The Ottawa Public Health may be experiencing some symptoms of Mad Cow disease for proposing a steak tartare ban from Ottawa’s eateries

By on September 23, 2013

I’ll be honest, when I first read the Ottawa Citizen’s article regarding Ottawa Public Health officials asking Ottawa area restaurants to immediately stop serving steak tartare I thought it was a joke (www.ottawacitizen.com/health/Public+Health). A joke due to the fact that according to the article it all stems from “receiving a complaint from someone who got sick after eating the raw French cuisine at a local restaurant”. Now call me biased since I am an avid outspoken lover of this French delectable, but how can one complaint hold so much weight? Not too mention how can Ottawa Public Health be brazen enough to try and stop the steak tartare consumption in Ottawa but ironically not have (pardon my language) the balls to name the local restaurant where this apparent atrocity happened? If anything, wouldn’t it be an injustice to the general public to keep the location of the eatery a secret? That eatery could very well be in your neighborhood and according to the complaint is serving a potentially harmful meal to Ottawa patrons. Over the years we have read articles in our local papers naming restaurants who have been given citations for their unhygienic practices in the kitchen and/or otherwise in their establishments, as well as the violation that they were fined with so that YOU, the general public was made aware of such violations…Again in this case, there is no mention of the eatery…the question is why? Why not mention the name of the eatery if there is such a concern for people’s well being?

Without knowing more details makes me question the entire scenario of how all this came to be. Let’s play devil’s advocate shall we? It could very well be that the person had another meal or something else that triggered a not-so-pleasant ill effect, making them think that it MUST be the ‘all evil’ raw food that they ordered. God forbid they take into account any other food related scenarios that could possible render them sick (i.e. spoiled mayo & cream based products, cross contaminated ingredients (greens and otherwise) etc.The point I am trying to convey is that without knowing all the facts it is very hard to form an opinion when the details (or the lack thereof) are blurry at best. There is one point that keeps gnawing at me about this complaint and that is how can Ottawa Public Health request Ottawa eateries to immediately stop serving steak tartare when according to the Citizen’s article this is all based on just ONE complaint? There would be more of a case if there were multiple complaints of people experiencing ill side effects from the same source and from the same meal and in this case, all the complainants would have to have eaten the steak tartar in question.  
It’s amusing yet sad at the same time to see how people quickly pass judgement on ‘different’ foods that they are not used too consuming. In my experience, people become uneasy with the mere mention of the word ‘raw’. To some, it conjures up thoughts of potential parasites and other bacterial unpleasantries. This is where education and knowledge should be at the forefront to form an educated opinion on any topic, especially controversial and sensitive ones. For those of you out there who have not yet had the pleasure of eating steak tartare and who are not too familiar with this dish, I will do my best to bring you up to speed so you can understand what the whole fuss is about.
According to Wikipedia: 

“Steak tartare is a meat dish made from finely chopped or minced raw beef or horse meat. It is often served with onions, capers and seasonings (the latter typically incorporating fresh ground pepper and Worcestershire sauce), sometimes with a raw egg yolk, and often on rye bread. The name tartare is sometimes generalized to other raw meat or fish dishes”. 

According to Laousse Gastronomique (my bible)

“Steak tartare is a preparation of raw chopped fillet, with an egg and various seasonings”.

Every continent and almost every culture in the world has one form or another of ‘steak tartare’. Whether it be kifto from Ethipia (a very spicy dish of prepared raw beef), in Germany they have Mett or Hackepeter (a very popular variant using raw minced pork, which is typically served on rye bread or rolls, with the onions and pepper, but without capers or egg), in Mexico their version of steak tartare is done by marinating the meat in lime juice. The French in my opinion have nailed it down to perfection. Chopped raw fillet adorned with seasonings and fresh herbs with the classic raw egg on top to bind all the ingredients and served with some crispy frites….the perfect meal for any occasion!
So needless to say when I read the article I was in a frenzy of colorful words for the officials of the Ottawa Public Health Department. But after some deep breaths I took it upon myself to make it a mission to prove that the officials that claim eating steak tartare is unsafe for consumption since its served in its raw form are absolutely wrong! A mission to prove that in the right capable hands of reputable chefs (chefs that adhere to the proper handling of food products, knowledge of food safety and knowing the source of where the product is coming from (in this case knowing where the beef is coming from)) steak tartare is no more harmful to eat than any other dish on the menu. My quest was to try and eat steak tartare from as many reputable restaurants that I could in a small window of time (so that I could get the word out ASAP to you – the public, about the misconception that the Ottawa Public Health is trying to convey). 
I tried contacting several restaurants that are known to have really good steak tartare in our city and see if I could get the chef’s and/or restaurant owner’s reaction to the Public Health plea. Since the Ottawa citizen mentioned and talked to Chef Michael Blackie, owner of Next in Stittsville (www.nextfood.ca) – that was going to be first stop as I wanted to go far west in the Ottawa region and slowly make my way down to the downtown core. I wanted to be completely unbiased in terms of what restaurants I was going to eat at and try to remain neutral all the while enjoying every last morsel of the tartare…I warned you earlier on that I am a lover of this dish! Unfortunately for me there was a wedding event at the Next restaurant, but Blackie’s comments in the article concur everything that I believe in “Just because one chef doesn’t know how to cook doesn’t mean we all don’t,” he said, responding to public health’s request that the dish be removed from restaurant menus. “It’s goofy. They are always jumping to extremes.” 
Other restaurants in which I tried to make reservations and eat their steak tartare:
  • Eighteen on York Street: they were closed for a private event
  • Gezellig on Richmond Road: have opted to remove the steak tartare from their menu till further notice due to the Public Health request 
So that being said, starting far west I ventured to Perspectives at the Brookstreet Hotel in Kanata (www.brookstreet.ca) where I was treated to a beautiful tasting steak tartare.

Flat Iron Steak Tartare, 63° Egg Yolk, Reggiano Shards,
Pickled Onion, Crisped Caper Truffled Peach

During my meal, I had the pleasure of meeting and talking to Clifford Lyness, Executive Chef at Perspectives about his views on the Pubic Health request to immediately stop serving steak tartare. “We have no reason to pull it off (the menu), unless I’m mandated too or they show me a good reason why it should come off”.  Like other chefs, Lyness would like concrete evidence to prove and explain why there is a need of a ban should one ever take place (as of now its stated as a strong plea to remove the meal). Lyness’s recommendation to restaurant patrons: “Choose a place of reputable chefs, talented people that care about what they do and you know are all certified and all able to handle food correctly and then you can have anything”.

Making my way towards downtown I was off to my second tartare eaterie, Juniper Kitchen and Wine Bar on Richmond Road (www.juniperdining.ca). As my followers know, I have frequented Juniper on numerous occasions be it for charity fundraising events to celebrating Food Day Canada but more importantly to have a flavorful meal. And with that said, having their version of the classic steak tartare was sublime!

Classic Beef Tartare with fennel aioli and crispy vehicles

Much like how Blackie hadn’t heard formally from the Ottawa Public Health officials pertaining to their request neither had owner and chef of Juniper, Norm Aitken. It seems that the news was moving at a snail pace which I find rather intriguing and ironic considering the urgency that the Ottawa Public Health officials were asking of its local restaurants.

When Aitken was asked where he stood on the matter, he broke it down to its fundamental core: “You know what, this is a very intimate job, where we’re taking food from our fingers and putting it in someone’s mouth.We are the one’s in control of that product from start to finish. One thing goes wrong in that chain and you can get somebody sick or you’re going to kill someone. I see it time and time again that’s why my fridges are cleaned twice a day. We have to. Why? It’s because there’s an issue, we’re all hazard trained so we know how to handle food, some people…maybe they don’t”. In response to how much of a loss would it be to Juniper if the ban were to be implemented in the city, Aitken replied that the steak tartare “is probably one of my top sales as far as appetizers. Hands down, top sales!”

For my 3rd tartare experience I headed downtown to Navarra on Murray Street (www.navarrarestaurant.com). Unfortunately René Rodriguez, owner and chef of Navarra was not present when I was at the restaurant. However when I spoke to the kitchen staff they admitted that they also had not heard anything from Ottawa Public Health pertaining to the immediate request to stop serving beef tartare. They did however tell me that their “steak tartare is one of our most popular dishes and it remains consistent. It’s been on the menu since 2008”. One sentiment was universal at Navarra, that they found it ridiculous that it has come to this (referring to the request to stop serving the meal) “if people are sure of their product and how it’s handled than there is nothing to worry about”.

Beef Tartare with chives, crostini, ham leather, pistachio romesco
and sauce gribiche

Well there you have it, I ate at three different restaurants located all across town in less than 24 hours and ate my heart out on steak tartare and wouldn’t you know it, I’m not suffering from any ill side effects. Except for one…the prospect of the potential ban in our city makes my stomach turn.Too bad we can’t enforce a ban on uneducated and ill informed opinions that could potentially tarnish the reputation of this amazing meal for those that are on the fence on trying this savory dish. And for those out there like myself, well we will continue to eat and devour this meal with great passion till restaurants are no longer permitted to serve it…what a sad, sad day that will be if it should happen.

FT

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