Friday, March 20, 2009

Well-done ≠ Done Well?

Being on grill and saute station means I get the pleasure of cooking a shit-ton of steaks. I had a thought the other day: 'Have I cooked a thousand steaks yet?' It certainly feels like I have. If I'm not at a thousand yet, I think I'll be there soon.

It's tricky business, cooking meat to temperature order, and even trickier when your instrument for measuring doneness is your finger. Line cooks temp to touch, no thermometer in sight, and it takes a lot of practice to get it right. A LOT. There are so many factors affecting the touch: The cut of meat, the thickness, the temperature before it was cooked, how marbled or sinewy it is... getting it right is a challenge. But when you do, there's nothing quite like cutting into a steak and seeing the inside look exactly how you wanted and imagined it to look like. On busy nights, I tend to make audible "Wooo!"s and the occasional "Yeah, baby!" when I cut into and plate a particularly gorgeous piece of meat. Nerdy cook stuff, y'know.

I'd say the average temperature order we get for steaks is medium rare or medium. Medium-well comes in every now and then, and there are certainly folks who go for "bloody". I can see the appeal behind the Pittsburgh steak, aka "Black and Blue"--charred on the outside, rare on the inside. Personally, I like my steak a nice medium rare with a well-seasoned crustiness on the surface.

About two or three times a week, I get an order for a well-done steak. My immediate reaction is to look at the table number on the ticket and take a peek at the person who ordered the well-done. I try to put myself into their shoes; maybe it's how they grew up eating it, or they're old and set in their ways. Maybe they really enjoy chewing on shoe leather. Maybe (and this is usually my assumption) they get squeamish at the sight of the red (and wonderfully delicious, might I add) juices, which makes me sad that anyone has that much of a disconnect with the fact that they're eating an animal that gave it's life to provide us with a delicious piece of meat.

It's about as judgmental as I get from my side of the line.

As a grill cook, it's my job to make the food the way the customer wants it, and I do that to the best of my ability. When that well-done steak order comes in, I try and take as much care of that order as I do the medium-rare. There's certainly a way to cook a steak to well-done while still maintaining a relatively appealing appearance on the surface. But no matter how you slice it, per se, you're still cooking the shit out of a piece of meat, and it will be tough and chewy with not much in the way of taste, because that's what happens when you cook the shit out of a piece of meat.

Frankly, it breaks my heart to cook a beautiful cut of meat to a charred leather state. Temping a well-done steak to the touch is equally heartbreaking--touching a steak that has little to no give whatsover is kind of frightening. Every time I cut into a well-done steak, I get this pang of "OH GEEZ WHAT HAVE I DONE?!?" And then I quickly realize that someone asked me to do this on purpose, and that thought could possibly be even more disturbing than the initial pang of guilt. As I watch a person chew (and chew and chew and chew) on a well-done steak, all I can think is, 'Are they actually enjoying this?'

Judgmental much? Just a tad, I know.

In my attempt to maintain a sense of diplomacy and open-mindedness on this here blog o' mine, I'm hoping to hear from someone out there who actually enjoys their steak well-done, with an accompanying explanation. Maybe if your explanation makes enough sense to me, I'll cook you a well-done steak.

(But you're paying for it.)


tim said...

Didn't Anthony Bourdain write something about this in one of his books, too? Something about keeping old meat around for the people who order it well done, and won't know any better anyway?

Unfortunately, I'm one of those who likes his steak as rare as possible.

"Just smack it on the ass and send it in. I'll eat what I want, and ride the rest home."

Matt said...

I dont think people should be punished for their preference of doneness. As the blog author mentioned some people just grew up eating their meat that way and also they are still a paying customer, and is what we do: cater to the wants of the customer. A refusal to cook a steak to well could just be a foolish moment of pride that costs the business a lot of money in future revenue. Anyways, all that shit aside, my father is WAS one of those people who used to order well done (he grew up thinking pink in meat is bad, still thinks he has utterly failed if there is a trace of it in pork) until he read Bourdain and what they do to the meat and now orders it medium-well.

On a totally un steak related note, but totally related to association/dissociation with the fact we are eating an animal, a supermarket here has recently started selling hearts, kidneys, tongues (y'know, the "nasty bits") and I'm just wondering if you or anyone knows how to prep and cook any of them. I have never had heart or tongue but really want to give it a try, I mean $3...why not?

Me personally, I get my steak medium rare and on the odd time rare just to switch it up. Perhaps my brother is just more connected with the fact this is an animal but he likes to see his meat bleed.

Anyways keep up the great writing, as always its very entertaining.

conoat said...

Don't feel bad about being judgemental towards shoe eaters. I have a big BBQ(alright, no actual BBQ happens, its a big grill fest. but grill-party doesnt quite have the ring of BBQ:) ) every summer where I get a bunch of Prime, dry aged T-bones and grill them up. I outright refuse any order past Med.! I usually have some burgers for those people......

my preference in ordering is "just show the cow a lighter" or "can you just walk my steak through a warm room....quickly?"

Robert said...

im a sucker for the medium-rare burger... as long as the meat is of high quality. Just ground only... otherwise its kinda like eating a petri dish...

Anonymous said...

My dad always ordered his steaks butterflied and well. I never understood it, but it is how you grew up eating things. The funny thing is how much we change ... my grandmother never met a veg she couldn't boilthe shit out of, and Chef Blythe's grandmnother used to make him Tab milkshakes. Tab and milk. My point is sometimes we become the cooks we are because of the stuff we grew up on...

Call sometime, Ingrid, let's go out and have a meal. I miss you.


J.Dubs said...

We always just threw well done steaks in the fryer. Shhh...don't tell.

Anonymous said...

When I was a small child, my mother always tried to get me to eat steak the way that she ate steak - cooked medium rare. And I always hated it.

So, one day, when I was about four or five years old, I asked her to cook the meat more. She obliged, in large part to teach me a lesson. As such, she burned the living hell out of that piece of meat. It was about as well-done as she could bare to cook it. The outside of the steak looked like a piece of charcoal. The inside was as gray as the tools in my father's tool chest.

When she placed the steak back in front of me, she had a knowing smile on her face. Well, it turned out that he smile wasn't quite as knowing as she thought. I liked the steak burnt halfway to hell. In fact, I loved it.

Now, you may be asking "why?" Well, it had to do with texture more than anything else. The rarer versions of the steak made me want to vomit. I just couldn't stand the way that it felt in my mouth. It was like eating soggy marshmallows. On the other hand, the well-done meat was tough and dry, which I liked. It reminded me of soft jerky, which I also liked.

Now, don't get me wrong, flavor did play a role. I don't know how to describe it in detail, but to me the well-done steak legitimately tasted better. And still does. To me, it isn't flavorless. No more flavorless, in fact, than steak that was medium rare. It just has a different flavor, one which I enjoy more.

So, in short, I like my steak to be very well-done because I have tried it in every other conceivable way and still would not have it any other way. I won't get into how much I hate having seasoning on my steak.