Anthony Bourdain’s Trick for Great Steak Tartare Isn’t About the Meat

Editor’s Note: As more people are working from home, Bloomberg Pursuits is running a weekly Lunch Break column that will highlight a notable recipe from a favorite cookbook and the hack that makes them genius. 

The food world could use Anthony Bourdain right now.

 It’s oxymoronic to call out an older white guy at this moment, when we’re desperately in need of diverse voices. But the television host, author, and chef was one of the great champions of cooks of all stripes from around the world.

To celebrate what would have been his 64th birthday on June 25th, I picked up a copy of his Les Halles Cookbook: Strategies, Recipes and Techniques of Classic Bistro Cooking, with José de Meirelles and Philippe Lajaunie (Bloomsbury; $28). On the cover, Bourdain, in a chef’s jacket, smirks at the reader. Inside, he writes pages and pages of advice on everything from the importance of a prep list to shopping—what he calls “Scoring the Good Stuff.”

As solid a cook as he was, Bourdain’s particular genius was finding the best products and the people who produce them. A VIP in his food world was a good butcher. In Les Halles’s intro, he details the importance of finding the right one. It takes time, shrewdness, and people skills: “In a sense, what you are looking to engage in is what the Central Intelligence Agency, in their training materials, refers to as ‘agent recruitment and development.’”

First, he says, find that butcher “who recognizes what kind of lunatic cook you are and is willing to work with you.” If you can’t find that independent meat genius, he has further suggestions that sound exactly right for this moment. “One of the great things about America, if not the greatest thing, is that so many people not from America live here now. Large numbers of South and Central Americans, Europeans, and Asians have spread through even the formerly most Wonder-bread spaces of our vast interior, building communities, opening restaurants—and best of all, starting up their own supply chain.” Support those purveyors, he said, more than 15 years ago.

Steak tartare is a dish that precedes Bourdain by hundreds of years, but it has his name all over it: The no-nonsense, full-flavored dish can be sublime or contemptible, depending on the hands you’re in. “The key to a successful steak tartare,” Bourdain writes, “is fresh beef, freshly hand-chopped at the very last minute and mixed tableside. A home meat grinder with a fairly wide mesh blade is nice to have but you can and should use a very sharp knife and simply chop and chop and chop until fine. The texture will be superior. And do not dare use a food processor on this dish—you’ll utterly destroy it.”

Daniel Halpern, Bourdain’s long-time editor and publisher at Ecco, got to make steak tartare with Bourdain. Here’s his account.

“Knife skills meant a great deal to Tony, especially if you didn’t have many.  He and I were cooking a dinner for the winner of my daughter Lily’s school auction. My job was to chop the beef for his famous tartare. We were in my kitchen, but he insisted on sharpening one of his own knives for me. He handed me the steak and said to chop it fine. I began to chop. Sure strokes I thought, but noticed he was eyeing me with suspicion and what could only be described as contempt. He allowed me a few more minutes on the cutting board, then took back his knife. 

“You chop like a home cook,” he said. Not a little chagrined, I thought about saying that, having never cooked professionally, I am a home cook—although I do think my knife skills are pretty decent. But I decided, as he was now holding the knife, to go with a no response. He gave me that look we’ve all seen and suggested, “Why don’t you go sit in the living room and write a poem about chopping good beef?”

The following recipe is adapted from Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook. (Parentheticals and italics are from Bourdain.)

Steak Tartare

Serves 6

2 large egg yolks
2 tbsp. Dijon mustard
4 anchovy fillets, finely chopped
2 tsp. ketchup (yes, ketchup—hard to believe, but true)
1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
Tabasco sauce
Freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup corn or soy oil
1 oz. Cognac
1 small onion, freshly and finely chopped
3 tbsp. capers, rinsed
1/3 cup finely chopped cornichons [about 10]
6 sprigs of flat parsley, finely chopped
1 ¼ lb. fresh sirloin, trimmed and finely chopped
Toasted bread points
French fries [optional]

Place the egg yolks in a large bowl and add the mustard and anchovies. Mix well, then add the ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, and pepper and mix well again. Slowly whisk in the oil, then add the Cognac and mix again. Fold in the onion, capers, cornichons, and parsley.

To finish, add the chopped meat to a bowl and mix well, using a spoon or your hands. (In clean rubber gloves, right? Yeah … right.) Divide the meat evenly among six chilled dinner plates and, using a ring mold or spatula, form it into disks on the plate. Serve immediately with toasted bread points and French fries.

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