In the March of 2014, George Faison stood at a breeding farm in Miyazaki, a coastal prefecture on Japan’s southernmost island, looking out over a Wagyu feedlot. Dressed in a white coat, blue booties and a hairnet, he examined the massive black Japanese bulls from the other side of a clear dividing wall. He was there because he had read an article by Barry Estabrook disparaging the husbandry practices of Kobe beef, a close relative to Miyazaki Wagyu, so he decided to inspect the farm himself, in person. Faison was hired in the fall of 2006 to reinvigorate Debragga & Spitler, a meat wholesaler based in New Jersey. These bulls were part of that effort, so he wasn’t taking any chances.
Only 18 months prior, Wagyu meat was legally allowed back in the US. The government instituted a three-year ban on imports after an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Japan. When the ban lifted, only three distributors in the US received contracts to import the Miyazaki Wagyu, and Debragga was one of them. This was a huge deal; the Wagyu from Miyazaki has held the title at the National Wagyu Competition in Japan, the “Wagyu Olympics”, for the past 10 years. It’s the best Wagyu, and Wagyu is considered by most to produce the best beef money can buy.
Unfortunately, as Faison told me when I visited him earlier this year, it’s hard to convince people of this. Take, as an example, Kobe beef. Kobe beef is a strain of Wagyu cattle, named after the location in which the beef is raised, like Champagne or Scotch. But unlike with alcohol, there are no rules against labelling anything Kobe, or Kobe-style. The moment Kobe became synonymous with quality, sellers began slapping the name on anything to increase sales. The word Kobe became meaningless. For the same reason, Wagyu, like real Kobe, has little ability to distinguish itself in the domestic marketplace. But Faison is trying to change that.
Wagyu means literally “Japanese cattle”. DeBragga, in its squat gray headquarters in Jersey City, which overlooks the One World Trade Center, carries three versions of the breed. The American Wagyu — the result of Wagyu cattle crossbred with Angus cattle — is redder and beefier tasting, which American palates prefer. The Australian Wagyu — which is Wagyu cattle crossbred with Holstein cattle — maintains a more tender, fattier meat, which Australians then sell in the far east, including back to Japan. And then there’s Japanese Wagyu, the holy grail, which can be sold for hundreds of dollars a pound.
For reference, in May of 2015, 2.38 million cattle were slaughtered in the US. That’s just over 537,000 a week for burgers, hangers, ribeyes, ribs, chuck, shoulder, filet mignon and whatever else can fit on a grill. For Japanese Wagyu, the number of cattle slaughtered every week comes out to about 1,500. And in America, according to Faison, the Wagyu Angus cross amounts to only 500 slaughtered animals each week. The costs associated with raising Wagyu make it expensive and hard to find, but for those that do cook it, it’s analogous to watching tennis live when you only ever watched on TV, or replacing a faulty bass driver on a speaker you didn’t know was busted; you don’t know you missing something, until you’ve had the marbling.
“The marbling is the single most important indicator of the eating experience. It’s correlated with tenderness and flavor on the palate,” said Marc Sarrazin, president of DeBragga Meats since 1992, before adding, simply: “Fat is flavor.” This marbling shows up as white intermuscular fat, spiderwebbed throughout the pink muscle fibers. When cooked, this fat helps the meat maintain its buttery quality, both in taste and consistency. It’s meat that melts on the tongue. You could eat it with a spoon.
In America, upon inspection by the United States Department of Agriculture, beef is assigned one of eight grades: Prime, Choice, Select, Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter and Canner. Prime is what you buy when you go to a premiere steakhouse. The USDA Prime starts at a Beef Marbling Score (BMS) of about 4 and goes up to 5, or about 10 to 13 percent fat. Choice, one step down, is the most common cut available for store purchase. Below Choice the meat shows up as inexpensive, lean steaks or ground into chuck and sold for cheap. What Sarrazin and Faison made clear, one of the reasons for my visit to DeBragga, was that Prime, despite its stature in the US, equates to the minor leagues. Wagyu plays in the majors.
“The prime we sell is a 5 or 6 [on the BMS]. The lowest for our Wagyu is a 7,” Sarrazin said, while pointing to a 12-ounce Wagyu steak that he sells for $85, or a few dollars per bite. It’s graded as an A-5 on the Japanese scale, the “flawless diamond”, the highest score Wagyu can receive in Japan, which correlates to a BMS score of close to 12, or about 40 percent fat, in addition to the highest marks for coloring and dimension. Despite this, in America, meat of this quality is shoehorned into the Prime category.
According to a 2014 survey of 1,000 Americans carried out by Consumer Reports, “about two-thirds” believe that the term “natural”, when stamped on food, means that food has “no artificial ingredients, pesticides, or genetically modified organisms”, despite the term having no federal or third-party verification, and being effectively meaningless. For Sarrazin and Faison, for whom natural in the strictest definition constitutes 50 percent of their beef, the only choice is to rely on their online store, and hope customers can educate themselves.
“I worry about the consumer…in this context, you look at how automobiles are sold in this country and you know what you’re buying. Mercedes is Mercedes. Chevrolet is Chevrolet,” said Faison. “But [this meat] is so small, such a tiny percent of the industry.” To which Sarrazin added, “They have so many other fish to fry. In the overall scope we are talking about 6,000 animals versus [up to] 650,000.”
In the kitchen of the DeBragga facility, which is a makeshift meeting space for clients and visitors so they don’t have to chat among rows and rows of meat hanging to dry age, Lydia Liebchen, the DeBragga chef was cooking three steaks, all wagyu. Behind her, hunched over a plate of meat, Sarrazin was squinting at the steaks through his glasses. He’s a big guy. He’s built like a man you’d want to buy steak from, a quality he inherited. Marc Sarrazin is named for his father, Marc Sarrazin Sr., who at 15 years old left school to become a butcher. He came on as a sales rep for DeBragga in his early 30s and, according to his son, sold more meat than the company could pay him for, so they were forced to give him part of the company as payment. Over time he slowly chipped away until he eventually bought the place out. As a French ex-pat, Sarrazin became close with many of the French chefs who ruled the culinary scene at the time, and was known to give advice free of charge to up-and-coming talent. In his obituary in The New York Times, Sarrazin Sr. was referred to as the “benevolent godfather to generations of young American chefs.”
Halfway through Faison’s discussion of how he first got into Wagyu, he trailed off and looked toward Chef Liebchen cooking the steak, quickly saying, “That’s enough. Pull that off.” She was cooking the Miyazaki Wagyu, and he was afraid she would cook it medium, instead of medium rare. The flashpoint for medium rare is about 130 degrees at its center. If you take the meat off at 125 degrees, during a proper rest the center can still hit 130, at which point rare has become medium rare. Faison explained that the meat is too fatty and tender to eat completely rare, the consistency is off.