Sometimes it seems like Japan's legendary Kobe beef is commonplace, especially when it's available as sliders at any gastropub or in the meat counter at Costco. In truth, this intensely marbled beef is nearly impossible to find. Authentic Kobe beef only comes from a specific breed of Wagyu cattle (known as Tajima) that has been bred and raised under strict guidelines in the Hyogo Prefecture of Japan.
Only about 3,000 heads of Kobe cattle are taken to market each year, and Kobe wasn't exported anywhere until 2012 (and even then, it was to Macau). Almost all "Kobe beef" found in North America is actually domestic, crossbred Wagyu beef. It's still good, but if you think you've had Kobe in Canada, you're wrong, unless you're friends with a talented smuggler. But earlier this month, Montreal's Antonio Park became the first and only Canadian chef to be certified by the Kobe Beef Marketing & Distribution Promotion Association to sell the real stuff, which he'll do at his three venues: Park, Park Market and Lavanderia. We caught up with him to talk about getting certified, cooking with charcoal and whether Kobe is worth all the hype.
What was the process like to get this certification?
You have to apply to the Kobe Beef Association in Japan, and they have to approve it. I had wanted to get the Kobe beef licence for six or seven years – maybe they didn't have enough supply. They asked a million questions. You have to fill out a whole form, letting them know what you're going to do with it. They won't sell it to just anyone. They want to sell it to someone who will respect it and appreciate what they have.
There are a lot of legends about Kobe beef. I've heard that the cows are continually massaged and that they're fed sake or beer. How true are these legends?
It's all true. They're not legends. The cows actually don't touch the ground. They're raised up on a belt. The cows are massaged, and they are literally grown like pets with a lot of love and a lot of care. It takes a lot of time to grow one, so it's not about feeding them so they can grow faster.
Tell me about your first experience with Kobe beef.
My first time ever I was around eight years old. I tasted it with my father, and I was lucky to be able to taste it. And I tasted it other times when I went to Japan. It's very different. It just melts in your mouth. It resembles the neck toro of bluefin tuna. You put it in your mouth and it just disappears. It's an unbelievable experience. It's not something I'd recommend to eat all the time. For us to eat that much fat is unhealthy. It's like butter.
So what can customers expect to pay if they go out to try this?
I'm not making money off of this. I'm selling it at cost. My number one goal for the first year is to be able to educate people as to what real Kobe beef is all about. Depending on which cut it is, it costs me around $200 a pound. Plus I have to clean it. If I clean a rib eye, I'll have a 35 per cent loss. And my licence costs me $10,000. It's $5,000 in one shot to get the licence, and monthly fees add up to another $5,000. So at the end of the day, it's going to cost around $350 or $395 for eight ounces.
How will you be preparing it?
I've been cooking it with Argentinean charcoal and binchotan charcoal. We try to raise the heat as high as we can so we can sear it very quickly on both sides, and the inside will be kind of raw. That's the best way to serve it. You have to make sure that the inside is not cold, because when you have something so fatty and the centre is cold, it's like you're literally taking a block of butter and putting it in your mouth. It's not fun any more.
How do other restaurants get away with falsely labelling their beef as Kobe?
They can get away with whatever they want until they get caught. I don't know what to say. You have American Kobe beef, American Wagyu and stuff like that – but that's a whole different thing. We're not talking about the same animal. There was an article in Forbes magazine calling Kobe beef the number one biggest food scam in the world.
How much Kobe are you expecting to get in?
Maybe a half cow every three months. But it's not my choice, it depends on the supply.
Now that you've been certified, do you think we'll start seeing this stuff in other Canadian restaurants?
I think I'll remain the only one for a very long time. I'm pretty sure I've locked it down.
What's your favourite beef aside from Kobe?
I love Black Angus, and I also love grass-fed beef from PEI. But if you're asking me to compare those to Kobe, there's absolutely no comparison. It brings you to another level.
How long until you start making Kobe hamburgers and hot dogs?
Well, I get a lot of loss when I clean the fat from the meat. You can't eat that fat on its own. So what do I do with it? I'll mix it with Black Angus or something and make a Kobe burger. That's the best way to use that fat, is to mix it with lean meat. I don't like to waste, even if it's bones. There's always a way to use everything.