“The House that Kobe Built”(The beef, not the NBA star…)
By Janice Binkert
Any connoisseur of fine cuisine has undoubtedly heard of – and possibly even tried – Kobe beef, the renowned delicacy that originated in Japan in the mid-19th century and has gained popularity worldwide over the past few decades. Kobe – also called Wagyu – is the most prized and most expensive beef in the world. Why the high cost? Wagyu cattle are raised in mountainous areas under ideal conditions, are fed a special vegetarian diet, and receive massages to relax them – all of which contribute to the meat’s unique and highly desirable attributes.
In the United States, Kobe beef is served in only the finest restaurants, among them Morimoto in New York, Michael Mina at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, Wolfgang Puck’s Spago in Beverly Hills and…the Boathouse in Traverse City!
Eric Nittolo, executive chef at the Boathouse, has been serving Kobe beef on his menu since 2008. “Kobe beef built this house,” he says. “Even with the bad economy, our business has grown, and one the main reasons is the fact that we offer Kobe.” In the beginning, Nittolo was getting the meat from Japan, but he now uses Snake River Farms in Boise, Idaho – one of the top producers of American Kobe (also called American Wagyu) and incidentally, the same source that Puck uses. “It’s in the top one-tenth of one percent of all the beef in the world,” he says. “Our customers can order it any way they want it – from rare to well done – and it will still be the best steak experience they have ever had.” In fact, that’s exactly the comment he gets from them, every time. How does he prefer it? “Basically, raw – just seared quickly on both sides.”
Boathouse owner Doug Kosch confirms that customer response to Kobe menu offerings has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic. “We serve filet, New York strip and ribeye cuts in various preparations, but the filet is what we sell most. People come to us from far beyond Traverse City, year-round, specifically to eat it,” he says. But Kosch admits that if Nittolo had listened to him three years ago, the story might be quite different. “Back then, when Eric told me he wanted to put Kobe on the menu, I didn’t think we were ready for it, and I turned him down. But he was so convinced that he ordered it anyway, without telling me. I was pretty upset when I found out – especially when I saw the bill – but Eric swore he could sell it all, and he did. And, the rest, as they say, is history.”
Japan uses a grading scale of 1-5 for meat quality. Japanese Kobe beef earns a score of 5. In addition, beef is graded on a marbling scale called BMS: the higher the marbling score, the higher the grade, and correspondingly, the price. This is because the marbling of the meat – that is, the delicate layers of fat that run through it – has a very positive effect on its flavor, texture and tenderness. On the 12-point Japanese marbling scale, USDA prime beef would score about 2 or 6, but Kobe beef from Japan would be a 12. The fat in Japanese Kobe beef begins to dissolve at 77°F, which literally makes it “melt in your mouth.” The American Kobe served at the Boathouse scores an impressive 9-10 on the BMS scale. “It is literally the best beef you can get in the United States,” says Nittolo.
The Boathouse chose Karen Harmon of seafoods.com in Charlotte, North Carolina as its supplier for the Japanese Kobe – which is no longer available in the United States – and for the American Kobe that it now uses. Kosch and Nittolo visited the seafoods.com facility early on to learn more about both the company and its products. As the name implies, the latter includes seafood, but also specialty meats, poultry, wild game, mushrooms and cheeses. Both men were impressed by the customer service level and knowledgeability of the staff there, including three former chefs. “It’s very important to trust your supplier, especially when you’re dealing with a high-end product like Kobe beef,” says Nittolo. “You want to work with someone who is in your court, who takes care of you as the buyer.”
Harmon explains that Kobe is the prefecture in Japan where the cows are raised, and “Wagyu” is the name for cow in Japanese. Each shipment of Japanese Kobe beef used to come with a certificate of authenticity, listing its producer, production area, animal ID, breed, gender, date of birth, quality grade, BMS score and other information. This documentation was invaluable when a USDA ban on Japanese Kobe imports went into effect early in 2010 due to an outbreak of hoof and mouth disease in one of Japan’s major Wagyu cattle breeding regions. Fortunately, long before the ban, because of the high cost of raising the cattle in Japan and increasing demand from consumers around the world, a few exclusive ranches – including Snake River Farms – had begun raising Kobe-style beef cattle in the U.S. and Australia according to traditional Japanese techniques.
In the United States, Japanese Wagyu cattle are usually crossed with Black Angus to appeal more to the American palate and keep the cost within an affordable range. “The USDA sets strict standards for the quality of American Kobe beef,” says Harmon. “It has to be at least 70 percent Wagyu.” She adds that the quality standards maintained by the U.S. ranchers who raise Wagyu cattle are even higher than the USDA requires. “They follow them from birth to market,” she says. “Snake River Kobe beef is aged for 45 to 60 days and then packaged in Cryovac and shipped via FedEx to customers overnight to maintain that quality.”
American Kobe is about one-third as expensive as Japanese Kobe beef – which averaged about $300 a pound – yet the flavor and tenderness is impressively comparable. Granted, in response to a question about the difference between the two, Nittolo says, “If I gave you a piece of Japanese Kobe and piece of American Kobe to try, you’d say that the Japanese Kobe was 100 percent better.” But he is quick to put that comment in perspective, noting that American Kobe is still far superior to regular U.S. prime beef. “I choose it because of its consistency in every aspect of quality,” he says. “The official grade for it here is ultra super prime.” Los Angeles Times food critic S. Irene Virbila is also a fan of American Kobe, writing in one of her columns that she actually prefers it to Japanese Kobe, “especially the New York sirloin from Snake River Farms in Idaho.”
And although people don’t tend to eat luxury foods because of their health benefits, American Kobe beef is actually healthier than even the highest grade of U.S. prime beef. Biochemistry tests conducted by Washington State University on Wagyu fatty tissue indicate that the fat from this breed has a healthier fatty acid profile and an unsaturated-to-saturated fat ratio of 2- to-1 instead of the 1-to-1 ratio of regular beef. It also contains a higher percentage of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, and the increased marbling results in an improved ratio of monounsaturated fats to saturated fats.
One of the ironies of Kobe beef’s heritage is that eating meat from four-legged animals was prohibited in Japan for more than a thousand years prior to 1868. Two main factors contributed to this situation: religious beliefs (Buddhism) and the need for the animals to help cultivate fields. The Japanese diet has historically consisted primarily of rice, vegetables and fish or seafood, but changes in the ruling dynasties, industrialized farming, and rising income levels gradually led to dietary modifications. Beef consumption in particular has been growing steadily in Japan since the 1980s. However, it is still about ten times lower than in most Western countries. And with the increasing popularity of Kobe beef around the world, including Northern Michigan and the rest of the United States, that ratio is likely to increase even more in the years ahead.
Doug Kosch and Eric Nittolo have designated January as “Filet Month” at The Boathouse on West Bay in Traverse City (Old Mission Peninsula), offering a unique opportunity for those who have never had Kobe beef to try it, and for those who are already addicted to it to enjoy it for an incredibly low price. Customers can buy any Kobe filet and receive the second for just $5.
The Boathouse is located at 14039 Peninsula Drive on Old Mission Peninsula in Traverse City, Michigan. For more information, call 231.223.4030 or visit www.boathouseonwestbay.com.