Beef and Climate Change: This Seattle Steakhouse Wants to Be Part of the Solution
There is no shrimp cocktail or Caesar salad on the menu. The white, window-lined dining room will not be mistaken, as many steakhouses could be, for the man cave of a wealthy lawyer with a thing for cowboy-rancher iconography. In fact, by the time you order, it’s possible the kitchen will have run out of some steaks — rib-eye, New York strip, filet — that most diners consider prerequisites for a steakhouse.
Renee Erickson, the influential Seattle chef and Bateau’s co-owner, concedes that the restaurant bewilders some first-time customers. “It’s definitely not a steakhouse for everyone,” she said. “I wish it were.”
Bateau’s iconoclasm flows from its ambition to celebrate beef without supporting the industrial system that makes beef production so harmful to the environment. Ms. Erickson set out six years ago to open a steakhouse whose focus on local, sustainable ingredients aligned with the values at restaurants operated by her company, Sea Creatures, including the popular oyster bar Walrus and the Carpenter.
The environmentally conscious practices that Bateau follows — including whole-animal butchering — are hardly novel. But they’re nearly impossible to adhere to while still delivering what steakhouses have conditioned the nation’s diners to expect: a narrow lineup of steaks that are tender and marbled with fat. Both of those selling points are often products of an inhumane feedlot system that is complicit in the climate crisis.
All of this makes the restaurant nearly a genre of its own: a steakhouse that is also a critique of steakhouses, and a model of a better way forward.
This is a tough time to be promoting beef. The ethics of meat consumption are so widely questioned that laboratory-grown meat substitutes have become commonplace. The website Epicurious announced in April that it would produce no new beef recipes. And veganism has found a foothold at both fast-food chains and Michelin-starred restaurants.
Yet Bateau pushes back at the notion that eliminating beef is the most thoughtful remedy for an ailing food system. Instead, it favors embracing beef from cattle raised entirely on pasture vegetation, a pillar of the regenerative-agriculture movement that sees cattle as essential to healthy ecosystems and, by extension, fighting climate change. This beef is the only animal protein Bateau serves, besides raw oysters.
Taylor Thornhill, the restaurant’s chef de cuisine since it opened, views its rancher-suppliers — Pure Country Farm, Carman Ranch and Gleason Ranch, all in the Northwest — as collaborators. All believe that the welfare of animals impacts the health of the land.
“They care as much about the animal from the moment it’s born to the moment it’s killed — and beyond — as I do about it coming through these doors and getting it to the plate,” Mr. Thornhill said.
Those claims of affection aren’t likely to sway animal-rights advocates. Many scientists are skeptical that regenerative techniques can significantly reduce the carbon footprint of raising cattle. In the United States, livestock are among the largest sources of methane; cattle that feed on vegetation their entire lives emit more of this planet-warming greenhouse gas because they live longer. Regenerative-agriculture proponents contend that such criticisms don’t give enough weight to other benefits of their practices, like eliminating the need to grow and ship feed.
For her part, Ms. Erickson doesn’t claim to have all the answers. “There is a very big system in place that doesn’t work very well,” she said, adding that many of Bateau’s diners “are inspired to make a better choice. And I think that’s what our job is.”
Each week Bateau buys a whole carcass, and one to three supplemental slabs of beef, all cut into steaks by Scott Johnson, the staff butcher. The selections, handwritten daily on chalkboard menus, are limited to what’s been dry-aged for at least 21 days and to the finite supply of what’s in the cooler. Particular cuts are crossed off the menu throughout the night as that supply dwindles.
Mr. Thornhill, 37, and his colleagues — notably the restaurant’s original butcher, Tom Coss — have made it a mission to make steaks out of cuts long considered too tough, small or unsightly for the assignment. This accounts for the long list of steaks that most diners will never have seen on a steakhouse menu, if at all.
They include, depending on the night, obscure cuts (like gracilis and coulotte) and others presumed to be palatable only if slow-cooked or ground into hamburger (ball tip, brisket deckle).
Through trial and error, Mr. Thornhill and Mr. Coss developed methods for butchering and aging tougher, leaner cuts that deepen the flavor and help tenderize the meat, at least to a point. (Mr. Coss was laid off, along with the rest of the staff, at the start of the pandemic; he now is head butcher at the Shambles, a Seattle bar and butcher. Mr. Johnson joined Bateau after it resumed regular service in April.)
For diners, part of the Bateau experience is learning that meat from free-roaming, grass-fed cows will always require a sharp knife. “As consumers, we’ve been told that the best-quality meat is tender meat, fork tender,” Mr. Thornhill said. “Our metric for quality is flavor.”
All of the steaks, including the traditional steakhouse varieties, are cooked the same: seared in cast-iron pans and basted with brown butter. The meat is priced by weight, with some cuts available in four- or five-ounce portions. This reduces waste and encourages diners to sample.
In one meal, a small party can appreciate the fatty intensity of belly or short rib, the loose-grained succulence of the coulotte and the fungal tang of a 49-day-aged sirloin tip, potentially each from a different ranch. The spectrum of texture and flavor makes what’s available at a traditional steakhouse seem monochromatic by comparison.
“Beef should have a terroir, like wine,” Mr. Thornhill said.
The idea for Bateau first came to Ms. Erickson, 49, years before it opened, during meals at Le Severo, the butcher-restaurateur William Bernet’s steak-oriented bistro in Paris, and at Hawksmoor, in London. She noticed how much the character varied among cuts and producers of steaks from locally bred cows. It made her realize how years of buying pre-cut rib-eyes and strips had detached her from the ingredient’s source.
“It was like a light bulb went off,” Ms. Erickson recalled. “This is an animal. It doesn’t come from a box.”
It’s a measure of how difficult it is to achieve Bateau’s goals that the restaurant hasn’t spawned a cohort of similar steakhouses-with-a-conscience, even as it racks up accolades (The Seattle Times gave it four stars, its highest rating, in 2016) and prominent chefs and restaurateurs continue to tinker with the steakhouse genre. One factor could be economic: Bateau’s labor-intensive methods are not cheap. Its prices are as high as, if not higher than, traditional steakhouses.
Bateau was even more ambitious in its early days, when Sea Creatures raised its own French heritage-breed cattle on Whidbey Island for the restaurant. That proved to be overwhelming, and ended after about a year. “We’re not ranchers,” Ms. Erickson said.
A fourth-generation cattle rancher in northeastern Oregon, Cory Carman, didn’t seriously question the feedlot system until the 1990s, when she was a student at Stanford. She started converting her family’s Carman Ranch to a grass-fed herd in the early 2000s.
It’s not uncommon for cattle to feed on grass even within the industrial system. What distinguishes Carman Ranch and Bateau’s other suppliers is that they continue to feed the animals on foraged vegetation in the months before slaughter, when most cattle are sold to feedlots to fatten on grains.
The considerable financial risk is among the reasons more cattle ranchers don’t follow suit, Ms. Carman said during a July tour of her herds in Wallowa County.
“We could have sold this cattle and pocketed the money a year ago,” she said of animals grazing on timbered range, at the edge of a mountain valley. Cattle “finished” on grass take longer to reach market weight. “We find ways to feed them, keep them gaining, and take all of the risk for an additional year.”
Ms. Carman, 41, said she persists because the environmental damage caused by the feedlot system is so grave, and the potential benefits of regenerative agriculture are so enticing.
Her cows move to different pastures and crop land, long enough to replenish the soil with their hooves and manure, but not enough to deplete it of nutrients. This planned grazing reduces stress on the animals; eliminates the need to buy feed and till the land; and leaves behind soil that’s more fertile and better able to sequester carbon and hold water — a particular boon in the drought-stricken West. “You put animals in a feedlot and you create a pollution problem,” Ms. Carman said. “Where if we keep them in a pasture system, that manure is doing really good things for the land.”
Ms. Carman started Carman Ranch Provisions a decade ago to sell grass-fed beef from her ranch and other local farms in an effort to, as she put it, “create our own supply chain.”
Mark Butterfield is among the farmers in the program. Eighty cows in his 150-head herd rotate on land planted with cover crops. Meat from those cows is sold through Ms. Carman’s company.
Mr. Butterfield, 52, has already seen results: healthier soil and higher yields from the cash crops he later plants on the land where cattle grazed. Asked what’s keeping him from converting his entire operation to grass-fed, he said: “My mind. Change is hard, and it’s expensive.” He added that farming is different than ranching, and that raising cattle doesn’t come easy to people trained to raise crops.
“Most farmers don’t want to mess with cows,” he said.
Mr. Thornhill, Bateau’s chef de cuisine, said he hopes the restaurant can help encourage others to change their ways. “I’m just trying to squeeze every ounce of care and love out of the animal, to respect the animal and help the land.”
Beef is a component in nearly everything the kitchen prepares, from the salami cotto in the house salad and fermented beef garum served with the onion-soup croquettes to the beef tallow in the restaurant’s twist on olive-oil cake. And the waste-minimizing nose-to-tail ethic informs all of its cooking. Fermented kale stems take the place of cornichons and capers in the steak tartare.
“Other than eggshells, we try not to put anything into the compost,” Mr. Thornhill said.
Both Mr. Thornhill, who trained as a butcher, and Ms. Erickson, the granddaughter of farmers, have witnessed the slaughtering of cows. “If you can’t come to grips that something died, you shouldn’t eat meat,” Mr. Thornhill said.
Mr. Thornhill sat in Bateau’s dining room beneath one of the restaurant’s two signature images: a chalk drawing of a calf and a cow gazing wide-eyed over the tables. The other image, an arm’s length away, is a window into the cooler where carcasses hang.
Mr. Thornhill said he isn’t bothered that some diners might find the juxtaposition disturbing. “If people believe in what we’re doing and want a better food system, we welcome them,” he said. “If they don’t like it, they don’t have to eat here.”