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Top chefs demand the best lamb ... and they get it in Western Pennsylvania

Sunday, August 27, 2000

By Suzanne Martinson, Food Editor, Post-Gazette

It can be a mysterious thing, how chefs forage for food.

Chef Thomas Keller tells the story of how a lamb grown in Greene County, Pa., came to his tables at The French Laundry in Yountsville, Calif., in Napa Valley.

Keller, named the James Beard Outstanding Chef in 1997, was in Las Vegas at the opening of Jean-Louis Palladin's new restaurant Napa when he spotted a reference to "Pittsburgh lamb" on the menu. He was intrigued.

When chefs gather, "we know we won't be ordering from the menu, but eating a special meal planned for us," he recalls. "I never got to try it."

Still, he was curious, and one day en route to San Francisco, he passed through a town in California called Pittsburg. "Oh, it must have been California lamb," he mused. He called the Pittsburg (no H), Calif., Chamber of Commerce, but they knew of no lamber there. "I thought, 'Well, damn, must not be Pittsburg, California.'"

In a fortuitous meeting, Pittsburgh (ours, not theirs) food writer Jane Citron was in Keller's Napa Valley restaurant and mentioned some wonderful lamb raised near Waynesburg that she had written about for Pittsburgh Magazine. She told Keller he ought to try it. Soon Keith Martin sent him a 500-pound sample of Elysian Fields Farms lamb, and it's been a farmer-to-chef connection ever since.

As it turns out, Keller's father, Ed, lives in Monroeville, and the chef hopes to visit Keith and Mary Martin's Greene County farm one day.

Meanwhile, Martin sent Keller a homemade video of his farm. The busy shepherd had only an hour to make it, but he filmed a ewe giving birth, an alfalfa hayfield, the Martins' two children running around, a field full of sheep.

"In the opening scene," Keller recalls, "there was Keith in his overalls and baseball cap. He took us through the whole farm."

Says Martin: "I set the camera on a fence and introduced myself. I was in my farm duds, all right."

"It was the corniest thing you've ever seen," says Martin's wife, Mary.

When Keller opened Bouchon, his new bistro two blocks away from The French Laundry, Elysian Fields lamb was on its menu.

"It goes with the territory. What do you think we would be using? Terrible lamb?" Keller asks with a chuckle. "I'm not going to lower my standards."

For Martin's part, he air-flights the fresh lamb, cut to Keller's specifications, each Tuesday. This is a service economy, Greene County style.

Club quality

It happens the same way in Pittsburgh, where chef Keith Coughenour used the lamb as early as 1993. At first, Martin wasn't able to supply the quantities required -- 20 lambs a week -- for a large-scale restaurant like the Duquesne Club.

"When he grew, he was able to handle us, starting in 1996," Coughenour says. "We're been using it every since. The quality is exceptional, with a firm tooth, not mushy or mealy the way lamb can be."

He knows it's fresh. "He ages it just right for us. He's customized our lamb for us, the size of the rib eye, the fat cover, how long we want the bones."

Coughenour didn't grow up on lamb, but now it's his favorite red meat, and he included several lamb recipes in his "Duquesne Club Cookbook.."

People have a preconceived notion that you have to develop a taste for lamb, but Coughenour believes that was in the earlier days of animal husbandry. "It's almost a science today with the feed and the way it's handled. People think lamb has a stronger flavor, but I don't believe that's so true. My parents never ate lamb when we grew up, but when we started to use lamb here, especially this lamb in particular, it's one of their favorite meats now."

He suggests comparing the Waynesburg lamb with New Zealand baby racks, which is "very strong, I don't like it at all."

Elysian Fields is another matter. "I like it because it isn't gamy, but it has a distinct lamb flavor, a fresh taste."

It's quick to prepare, too. "It takes 20 minutes to cook a rack," he says. "Just sear it at 375 to 400 degrees until it's medium rare -- a little bit pink. Let it rest a good time, 10 minutes or so. You can't beat it."

More local ties

Michael Uricchio, chef at Laforet, the Highland Park restaurant that the PG rated four stars, calls Martin a "great person to work with."

Uricchio, co-owner with his brother, Robert, likes the personal contact he has with Martin. "We shoot the breeze a little bit, how they're feeding the lambs. He shares his concerns, getting the hay in, how they're eating.

"It's a great product. We always have it on the menu -- it's the only lamb we use."

For this restaurateur, it's a question of choosing quality over cost. He says he could buy New Zealand lamb for probably less than half the price. "When you taste the chops next to each other, the flavor of the Elysian Fields lamb really comes out. It tastes like lamb."

Toni Pais of Baum Vivant is another chef who often greets Martin at the back door of his Bloomfield restaurant.

He was trying to remember how he came to put the Elysian Fields brand into his critically acclaimed restaurant. Finally, he remembered an Italian chef who had mentioned it to him.

"I tasted it, and that was it," he says. He also has an Elysian Fields lamb burger on the menu of his new Cafe Zinho in Shadyside.

A chef like Greg Alauzen of the Steelhead Grill, Uptown, also maintains a high standard. He served the brand at the James Beard Dinner he organized last year, and it will probably be on the menu in 2001, too.

Alauzen likes the idea of having a supplier so close to home. "He's right in our back yard, and he's very small. You see the lamb and know that's what you're getting."

Martin is selective, too, according to the chef. "He only really takes on people who will respect his product well. He's interested in raising animals right, and he stands behind his product 110 percent."

The Steelhead makes a delicious lamb sausage known as merguez and has lamb on the bar menu every night.

The chef says quality lamb speaks for itself. The cook "ought to keep it simple."

Over the counter

John McGinnis, whose John McGinnis & Co. Market in Castle Shannon stocks Elysian Fields lamb, has a special perspective on the product. Martin's sheep graze on his Washington County farm in the summer.

"Back when he first started 10 years ago, maybe longer, he just kind of came into my store one day," McGinnis recalls. "He was wanting to market his product, and he told me about it. So I tried it."

Since then, he says the brand has "gained a lot of notice -- it's been in Pittsburgh Magazine a couple of times."

He sells it with the brand name attached. McGinnis & Co. is one of five specialty markets that carries the brand.

"My customers love his stuff -- they come in and ask for it by name."

McGinnis says a lot of "junk lamb" is sold in the United States. Martin's lambs are "different from some of the ones the other guys do. The feed ration produces a very sweet, fresh, nutty taste that I like."

McGinnis likes to braise and roast it with olive oil and some choice herbs and fresh garlic. "His lamb should be eaten on the rare side -- it's extremely tender, the sweetest meat that's out there."

Comparing grass-fed to grain-fed lamb, Dr. Keith Inskeep of West Virginia University says New Zealand lamb is generally not finished on grain, so they are selling a 35- to 45-pound carcass, as compared to Martin's 65-pound.

New Zealand lamb, he says, produces a smaller chop -- you "can eat a lamb chop in one bite. Keith's is a much more desirable product, but he's also marketing at a higher price."

The animal science teacher says New Zealand and Australia can put lamb into this country at lower prices because they are large operations with low labor costs. "I was on one place in Australia that had 17,000 animals, and they were operating with the owner, one hired man, one dog and a motorcycle."

Pittsburgh bred

In an odd postscript, the "Pittsburgh lamb" that Thomas Keller initially went in search of was not Elysian Fields at all, but another noted Western Pennsylvania product -- Jamison Farms Lamb, near Latrobe. John and Sukey Jamison market their lamb as "naturally raised on grass."

"Whether he gets credit or I get credit," Jamison says, "it's great that the best chefs in the country are using lamb from Western Pennsylvania."

The fact remains that whatever producer a chef or a cook chooses can break or make them.

Let Keller tell it: "We cook the products -- without the farms and the people who hunt and raise the food, we would be nothing. My food only tastes as good as what they provide. If I get a better product than 'good,' I would be a better cook."

Not everybody understand this, he says.

"A cook uses my pea soup recipe, but they buy peas in the middle of January. And they blame me! They did everything right, except choose the peas. That's a big part of cooking.

"Without Keith's abilities, my abilities with what I do are sabotaged from the beginning. When you get a relationship with someone like Keith, you keep it forever. He's special, a part of our staff, a part of our family, even though we've never met."

Elysian Fields lamb can be purchased at Brilliant Market, Aspinwall; North Star Market, Richland; Ruggeri's Food Shoppe, Squirrel Hill; Select Food Market, Sewickley; and John McGinnis & Co., Castle Shannon.

Related Recipes:

Marinated Rack of Lamb
Shepherd's Pie
Whipped Potatoes

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