Search “goat butchery” online and you’ll find a video of “Dave the Butcher” boning a side of goat on a friend’s kitchen counter, talking about “the kill” while a kid—the human kind—warbles close by. The scene conjures up a sense of ingredient intimacy, of goat-savvy American cooks discussing grass-fed versus grain-fed and the best tenderizing methods. But like most online video content, it’s a partial lie, a dream of what could be, but isn’t quite, in a country stubbornly unaware of what the rest of the world’s known for centuries: goat is damn good food.
But Dave’s dream is a good American dream. And for most everyone else in the world, it’s a reality. So it’s no surprise that the complaint arises—whenever goat is “discovered” (or rediscovered) in our years-long, pathetically timid flirtation with the protein—that our “discovery” seems like nothing more than egregiously delayed recognition. And it’s a fair claim. Drowning in an excess of access to a proteins, mainstream American chefs and diners alike have largely ignored goat. No kidding.
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Why the delay? Maybe it’s because most Americans know goat only as the hay-munching, devilishly square-pupiled wet blanket of cutesy petting zoos. Or maybe, and more likely, it’s because goat is largely perceived as either gamey barnyard protein or workhorse (so to speak) staple of ethnic foods, imported by immigrants and consumed only in the borrowed exoticism of dishes like curry goat, goat shawarma, West African goat stew, and the occasional chivo taco from the El Idolo truck in the Meatpacking District.
So how, if at all, are we (re)discovering goat? Like offal, sweetbreads, and especially the unctuous, sweet, and crispy pork belly fattening menus nationwide, we’re eating more goat because of chefs. Call them tastemakers, call them bullies, once enough chefs get an idea into their heads, it becomes perceptible—a “trend” that will either last (as in pork belly) or fade to the margins of cuisine.
Unlike many trends in cuisine—which trickle down the ranks from fine dining to more affordable dining options—goat has an almost opposite trajectory, trickling upward to chefs from the swelling ranks of ethnic foods. Chef Bradford Thompson, of the recently opened Miss Lily’s in New York, discovered the pleasures of goat curry by way of his Jamaican wife. “You see a lot of chefs now finding their cultural roots,” says Thompson. “They’ve been trained in French kitchens and done fine dining, and [now] they’re asking ‘Where am I from? What is my passion?’ and exploring that.”
In fact, a lot of the goat we’ve tasted is still ensconced in ethnic traditions, albeit through the lens of fine dining. Beyond Thompson’s complex aromatic curry—done with a two-day spice rub and served (traditionally) on the bone—we’ve had Chris Shepherd’s Jamaican Meat Pies at Houston’s Catalan Food and Wine and a rich, earthy Goat Rogan Josh at Hemant Mathur’s upscale Indian Tulsi. “Americans definitely have become more adventurous when it comes to offal and goat,” says Mathur.
Stephanie Izard, whose Girl & the Goat in Chicago could easily be the restaurant poster-child of the movement, came to goat by way of her last name—“it’s a type of mountain goat,” she says. And her aptly goaty Chicago menu features dishes like the Sugo we tasted this winter, an Italian treatment that Izard pours over fresh pappardelle. “I just started cooking goat two years ago,” says Izard. “I think people are just more open to new flavor profiles and ideas.”
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For some chefs, it’s about the specifically “goaty” qualities of goat. Leaner than beef, pork, and even chicken, and with a flavor profile that dances between lamb and beef, goat can alter the flavors or richness of culinary staples. Orlando Chef-owners James and Julie Petrakis use goat to lighten a Bolognese on their Ravenous Pig menu. “It’s not as fatty,” say the chefs, “so the sweetness of the meat lightens the flavor on the palate.”
And for some chefs, goat is just a new protein to toy with in the diverse playground of American cuisine. Woodberry Kitchen Chef Spike Gjerde’s Roasted Cabrito Flatbread comes topped with goat cheese, apricot, local spinach, cherry tomatoes and sherry vinaigrette; Jason Vincent serves us elegant goat steak at Nightwood with chilies, farro and raisins—strong, simple flavors to complement the protein. Vincent’s dish is the closest we’ve seen to one of our favorite earlier goat dishes, Richard Corbo’s Local Sonoma Goat steak at Ducca. “I wouldn’t say it was prevalent [in 2009],” says Corbo. “In fact, at the time I had some difficulty selling it in my restaurant in San Francisco, a town of foodies, like New York.”
There are issues in sourcing goat, issues which might have kept (and may yet keep) it from vaulting into the fine dining stratosphere like pork belly. “It’s expensive and hard to source,” says Mathur, who grew up eating goat. “It’s something my family cooked every Sunday.” Goat meat yield is decent, but bony: a kid (4 to 8 weeks old) will yield 50 to 60 percent of its live weight, and a 45 pound Boer goat will yield about 20 pounds hanging meat, about half of which is bone. “The bone to meat ratio is low,” says Thompson. “Customers complain that it’s too bony,” says Mathur.
But goat is generally a package deal—bones and all. “It's tough to source specific parts of goat,” say the Petrakises. “We usually have to work with the whole animal.” Corbo “had to commit to buying the whole animal” from Bill Niman at his second (emphatically sustainable) act, BN Ranch in Bolinas, CA. “But,” says Corbo, “that forces you to come up with creative ways to utilize it.”
For Gregory Denton of Metrovino, “the two main challenges to working with goat are getting it in consistently from the farmers and managing the utilization of the whole animal.” And for goat-girl Izard, “the big drawback is that goat is not as fatty as my friend the pig.” But that isn’t stopping her from using it. “We have yet to do a whole goat roast,” laments the chef—“maybe this Christmas”—but “we have broken down goat almost every way possible.”
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“I think the majority of consumers are confused by the perception of overt gaminess in goat meat,” says Denton (who served an all goat dinner with Gabriel Rucker of Le Pigeon last year). “Many people assume it has the flavor of mutton, when in reality it is less gamey than even some lamb.” How goat is pastured and treated in its lifetime, not to mention the length of that lifetime, determines its flavor. Everything on Izard’s menu comes from dairy-fed goats. “I came across a great dairy farm that feeds their goats all dairy, which gives the goat incredible taste.” Other chefs haven't had as much luck with dairy-fed, quite possibly because not all dairy diets are created equal. “I’ve used a dairy goat,” says Corbo. “They eat like veal.”
Vincent, who sources his goat from local farmers, notices a discernable difference in meat flavor from season to season. “[In winter], goats are fed a diet of mostly alfalfa hay and are getting less exercise because of the weather,” says Vincent, resulting in a flavor that fellow chef Sam Hayward of Fore Street in Portland, Maine, describes, quite accurately, as “'yeasty.'” In the summer, on the other hand, “they’re constantly grazing on grasses and burning fat by walking,” says Vincent, resulting in meatier—not gamier—goat.
The source of the much-feared gaminess? “If you look at a large-scale goat producer,” says Vincent, “you’ll see lethargic, grain-fed animals that have a very high ratio of fat to lean meat. It’s this ‘old’ fat that becomes gamey.” Fat indeed seems to be the culprit—a far cry from pork belly, where fat is the draw.
As with any protein, the key to goat is experimentation. Says Thompson: “I would tell anybody who hasn’t used it, just taste the product, [mess] it up a couple times.” Goat newbie (turned goat pro) Izard did what a chef does, tested the protein, fully hands-on. “I just started playing around in the kitchen, figuring out ways to make the flavor pop.” And of course, practical tips abound. “Be careful of the leanness of the meat,” offer the Petrakises. “Let it rest for a long time after cooking it,” says Vincent. “Especially the leg steaks.”
Will goat dabbling across the nation evolve into a lasting trend? “There is no reason why we shouldn’t be utilizing it in fine dining establishments,” says Denton. And it might not be as sexy as pork belly, but goat’s certainly getting press. New York Magazine recently named Harold Dieterle’s Massaman-braised goat dish the best in the city. (Since when have we rated best goat dish in the city?) According to the Petrakises, “chefs are driving the change.” But will American palates follow? Salvatore Cinquemani, third generation butcher at Pino’s in Soho and goat supplier (by way of an upstate farm) to Miss Lily’s, says goat will indeed have its day. “It’ll get there,” he says, “just like pork belly.” Better late than never, right?