Changing the Way We Eat Meat

Sitting on a stage in Washington, DC at National Geographic some months back, I was on a panel that started to discuss meat consumption and how, really, we should be eating more vegetables.

When I exclaimed to the audience, “Vegetables are sexy!” I also had to quickly add that yes, in fact, I am opening a restaurant with the word “meat” in the name, a celebration of the carnivores in the heart of Las Vegas. People started laughing, the topic soon changed, and we moved on. I never felt like I got the chance to explain, so let me do so now.

I am a believer that eating more vegetables in our everyday lives is imperative. So much so, that I plan to open a fast-casual restaurant that will be all about vegetables, and I hope make a significant change in the lives of many people by making vegetables easy and affordable.

A piece of meat, like a steak, can be a beautiful thing to eat. Although, as much as I enjoy one from time to time, I do believe we should be thinking about eating it differently. Our consumption of meat in this country has taken a turn that I don’t think nature intended. Raising cattle and the production of meat has become over industrialized so that, in some cases, it’s cheaper to buy a pound of ground beef than it is a head of broccoli. Huge corporations running factory farms are becoming more and more responsible for creating the food on a lot of our plates, and because of that we’ve started to lose touch with where it comes from and how it’s raised.

Photograph courtesy José Andrés

Photograph courtesy José Andrés

It was not always this way. Meat eaters of our generation are the evolution of millions of years. Meat has always been a part of our diet, but several thousands of years ago, at the very beginning of time, it was a means to survive, and it was about sustenance and efficiency. Our ancestors would eat every last bit of an animal, and they’d make clothes and tools out of the remains. Nothing was spared.

Hunting and gathering was one of humanity’s first and most successful adaptations, and tribes were known to use what is called long-distance running, a form of hunting where they would stalk an animal to the point that it would collapse. You see, humans can release their exhaustion through sweating, but animals have to stop and pant, making them vulnerable after a long chase. Later, when we adapted into more of a domesticated species, we still hunted these animals but then took them in as our property. We used them to work the land and let them live for many years before they became our meal. Our ancestors worked for their food, and they made every last bit of the animal work for them, too.

I want to remind people about this primal way of living, and what it means to be connected to our food. When we sourced our own food from the land from start to finish. Planting vegetables to eat, digging our hands in the soil—did you know that it’s a proven fact that it can make you happy? Organisms in the soil actually contain antidepressants that release happiness to our brains! A natural Prozac! Pairing those hand-grown vegetables with a nice piece of meat isn’t a bad thing, but I think it should be done with a little more thought.

In the summer of 2013, I had one of the best birthdays of my life. I was in my home country of Spain, in the hills of Jiménez de Jamuz, at the world-renowned restaurant El Capricho. It is believed by many that they serve the best steak in the world there, and when I went two years ago, they gave me a true reason to celebrate.

Photograph courtesy José Andrés

Photograph courtesy José Andrés

Thirteen years prior to my visit, a particular ox was born. When that ox was 3 years old, grill master and owner of El Capricho, José Gordon, purchased it. He brought it back to his ranch and gave it a life that one could only dream of, pampered with an amazing diet of acorns, thyme and thistle, and with space to roam. It worked hard for José for 10 years of its life, until it was wise and old, and then went into “retirement,” and had three years to live a life of leisure until it met its ultimate fate.

This ox was raised specifically for me by my friend José, and for my birthday, I gathered many friends and family at his restaurant, to celebrate the long life of this animal with an astonishing meal. It was just one of the many that he raises on his ranch to serve at his restaurant. José spends a third of his year searching for these animals, and he treats them in such a wonderful way that they’re not only content but have superior taste and flavor. These animals are so happy, I swear you’d believe me when I say that I think they’re proud to become your meal. So you can see why this is where you can find the best steak in the world.

Photograph courtesy José Andrés

Photograph courtesy José Andrés

When you order at El Capricho, the waiter and the chef pick the best cut of meat for your table based on your tastes and the size of your group. They grill it to perfection—medium rare—the old fashioned way, over an open fire, just like our ancestors did. It’s presented at your table and perfectly sliced for you to share with your companions.

One steak—for the whole table. Like I said, best birthday ever, but then again, I say that every year, no?

To change our eating habits to something more sustainable is not a radical idea. So many people, like my friends Mark Bittman, Dan Barber, the great Michael Pollan, the list goes on and on, are beating the drum to change the way we eat. I’m not suggesting we reach as far back as ancient times and start stalking a cow every time we want a hamburger. But what if we took what José at El Capricho is doing and tried to apply that thoughtfulness and respect to all of the food we eat. If anything else, caring for our food so that it nourishes our bodies and our minds. That’s something I think we can all adapt to.

This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month Future of Food series.