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Condor - It's What's for Dinner! The Carnivore Panel

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Photo by Elise Thompson for LAist (L-R Jonathan Gold, Mark Peel, Octavio Becerra, Susan Feniger and Vinny Dotola)

Yesterday Jonathan Gold moderated the Carnivore! panel at the LA Weekly Festival held at The Ricardo Montalban Theater. The panel consisted of Mark Peel, Octavio Becerra, Susan Feniger and Vinny Dotolo. The panel members were not only representative of some of the finest chefs in LA, but they were well-informed, witty, and thoughtful. It seemed like everyone in the room, including the panelists, walked away with something of value.

Gold opened the discussion with musings on Padma Lakshmi’s semi-pornographic hamburger commercial. He described the act of Padma, a former Hindu, ingesting the meat as a transgressive. By ingesting the animal's flesh, she was taking it into herself.

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The discussion turned then to what the animal itself ingests, and how its diet and quality of life affect the taste of the meat. It was generally agreed that an animal's handling and the resulting protein are intrinsically linked. After establishing that current meat-handling practices are abominable, possible methods for effecting change were brought up.

There is some question as to the feasibility of the general public being able to eat sustainably, particularly with the cost involved. Mark Peel doesn't feel that there will be a sea change anytime soon.

Susan Feniger, who is known for the concept of using meat as a condiment, discussed the matter in ratios, looking at meat as being either 80 or 20 percent of a plate. Perhaps if people were to eat a smaller quantity, they would be able to afford higher quality. She is also dedicated to educating chefs and the public about overfished seafood.

Educating the public about meat in a similar way may be one step in bringing about sustainability. The "Diet for a Small Planet" subject came up regarding the high percentage of farmland that is dedicated to raising food for animals as opposed to growing food for direct human consumption.

Another point to consider is taking advantage of varietal meats and less popular cuts. Mark Peel expressed the belief that it is wrong to waste any part of an animal that has given its life. Plus, Peel proposed there is an inverse ratio established between the taste and tenderness of a cut of meet. Longer braising cuts, like brisket, tongue, and tail are the most flavorful, as they are the "moving parts".

Vinny Dotolo, who unapologetically helms Animal, a restaurant that glorifies carnivorous delights, had touched on his ability to experiment with lesser-known cuts of meat earlier in the discussion.

The chefs felt that the ability to popularize what Gold referred to as "the squishy bits" has a lot to do with its presentation. Feniger mentioned the ease of selling a lengua taco verus pushing a big plate of tongue. The point was also brought up that there are trends in food, and sometimes it’s just the year for sweetbreads. The American palate also has to get used to grass-fed beef over corn, which is very cruel; cattle are not meant to eat corn and it wreaks havoc on their digestive system. Dotolo felt that the main thing a restaurant needs besides quality ingredients is personality, and if it has that, it can carry off anything, even a meat-only menu.

The audience was on board the entire way, then Gold mentioned to Feniger that there is some controversy on the internet over the price of her pho. She replied that oxtail was expensive, but it was an indespensible element. When she said, “You know, things like lamb neck, or oxtail, where you have the spinal cord, really have the flavor…” the audience visibly shuddered. After talk of fecal matter, slaughterhouses and squishy bits, it took mentioning a spinal cord to freak everyone out.

Gold asked Dotolo if people were coming out of culinary school with butchering skills, and Dotolo said that it seemed most graduates are interested in charcuterie and molecular gastronomy at the moment. They don’t know how to break down an entire carcass, which is the most practical way to bring locally farmed meat into the restaurant.

Questions from the audience brought up issues of gender preferences, opinions about vegans, and more thoughts on sustainability and the future of meat as it relates to the restaurant business.

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Mark Peel brought up a valid point that sums up the day for us - chickens will never be endangered. They are too delicious. Whereas California condor tastes terrible.

Gold’s riposte? “But have you tried it sous vide?”