Chef Andrew Whitney has literally served tons of beef from a trendy restaurant in Nashville.
At times, he has wondered about all that has gone into those thick rib-eyes or nice fillets.
Now he knows, because he’s seen it all: from young calves nursing on the prairie to steaks ready for market.
“It’s really been an inspiring time, being around people who deal with (beef) every day,” Whitney said last week after the third stop on the Pasture to Plate Tour sponsored by the Kansas Beef Council. “I’m really glad to see the respect these people out here have for their animals. It’s what I was hoping to learn.
“I’m sure I can take what I’ve learned and make that into a better end product for the people we serve beef.”
Sharla Huseman of the Beef Council said this is the seventh time her group – with the assistance of groups, businesses and ranchers in the beef business – has led such tours. The tour started in Wichita and covered much of central and western Kansas.
“We’ve got 12 states represented and everything from culinary instructors to food bloggers to corporate chefs,” Huseman said. “When this is over, we’re hoping they have a much better understanding of the entire process and that they see us as people not just trying to sell them something but as a source for more information on their products.”
One of the first stops was at the Woolfolk Ranch, a traditional Kansas cattle operation near Protection. The stop found the ranch amid the normal spring work of vaccinating this year’s calves, branding them for identification and castrating the young bull calves so they will produce more and better beef. Cows were also vaccinated.
The charter bus stopped 40 miles west at the Gardiner Ranch near Ashland, where 21st-century biology is bringing bigger and better beef to its Angus herd. Brood cows are impregnated with embryos from a well-manged herd, some of which have sold for six figures.
Guests first saw cold-branding at the ranch’s breeding facility, in which branding irons are cooled to more than 100 degrees below freezing for a more humane, more visible brand. They watched as co-owner Mark Gardiner used camera equipment to do checks to make sure brood cows were carrying calves. If not, they could be impregnated again.
For some guests, it was the first time on working farms and ranches. Some seemed squeamish; others gradually crept closer, watched and asked questions. Some truly went hands-on.
After Gardiner and a staff member checked several cows for active embryos, he asked for volunteers. Janet Bourbon raised her right hand and soon had a plastic glove running the length of her left arm.
Within a minute, that arm was buried inside a cow. Gardiner described how to move the camera in her hand until they had a good look at the fetus and saw the heart beating.
Bourbon smiled as the cow moved off after the exam.
“It’s something I’ve never done, and I wanted to see what it was like,” said Bourbon, a corporate chef for Cargill in Wichita who helps clients such as restaurant chains perfect products they sell to customers.
“I was raised in a big city. I’ve never been around any of this. This is quite the adventure.”
Alli Winter and her husband raise cattle in northeast Kansas, but she was on the tour to learn even more.
A chef who works with several ag-based groups to help better educate consumers, Winter said she shared one common interest with visitors who had never been around cattle before.
“I think most of us had a lot of interest in the processing plant,” she said. “There’s always a lot of concern about that end of the process. That’s where a lot of good questions were asked.
“They don’t let anybody go on the kill floor, but I was really impressed with everything they showed us. Probably the neatest part, for me, was when they showed us the (holding) pens and there were no cattle bawling, no people yelling. Everything seemed pretty content.”
She was also glad to see that even large ranchers, like the Woolfolks, still have a family-based approach. That included children helping with the vaccination of calves. Several generations of Gardiners guided the tour at their family ranch.
Like Winter, Whitney said he was making the trip from Nashville so he could educate employees at the restaurant. He took as much video of the tour as he could and planned on showing parts of it to others.
It’s rare, he said, to go someplace where you can see literally everything that happens from pasture to plate. In fact, it was a Tennessee beef group that paid for Whitney’s trip to Kansas.
“They sent him here because we are one of very few states in the nation that have every element of the beef industry,” Huseman said. “A lot of states grow cattle, but they don’t have the big feed yards or processors like we do.”
Whitney knows what he’s learned from touring Kansas will allow him to better educate customers as well as staff members. He also thinks it will make him a better chef because of respect he has for any beef he serves to customers.
“I’m really hoping what I’ve learned will help us all to respect the product more and hopefully eliminate waste and to feel more responsibility when it’s our turn to work with the product,” he said.
“The more respect you have for something, the better it will be. That’s always the way it works.”