A cut above the rest

There’s increasing fusion going on at the moment between meat-driven restaurants and butchers.

Some butchers are exploring in-store restaurant propositions, while some restaurants run butchery counters as part of their offer.

Flat Iron, which aims to plate up affordable, good quality steak, is one such eatery. Founded and owned by Charlie Carroll, the business has two branches in Soho and one in Covent Garden, where the front-of-house counter is used to prepare meals.

Customers can get flat iron steaks for £10, plus a few sides and a dessert. The Covent Garden site also offers 23 other beef cuts as specials, cut up on premises from meat from Carroll’s own herd.

The first restaurant opened in London’s Beak Street, Soho, in December 2012. Now there are three, with a run rate of a sizzling £8m. Another, in Shoreditch, is poised to launch before July.

They are in prime theatre-land positions, but face intense competition from other eateries, so their sustained success suggests they are tapping into a real trend.

World Steak Challenge

It’s a long way from his academic route into food. “I did natural sciences at Cambridge, seeing the ways muscles work,” says Carroll, a gold medal winner in the 2015 World Steak Challenge, run by Meat Trades Journal’s sister online title GlobalMeatNews. This has informed his interest in meat cuts, he claims.

In his early career he spent time as a trainee chef in establishments such as Gordon Ramsay’s Royal Hospital Road restaurant in Chelsea, and Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck in Bray, Berkshire. “I got very interested in the science of food at the Fat Duck.”

 “I then started consulting for an outfit that amongst other things analysed potential business for private equity groups.”

Gradually, a business plan was slowly coming together in his mind. “There were lots of places where steak was done well at the high end, but limited places where you could get consistently good steak for affordable money,” he explains.

Darragh O'Shea

While considering this, he was buying secondary cuts from renowned Knightsbridge butcher Darragh O’Shea. “I would buy cuts like onglet or skirt and they tasted way better than a sirloin from the supermarket."

He does not criticise them for it, but maintains supermarkets are in the business of delivering meat that ticks two boxes: affordability for everyone and attractiveness. “Historically consumers have seemed to want bright red meat that doesn’t have visible fat and is handy enough money.

“The mechanism for rewarding farmers for rearing quality meat doesn’t appear to be there for big producers. In fact, if you have a high fat-score animal, you’re going to get penalised. Apart from a few breed-specific schemes, the focus seems to be always on yield.” As fat often contributes to flavour, that’s a challenge.

Appearance isn’t everything, adds Carroll. For example, lean meat from a young bull that’s going to eat poorly and a Piedmontese will look similar to shoppers, but will in fact be worlds apart, he claims.

Flat Iron's ethos

After a stint at Wahaca, he spent nine months developing Flat Iron’s ethos, talking to butchers, farmers and chefs about how to track down tasty, reasonably-priced meat.

It wasn’t easy. “Until you really understand the system, you can’t see what the appropriate source should be.

“You might get a sample from a catering butcher you think is wonderful, but not know why. He might be breaking down an animal himself that he got from a local supplier or he might have got a pallet of boxed beef and picked out a marbled cut from a different supplier to the week before.”

Number of restaurants Two in Soho (Beak St and Denmark St), opened in December 2012 and July 2014, and one in Covent Garden (Henrietta St, opened December 2015). A fourth is expected to open in Shoreditch at the end of June
Run rate turnover £8m
Staff 165, excluding Shoreditch
Children One three-month old daughter, Maisy

Gaps of knowledge within the trade didn’t help. “I would ask three different catering butchers for bavette and they would send three different cuts … I’m sure there are catering butchers that can’t point out where each of the secondary cuts on an animal come from.”

Fortunately, the English Beef & Lamb Executive, now AHDB Beef & Lamb, helped educate him about secondary cuts, he says. Now, sourcing is easier. “We have a few routes to quality meat. One is imported, typically grain finished.

Marbling, breed

“A second is UK and Ireland, where you can get producers post-slaughter to select good stuff. We’re looking at heifers under 36 months and selecting on marbling, but also to a degree on breed. But it’s an inherent challenge buying UK and Irish meat that eats consistently well. You’ll get different breeds from different farms of different ages.

“A final potential route would be catering butchers that are handling volume and have other customers that are not as picky as we are. At a smaller scale, we can deal with butchers that are individually selecting animals at farm level or that have local abattoirs that pick out good stuff.”

The volumes he demands make working at that smaller scale tricky, but he’s confident in the suppliers he uses.

Carroll stresses that animal welfare is crucial to selection, referencing work done by Meat & Livestock Australia. “They ran a taste test on 100,000 people looking at seven cuts cooked differently from different animals and analysed what people liked and what profile of animal that came from.

Tenderness

“In a blind tasting, people always pick flat iron ahead of sirloin. Tenderness is overall more important than taste and the biggest single contributor to tenderness was stress in the last weeks and minutes before slaughter.”

Chemicals released into the muscles during stress impair flavour, he explains. Recommendations devised by animal science expert Temple Grandin are a good guide, he says, including ensuring animals are killed in the same group they were in during the weeks before slaughter.

Having feed lots beside abattoirs, enabling animals to walk directly from familiar feeding areas to abattoirs, rather than being transported in cramped cattle trucks, also reduces stress, he claims.

So given everything he’s learned, would he branch out beyond Flat Iron? Not any time soon. “I came to the conclusion it was easier to do a few things well. It gives a level of focus and buying power.”

Grow sustainably

He also wants to grow sustainably. “For the time being we will stick in London. I can think of a dozen places where Flat Iron could work seven days a week, for example King’s Cross or Islington.”

“I have toyed with the idea of restaurants with different cuts. I might do grain-fed onglet, if I could get good suppliers.”

Carroll won’t say whether or not he would pursue the current fad for gourmet burgers, although he does point out he has a limited burger offer now. “We do burgers already as specials, which are ground from cuts we butcher in-house that we can’t serve as steak.”

Equally, he doesn’t rule out retail butchery at some stage, but says it would currently be a distraction.

What factors would contribute to his ideal steak? “I don’t think most restaurants have the luxury of being breed specific, but I would go for something along the lines of what we entered in the World Steak Challenge: a four year-old Dexter or Highland, reared on grass for most of its life with nine to 12 months of grain finishing.”

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