I spent the past couple of days in Kentucky, visiting a bull and a bourbon distillery.
The bull was Prime, father of all the steak served at Primehouse, the Steve Hanson restaurant in Chicago whose chef is steak maestro and generally creative guy David Burke.
On the surface, Steve Hanson and David Burke are an unexpected team. Hanson's B.R. Guest restaurants tend not to be chef-driven. Instead, Hanson seems to run his restaurants from the perspective that, when people eat out, they want to get good service in a fun setting. The food doesn't need to impress, it just needs to meet expectations — to be good enough, as it were. The restaurants of Stephen Starr, Jeffrey Chodorow and other extremely successful operators seem to work on the same philosophy, although they sometimes take umbrage when I say so.
On the other hand, some B.R. Guest restaurants are clearly food- and chef-driven, such as Fiamma, whose chef Michael White has won high praise for his Italian food (I had a meal there for the Bon Appétit Food and Entertaining Awards awhile back and Mario Batali himself gushed over the pasta, and Mario Batali's no idle gusher).
Anyway, with Primehouse, the culinary focus is on its bull.
Prime is a beefcake stud of a Black Angus who spends his days strutting around Creekstone Farms in Kentucky, where his semen is collected three times a day, either to be frozen or inseminated into waiting females of similarly good breeding. In this case, breeding has nothing to do with manners or the ability to sneer with grace at the lower classes (which I guess would be Herefords and Brahmas and Holsteins and so on, not to mention Chianinis, I mean, really), but to marble well — to put on weight in such a way that little veins of fat are distributed evenly throughout your muscles, making for flavorful yet tender meat.
Prime’s children are raised on a mostly-grass diet until they are ready to be sent to Kansas feed lots, where they are fattened up mostly on grain until they're the right weight and size to be delicious rib-eyes, sirloins and filets. Then they're "harvested" and sent to many places, including Prime, where David Burke ages and cooks them.
Prime is the latest and perhaps most extreme example of the trend to identify the origins of foods. Hanson so liked the idea that he was hoping to continue the theme in other aspects of the restaurant. He wanted to get a supply of the straws used to store bull semen and use them (unused ones) as swizzle sticks.
He was dissuaded from the idea, but it took awhile.
In fact, Eben Klemm, who's in charge of B.R. Guest's beverage programs and who was in Kentucky with me, said Primehouse's purchasing manager was instructed to buy some semen straws and figure out how to do something with them.
He ordered them, opened the package, and only then realized that he had been sent not only the straws, but full ones with semen in them.
That bummed him out.
Freelance writer Greg Lindsay, who also was on the trip — nice guy, funny and smart as a whip — suggested quite seriously that bull semen could be an excellent cocktail ingredient, to be offered for a hefty supplement to testosterone-pumped types on the Chicago Board of Trade for example.
Hey, they'll drink Red Bull and vodka.
We also visited the Maker's Mark distillery, whose master distiller, Dave Pickerell, gave me the most detailed recipe I could imagine for a Mint Julep.
Maker's Mark, I learned on the tour, is all about removing bitterness from its brew. It uses no rye in its grain mix, just corn, wheat and malted barley, and it uses a roller mill instead of a hammer one to grind the grain so that no grain gets scorched (scorching creates bitter flavors). Maker's Mark is aged to be only sweet, without sourness or bitterness, and the entire taste experience is supposed to occur in the front of the mouth.
So Dave Pickerell isn't about to mull the mint for his julep. Mulling releases tannins, you see, which are bitter. So instead he creates an infusion, wrapping a bunch of mint leaves in cheese cloth, dipping them in bourbon, and squeezing, dipping and squeezing, dipping and squeezing until he has a nice, strong, minty infusion.
Separately, he combines six parts bourbon with one part simple syrup. He puts that in the freezer, and when it's time to make juleps, he pours it over ice and adds the infusion until it reaches the desired mintyness. He serves the juleps with straws cut short, forcing those drinking them to get up close to the drink to get a strong whiff of the mint.