fussy, it’s pure; in the words of 10cc, “you don’t like it, you love it”.
This is my chronology of steak: in the mid-Nineties, you mainly encountered it when you had a steak sandwich in Café Rouge. That was not cool. That was because you were way too hungry for a Croque Monsieur. In the early Noughties, people started eating it a bit more gleefully. By the middle of that decade, I definitely got the sense that this majestic bit of beast was on its way up; pared-down “modern English” restaurants – in which a short menu of three choices was suddenly elegant – always featured a steak. But it’s not until fairly recently that restaurants have sprung up which are basically Steak Temples. Call it the Curse of the Aberdeen Steakhouse, but it’s taken a very long time for an establishment to flex its muscles and say, “This is what we do. This is all we do. If you don’t like it, eat before you come out. Because this is where the cool people are.”
Food science has decreed that meat has no essential flavour, no true sense of self; its flavour, the way it makes you want to throw down your cutlery and attack it with your bare hands, all of that comes from the chemical reaction that happens when it cooks. Let’s say we believe them (it’s pointless to argue with chemists). I contend, nevertheless, that something primal happens when a steak hits the pan that could never apply to a chicken breast. It helps that everything else is pink, while only beef is blood red; it helps that the image it conjures is a great big cow, not a weedy duck or a faintly comic pig; it helps that the cuts come in such alarmingly macho sizes. I ordered a T-bone once, and my mum said, “You don’t have the enzymes to digest that much meat”.
As Brits, we have a reputation for prodigious beef-eating – the French don’t call us “rosbifs” for nothing – but that was historically in more communal forms, as an overcooked joint or a suet pie. Steak as a near fetish item, this individualised experience, the endpoint of human luxury, with as much protein on your plate as a nutritionist would recommend for a fortnight (the government guidelines are actually 500g a week), really comes from America. It’s in America, also, that the idea of corn-feeding originated, designed to fatten the calf beyond anything nature intended, like feeding a dog only on eclairs.
This debate between corn-fed and grass-fed beef, incidentally, is the aficionados’ way of recognising one another. They don’t really disagree – well, perhaps the prissy ones prefer grass-fed and the pro-American ones corn-fed – but they like to signal that they know the difference. OK, it’s a little pretentious, but if you really like something, why not go the whole way and be an enthusiast?
The steak was always the meat equivalent of the Marlboro Red, quintessentially manly; the kind of waiter who would give the guy the wine list would always assume that his was also the steak. It wasn’t until the early Nineties that steak had its female moment, when word went round that all Anna Wintour ate, ever, was a steak with béarnaise sauce.
Since then, steak has taken off as a girl thing for much more subversive reasons, as described by Missy Flynn, the 24-year-old front of house for top steakhouses Hawksmoor. “Girls my age think of it as really cool to go into this place where people expect to find middle-aged men and just get stuck in. Have a whisky instead of a vodka. Have a great big steak. Stick a picture of a mixed grill on your Twitter feed and say ‘check out what I just had for lunch’.” I love this as a backlash against the “bird-like” appetite trope, in which it is considered feminine not to be hungry. True femininity is now conveyed by having an appetite like a horse. A horse who wants to eat a cow. I can’t see how this could be anything other than a giant leap for womankind.
In the past year, steak sales at The Ginger Pig, the Balenciaga of the butchery world, have gone up 200% and their butchery classes now have a three-month waiting list. So I guess it’s no surprise that, as steak-eating becomes more cross-gendered and dudelike than ever, so steak becomes the dominant theme of restaurant openings. Wolfgang Puck’s Cut, which opened at London’s new 45 Park Lane hotel in September, was the biggest news of the season, for its sheer excess, the way tables of men would gather to out-spend and out-eat one another, dropping £70 on thumping hunks of meat the size of War And Peace. The three branches of Hawksmoor are the Soho House of meat, and the most hotly tipped new opening in Paris next year is a British steak house. And the thing is: it’s popular because it’s good, OK? It’s not a conspiracy. It’s just really good. This isn’t the sundried tomato we’re talking about here. We don’t love it for a fad. We don’t love it by accident. We love it because it’s great.
Photography: Dan Lepard, taken from Hawksmoor at Home, £25, Preface Publishing
Additional images: Rex Features
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