The Quest for Quality

DeBragga and Spitler with Niman Ranch

We recently met for a conversation with George Faison of New York’s DeBragga and Spitler and John Tarpoff, vice president of beef for Niman Ranch. DeBragga introduced Gotham to the fine steaks from Niman Ranch.

Bill Niman began his life as a rancher in 1969 largely because of where he found himself after moving to Bolinas, California, with other “counterculture” types. It was more about “the community I found myself in,” and the idea was “to have a predictable, safe food supply.” While Bill Niman is no longer involved with the company, Niman Ranch today continues to profess the same ideals as its founder— that is, to produce “the finest-tasting all-natural meat in the world.” Much of the agricultural advances of the past century have focused on quality, convenience, and lowering costs. This focus led to plenty of astonishing feats–meat is half the cost today than it was in 1970, and food is more available for longer periods than ever before–yet this quest for innovative production was so concerned with quantity and decreasing costs that quality ultimately became its victim. A dramatic turnabout of the past 30 years is a return to an emphasis on quality. And to a large degree, this demand began with restaurants and chefs. When Alfred Portale first started at Gotham, one of his primary concerns was sourcing ingredients, finding purveyors and farms that were producing premium ingredients. Now that quest is far easier thanks to the rising demand and attention these chefs have created. Niman Ranch was an early adopter of the return to quality, and it was 2008 when George Faison of DeBragga and Spitler brought the dry-aged Niman Ranch steaks to Gotham’s kitchen. We were hooked. By following strict protocols from an animal’s genetics to animal feeding and handling practices, Niman Ranch has improved the quality its meat. All to our benefit.

The Conversation
Bret Csencsitz: John, what is your job at Niman Ranch?
John Tarpoff: My job is to raise the best quality meat possible. It is the one thing I focus on: quality.
George Faison: What Niman does in terms of quality is unprecedented. They have thought through the whole process so as to make the best beef possible.
BC: Certainly at Gotham we believe in the Niman quality, as do our diners. I think we have the best steak in New York, thanks to you and George. John, how do you do it?
JT: It starts with caring—caring about getting the best meat, the highest percentage of prime-graded meat.
And what we have learned is that the best way to get the most prime-graded meat is by caring about your product from the very beginning, all the way through its journey to the plate. It starts with genetics, then how the animals are fed and treated, and then, of course, George’s dry-aging program, and finally the preparation or cooking.
BC: I’m curious about your workday. What does that look like?
JT: My office is in Denver, my home in Illinois, and I am rarely at either. My work takes me to the fields and farms, where the cattle are raised. I might be inspecting a new rancher or advising someone on how to get into the Niman program, or inspecting new calves for genetic qualifications, or overseeing a testing of a rancher’s feed to assure they are following our guidelines. Basically I spend a lot of time in the field, literally.
BC: Sounds challenging. I want to know how or why a rancher would want to work with Niman.
JT: Well, first we pay a premium, and secondly I find farmers feel better about our approach.
BC: And how successful is Niman at producing a superior product?
JT: The beef industry right now produces only about 1.5 to 2 percent prime meat. At Niman Ranch, 35 to 40 percent of our beef is graded prime. So I think our product is proof that our systems work, and given we pay more, we think ranchers will continue to want to work with us. We currently have about 100 ranchers working with us, and we hope to have twice that on line within the next few years.
BC: How hard is it to be a rancher for Niman?
JT: It is more difficult to do things the Niman way. That is why we pay the ranchers an extra $150 to $200 per head. That makes the paperwork worthwhile. It takes cattle longer to finish our way. That is another cost that has to be added in. using antibiotics and hormones finishes the cattle much faster. The commodity philosophy is volume in and volume out, as quickly as possible. Niman Ranch’s philosophy is feeding each animal to reach its genetic potential. It is totally different. That is one of the reasons that we deal with family ranchers and farmers. They are willing to slow things down a little, to produce a better product. again, it is a whole different model.
BC: Now once the beef is raised, it is a whole other process of aging. That is where you come in George, right?
GT: Absolutely. We are that middle ground between the making and the dining. We source the best beef and then treat it accordingly, so that we can provide places like Gotham with an exceptional product. What I do is, like John, I look for the best-quality product out there and find a way to get it in your restaurant. All along the way it will cost more. so the product is going to be, from a relative perspective, expensive.
BC: Agreed.
GF: And that’s quite frankly where the industry has to go anyway. Everybody is pushing, and we are consuming way too much meat as a country. We have a problem with health—too much meat, but it’s the wrong kind of meat. And Niman has the right kind of meat.

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