A well crafted Alberta steak is an undeniably delicious choice for beef lovers, but even our top home-grown cattle have more than a little friendly competition from Japan.
Often expensive and difficult to obtain due to massive international demand far outstripping supply, wagyu is sought after by gourmands due to its superior marbling, flavour, and texture.
“The best way of explaining waygu, and we need to because people in Alberta are going to be like ‘Alberta beef is the best,’ and here’s the truth: Alberta beef is the best and is the best in the world… but this is something special,” said Modern Steak Owner Stephen Deere.
“This like the Ferrari of beef, this is like the Bugatti of beef. It’s something so specialized, that you can’t really put it in the same category as something else.”
Modern Steak has purchased more than $22,000 of the beef from the 2022 Wagyu Olympics’ winning prefecture in Japan, Kagoshima. The beef will be served at their Stephen Avenue location until the amount runs out.
The competition pits competitors from across Japan to have their cattle judged on a variety of criteria, including appearance and productivity of the breed, and the marbling of the meat. The competition, which occurs every five years, and is among the nation’s most prestigious agricultural events, was attended by Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.
A rare steak to find
That $22,000 investment, said Deere, works out to be about 16 times less beef than what the same purchase amount would get for high-quality Alberta beef.
Part price of that is due to the demand of restaurants in places like Las Vegas or New York, but also because of how few cattle are raised in Japan to the highest of standards.
“Right now in Alberta, we have I believe 1.6 million animals in that are deemed to go to market, Saskatchewan has 1.1 million roughly, and Kagoshima Prefecture has 200,000 cattle total,” he said.
“It goes to the steak meccas, so Vegas and New York get taken care of first, and then those who have proven their worth get in line and eventually can can get this type of product.”
Modern Steak has worked with a broker out of Vancouver who is connected to the Japanese beef markets to obtain the product for their customers.
“We’re working with a new broker out of Vancouver that has decent access, and you kind of get a—I don’t want to say—but it’s like a job interview and you kind of get qualified, meaning you either have the ability to carry this product and sell it and represent the brand well or you don’t,” Deere said.
“The beautiful thing that I think the synergy is with Alberta beef producers and wagyu producers in Japan is that they’re trying to put out the best product, and they want to represent it in that manner because they put so much work into it, so they don’t want to give it to everyone to mess around or destroy, or think it’s a gimmick.”
Premium price, ultra-premium experience
Deere is clear on where wagyu fits consumer’s appetites. A five oz. A5 filet goes for $213, an A5 seven oz. striploin goes for $182, and an A5 Ribeye for two at 17 oz. goes for $328.
Add in a top bottle of wine to round out the experience, like a Barolo DOCG del Comune di Serralunga d’Alba at approximately $120—and also an award winning top wine of the world—and the overall price of a meal puts it out of the range of an everyday night out.
But what customers get in return is a steak experience like any other.
The types of fat within the meat are such that they begin to melt at room temperature, and when seared in an oven at more than 1,000 Fahrenheit, form a tender crust around the steak that requires no extra use of butter or oils. Within the meat, the fats and muscle protein is cooked to become a melt in the mouth experience.
The tenderness of the meat and the way the fat dissolves on the tongue also forms a delicious mix that almost coats the mouth. Add in a bold wine, the mix then comes alive with an explosion of flavour through the chemical interactions of the fats, proteins, and tannins.
All that comes from the A5 graded cuts, which have a beef marbling score by the Japanese Meat Grading Association of between 10 and 12. For comparison, a USDA Prime cut would have a beef marbling score of between 3 to 4.
“In North America, we don’t have a beef marbling score per-se, because they fall in the [grading] categories… the Japanese have one to 12, and all the Kagoshima is between 10 and 12.”
The advice Deere gives to get the most out of the experience is to avoid rich side dishes, and focus on the beef itself (which is only seasoned with salt and a small amount of pepper), along with sides and wines that enhance, not detract from the flavour.
“‘I know you love the mashed potatoes because you come here all the time but let’s not do mashed potatoes today’… it is a specialized eating experience where you kind of want to give up control,” he said.
“This is one of those things like when it’s your anniversary and you buy a nice bottle of [Dom Pérignon] or something to celebrate. I really look at this in that space of it’s not an everyday thing, and you wouldn’t want to eat it every day to be honest.”
No gimmick, just beef done right
Deere said that it really was an honour to bring the wagyu steak to Stephen Avenue.
“It’s an honour. Plain and simple.”
He said that the connection through to a specific farm, and in this case to a specific animal, was something that Modern Steak prides itself on.
“We’re gonna say this tongue in cheek, but when you ask most steak houses where they get their beef from, they’re gonna tell you off the back of a truck from Sysco. We don’t do that,” Deere said.
“Our connection to our producers, especially our Alberta producers, we know them personally.
And part connection of that is ensuring that the beef the restaurant sources is ethically raised, well taken care of, and then painlessly killed to become meat. Something Deere summarizes as happy animals make better beef.
“For me, I’ve been on the floor right, so what we say is we want them to have the most amazing life and then in one millisecond, it’s over. So there’s no pain, there’s no fear, they have a great life, and that’s very important to us.”
He said that the Japanese system for wagyu is very similar to the small feed-lot system to Alberta’s. A small number of professionals take extra-ordinary care of their animals. That pride is also reflected in the Wagyu Olympics, which offers no cash prize, only the honour of receiving an award and the market interest that follows.
“Not only is it in their best interest to do the right thing, it’s their best interest to create the best quality. And the beautiful thing about the Japanese system is not only is it probably one of the best systems in the world, there’s a lot of honour behind it and pride behind it.”
He also said that the selection brought to Modern Steak differs from the often gimmicky uses of quote-un-quote Kobe Beef, which has been marketed as an premium market product—but is more than likely not from Kobe. That prefecture produces about 1,000 heads of cattle per year, but yet is made of wagyu or cross-bred wagyu, conflated by advertisers as being the same thing as the ultra-premium, ultra-marbled meat.
The wagyu beef that is currently being served at Modern Steak comes with a certificate of authenticity from the Japanese Carcass Identification Bureau. With details the degree that the beef on the menu as of December 15, came from a 28-month-old steer named Ryota, from the Ikeda Farm.
“Every animal is traced in the prefecture by nose print, so like a fingerprint, its nose print, and so every animal is traced back to where it’s from, who produced it.”