Monday, 17 November 2008

The Great Steak Controversy

Why is it that ordering a steak in a restaurant is almost always a difficult experience? First you explain to the waiter how you want your steak cooked, then you wait expectantly for it to arrive. Then, more often than not, you will have to send it back. Failing that, you will grit your teeth and eat it anyway even though it is either too rare or too well done. And then you pay for it. Not good. I travel a lot, and believe me, this happens in more restaurants than I'd like to admit.

Despite this, I have to confess, I have a real weakness for a good steak. Now, my definition of a good steak might not be yours. I like my steak cooked medium, warm throughout with a pink centre. Your good steak might be rare or even well done. Whatever your preference, you should be able to get exactly what you want when you order a steak in a restaurant. Unfortunately this is not always the case.

There are wildly varying degrees of how steak is cooked in restaurants around the world. A medium steak in America is a very different thing from a medium steak in England, as is a medium steak in England from one that has been cooked in France. And that is before you get to the medium steak cooked in England by a French chef! Travel to Cyprus and you’ll find that medium is closer to rare, and well done to medium. Different parts of Europe follow different rules of thumb, but generally lean towards cooking steak quite lightly. Even chefs in the same town cook according to different rules of doneness, many influenced by their country of birth or even how they like to eat their own steak.

The official standards for degrees of cooking are pictured left. The top steak in the picture, in which seventy-five percent of the centre is red and has an internal temperature of thirty to fifty-one degrees Celsius, is rare. Working downwards, medium rare has a fifty percent red centre and comes in at fifty-seven to sixty-three degrees Celsius. Third from the top, a medium steak should have a centre which is twenty-five percent pink and be sixty-three to sixty-eight degrees Celsius. Below that there is medium well, which has only a hint of pink and should be seventy-two to seventy-seven degrees Celsius internally. Finally, well done steak should be brown (not charred) and have an internal temperature of seventy-seven degrees Celsius.

Sadly, in my experience, chefs rarely pay attention to this guideline – and this incenses me. There seems to be a real prejudice against medium to well done steak, and an almost sinister attempt to force those of us who prefer our steaks cooked this way to change our ways.

Steak – and beef in general - is a very personal thing. Those who like it rare will explain that it keeps the steak tender, and that the juices are delicious. (At this point I cannot keep silent – if those “juices” are red then they are not “juices”. They are blood. But I digress.) Those of us who like our steaks medium will say that any further cooking dries the steak and spoils the experience. And those who prefer well done say that it is unappetising to eat meat that is still pink or red. And do you know what? On one level or another, we are all correct. Because you should have your steak cooked the way you like it – not the way you are told you ought to have it.

I used to like my steak well done – and more than once was served something that virtually resembled charcoal on the outside but was still red on the inside. Over the years, either my tastes have evolved or I have been beaten into submission, but I now enjoy a medium steak. Sadly, this does not seem to have helped much. Not that long ago, I sent back a steak three times in a very elegant (and expensive) restaurant in England as the French chef virtually refused to cook it anything beyond medium rare. Although we never saw the whites of each other’s eyes, the tension between us was palpable. The poor waiter was shaking by the end of it, and I had been very calm and polite throughout. Clearly the chef was not. If I am paying for a steak, I expect it to be cooked how I want it cooked, not how the chef feels it ought to be cooked. And if anyone tells me the steak will be tough if it is not cooked lightly, they ought to buy better steak.

So often a medium steak arrives looking very rare indeed – a medium steak I had a few weeks ago in Cyprus was actually bleeding on the plate. What is this preoccupation with undercooking a good steak? I mean, if you want to eat it rare, fine. I don’t. I want my steak cooked to medium – pink centre, warm throughout.

Now the obvious solution to this seems to be to order the steak cooked more thoroughly than how you would like it to be. In my experience, as soon as you ask for anything beyond medium well, many chefs just hear “burned” and provide you with what they think you’ve asked for. Many of my friends do like their steak well done. They have assured me that well done definitely does not mean burned. It means cooked slowly over low heat until it is brown (not black – brown) and warm throughout.

To any chefs out there who are trying to convert the world to the joys of rare steak – seriously, stick to the rules. You are the cook and I am the customer. If you think I’m a heathen for eating my steak cooked till it is pink inside and warm throughout, I have to confess I do not care. Just please cook it that way. You can try all you like, but I’m not going to eat rare steak just because you insist that is the way I should eat it. That just is not how it works.

Of course there are some amazing chefs out there and there are many places in the world where you can get a really good steak, cooked exactly as you want it to be. Some I have yet to discover, but I've found a good few. Harris’ Steak House in San Francisco is a place where they cook steak just as you order it. At the other end of the scale, most Outback restaurant chefs really hear you when you tell them how you want your steak cooked. The Brook House Restaurant in Staffordshire, England also does a very nice steak – particularly Steak Diane - as does Sam Sneed’s Restaurant in Savannah, Georgia.

But if you are not close to one of those, don’ t be like the woman next to me in the restaurant in Cyprus who not only did not eat her $50 steak because it was too rare, but was too intimidated to send it back. If the steak that arrives at your table is not cooked how you would like to eat it, ask the waiter to request it is cooked a little longer. Expect the steak that returns to your table to have been gently helped along to the next level of doneness. If it has been anywhere near a microwave, complain again. If you are paying for it, it should be served as you have ordered it. Don’t be intimidated. Ordering steak in a restaurant should never be a stressful experience!

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