Talk about a food chain. To those who have ever considered calling the Lexington Avenue Brewery a meat-market on particularly rowdy occasions, listen up. The popular restaurant and bar is now marketing its own meat — let the double entendre commence.
Except, this is no joke. The LAB staff, and particularly the kitchen team under chef Jason Roy's guidance, has taken the local-centric concept to a new level. The restaurant is now raising its very own pasture-grazed Angus cattle to serve to their beef-eating patrons in the form of burgers, steak and the like. Where's the beef? The so-called-for-now "LAB Farms" occupies a Leicester plot of land, and is operated by a member of the LAB family, says Roy.
The process goes like this. The LAB brews beer, and lots of it. The spent grain — close to 1,000 pounds per brewing cycle — goes to the cows. The cows from the LAB's bovine herd are pasture-raised until the last few months of their life, and are then "finished," to borrow an industry term, on said grain, once it's supplemented with a little extra protein.
By the time a LAB customer orders a burger made from that beef and washes it down with a pint of LAB-brewed beer, the grain involved in the brewing of the pint is likely on its way to LAB Farms to feed the next round of cows. Ah, the modern-day circle of life — Asheville-style.
The beef at LAB Farms goes on the hoof to in the kitchen in nine days, says Roy. "It's the freshest beef you can possibly get in all of Buncombe County." That being said, he's quick to point out — rather humbly — that doesn't mean that the meat is automatically head and shoulders above the rest. That's why the staff wet-ages the beef for a bit once it's in-house. "Aging process is very important with beef," says Roy.
Roy attempts to break down the wet-aging process into laymen's terms, but what he actually comes up with is a foodie geek-tastic, Alton Brown-style dissertation on the process. "Wet-aging is a Cryovac[-sealed], anaerobic environment where the natural enzymes that are in the meat itself are kind of working on breaking it down." He pauses and laughs.
"I don't know if that's laymen's terms or not." In other words, the kitchen staff seals the meat in an air-tight package and lets it tenderize naturally.
What are the benefits to wet versus dry-aging? "I don't think there are any," says Roy. "I think dry-aging is the way to go." That's why, he says, his beef is dry-aged for about nine days at the processing facility before it comes to the LAB. Roy says that he'd love to take the dry-aging process a bit further in-house in the future, but that takes time and space that currently isn't available to him. "To be able to have this product and be able to treat it in the best possible way — that's my ultimate goal," he says.
Realistically, he has enough on his plate right now recycling grain into meat, so to speak. The meat wagon doesn't stop with bovines either, Roy adds, noting that LAB grain-fed quail is on the agenda for the new fall menu. "We'll also feature three or four beef products on that new menu … and all of that beef will come from cows from our farm," he says.
He's also hopeful the LAB menagerie will expand to encompass lambs and pigs in the near future, "and maybe a couple of other types of animals as well."
Roy says that, for all of this effort, the restaurant isn't saving any money in this do-it-yourself approach to food production, but the meat's value has skyrocketed in other aspects. “[The beef is] so much better quality, so much more local and so much less, in terms of a cost to the environment."
The environmental impact of meat, Roy says, is something that is a concern to him — and he believes that it's his responsibility to consider all sides of what he serves. "How do you reduce a carbon hoof-print, if you will, if you are slaughtering your meat three states away?" he says. "We're not just jumping on a bandwagon here. Truly, honestly, in my soul, this is what I believe as a person first, and a chef second.”
Roy notes that even though the hyper-local approach is a draw to some, the average LAB customer is looking at the price tag, not the carbon footprint, when it comes to a burger. “I personally, as a chef, think that (local meat providers) Hickory Nut Gap and Everett Farms have a great product. I can't afford to use their product in this restaurant, but what [we] can afford to do is skip them and do it ourselves and make it even more local and put our own brand on it. Then we can pass that savings onto all our consumers and make sure that they get a great steak at a great price."
But when Roy mentions that bringing people closer to the animals that they're actually eating is just as important, one has to wonder: Do people ever admit to feeling a little too close to their food for comfort?
"People have," says Roy. "And these are very rare. Servers will tell you all about your guests, but they especially love to tell you about the guests that are creeped out by it." What is there to be afraid of? "There's a large disconnect between where our meat comes from and what it actually is," Roy says. "I've had people say, 'please don't tell me that you guys ever knew this cow, because I don't want to have anything to do with it. I just want to eat meat — I don't even want to know that it was a cow before that.’"
On the other hand, how do the customers feel about the meat once they are eating it? "They love it," says Roy.
For more information about the Lexington Avenue Brewery, visit lexavebrew.com.
— Send your food news to Mackensy Lunsford at firstname.lastname@example.org
what: 2nd Annual Blue Ridge Pride Festival
where: Lexington Avenue, downtown Asheville
when: Saturday, Oct. 2 (noon – 8 p.m. blueridgepride.com)