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Sunday, February 08, 2015

Here’s the Beef!

What’s for Dinner? Dept.: Last weekend, the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park, NY, held its second annual Beefsteak, and, keeping my repertorial responsibilities in mind, attended so you wouldn’t have to. Here’s my report.


TWO HOURS INTO THE EVENT, the lights went out. The glare of spotlights in a rear balcony took over. As the band swung into a rousing processional, the first platter of beef entered the hall, borne by a young white-jacketed, toque-topped chef. Followed by another, then another, carried by chef after chef, all proceeding across the room to a stage where carving stations awaited.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
The beef was a shell of Black Angus, a well-trimmed short loin crisp on the outside but juicily rare within. Each shell was swiftly carved into large chunks that got splayed on a white platter around a small pitcher of blood-and-butter gravy.

It was the crowning touch of an evening of superfetation, marking the resurgence of a tradition that almost had left us: the Beefsteak.

The event took place at the Culinary Institute of America’s Hyde Park campus last Saturday, filling cavernous Farquharson Hall at the institute’s main building. This, once the chapel when the place was still a Jesuit seminary, otherwise serves as the student dining room. Saturday it was filled with 160 revelers who had parked their diets at the door.

Waldy Malouf was the chef in charge. A 1975 CIA graduate, he worked at places like the Rainbow Room and Le Cremaillere before opening Beacon Restaurant. When that closed two years ago, Malouf returned to his alma mater to become senior director of special projects. “And he’s changed things around here,” a more recent CIA grad who was in attendance assured me. “He’s loosening things up. Best thing that ever happened to the place.”

Malouf began holding Beefsteaks at Beacon in 2001, a particularly nervy move what with the then-current Mad Cow scare. This is his second at the CIA. He was inspired by Joseph Mitchell’s article “All You Can Hold for Five Bucks,” which ran in the April 15, 1939 New Yorker and is a wonderful example of Mitchell’s deadpan, detailed reporting. “Some old chefs believe (the Beefsteak) had its origin sixty or seventy years ago,” wrote Mitchell, “when butchers from the slaughterhouses on the East River would sneak choice loin cuts into the kitchens of nearby saloons, grill them over charcoal, and feast on them during their Saturday-night sprees.”

We were greeted at the door by flappers. Hired from local community-theater rosters, they wore red spangled dresses and headbands to match, and filled our souvenir pilsner glasses with beer (courtesy of Brooklyn Brewery). We also were given aprons to wear with the understanding that they would be profoundly soiled when we handed them back.

Waldy Malouf at the carving station
Photo by B. A. Nilsson
The tradition, at least until the 1920s, was to eat with your hands, but that was before women crashed the gates. Saturday’s event was comfortably mixed, proving that no sexist lines should be drawn when it comes to gluttony.

We were seated at butcher paper-topped tables, with long loaves of wheaty bread running up the table’s middle, punctuated by giant slabs of NY cheddar and platters of crudités.

I’m wise to this angle. Bread and cheese and salad are filling, and they’re cheaper than beef. They’re trying to dim my appetite. So I’m going to tear a very small piece off the loaf and enhance it with a mere crumb of the cheddar. And if I do it once again, and once more still, it’s hardly going to matter.

That black skillet hitting the table is emitting an aroma—ah! A crowd of half-shell oysters sits atop warm salt chunks, the oysters themselves bathed in butter and parsley. I’ll try one. Two.

When the dish of crab salad arrived, we had to help clear fragments of bread and cheese to make room for it, hanging on to the skillet with two oysters remaining. Each item was intended to serve four or five of us, and seemed to contain just enough, although the shrimp that showed up next didn’t disappear very quickly. Granted, they were impressively large shrimp.

Perhaps it was the continual lubrication that aided digestion. It wasn’t simply that a flapper seemed to be within sight of me every time I had sense enough to look up from my plate; I had the impression that she’d been staring at me, willing me to look up and see her radiant smile, assenting with my eyes for her to return to my table with a refill of beer.

Lamp chops are a Beefsteak tradition. Again, loin cuts, each chop Frenched to provide a handle. This is when any remnant of daintiness truly began to depart. Tender as each serving was, it still required some primal moves of lips and teeth to fully strip that bone, and once you’ve munched through one—o, the lovely snap of that rim of fat!—you might as well help your neighbors clear the platter. Because it’s going to have to be removed for the next item whether you like it or not.

Such culinary pikers. You’re here for the total experience, chum, and you can’t let that platter of lamb kidneys go by untouched. But you will. Even the incentive of added bacon isn’t enough to persuade you even to try one. Not, I’m happy to report, at my end of the table, where at least the kidneys were tasted. I supposed I was introduced to them too early on to develop an aversion—but these were cream of the crop. Yet platter after untouched platter returned to the tray stands. Bet I know what the students will be eating for a few days to come.

Bringing us only up to the burgers. Those beef shells needed trimming, and the Beefsteak tradition is to turn those trimmings into burgers, here served on an open-face roll with a dill pickle chip skewered through its heart. House-made smoky ketchup was offered in too-small jars that refused to yield their contents, but it was hardly needed with meat this tasty.

Despite an intermezzo of Bulleit bourbon on the rocks, when the beef finally arrived, we were drunk with food. Like most drunks, we thought not of our well-being but only of the gorgeous meat before us, begging to be consumed. True, we used our forks and knives, but we pounded through every last delicious piece on that platter, barely able to croak out a “no” when a server invited us to have more.

They taunted us with four types of dessert, individual servings of doughnuts and profiteroles, cheesecake and bread pudding, and we did our best, but we were lolling in a beef-sufficiency haze. Yet it all seemed so polite, so civilized. No food was thrown and too many forks were used. Socially, we’ve moved too far from those raucous days of the early Beefsteaks, and I won’t even blame it on the presence of women, Tom Sawyer’s Aunt Sally be damned. The problem is that we’re no longer accustomed to this kind of bacchanal, and I applaud Malouf for giving us such a participatory experience of history. And I’ll be happy to help out with that leftover beef.

Metroland Magazine, 5 February 2015

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