A Cut Above

The lodge house where Gary Yamamoto lives sits atop a hill overlooking his sprawling East Texas ranch. The elegant yet rustic spread, which used to be a dude resort for gays and lesbians, features motel-like guest rooms and a restaurant-style dining room.

Yamamoto, an eccentric sixtysomething Japanese-American, is one of the most famous bass fishermen in the world. But that's not why I've come to visit him. I'm here because Yamamoto owns the second-largest, and arguably the most important, herd of Wagyu cattle in the United States.

Wagyu beef is having little or no effect on the average American's eating habits. Constituting an infinitesimal fraction of the beef market, it's barely a blip on the radar of the massive U.S. meat industry. But among high-rolling gourmets, American-raised Wagyu meat, or "American Kobe," has caused near-delirium. Steak houses can't get enough of the stuff, and producers are struggling to keep up with the demand.

Originally from Japan, Wagyu cattle produce the extremely high quality meat known popularly as Kobe beef. In Tokyo, Kobe steaks sell for up to $300 a pound. And in the last few years, American Kobe has become the hottest trend in the gourmet-meat industry. Houston steak lovers are paying $100 for an eight-ounce portion at local steak houses and up to $125 a pound on the Internet -- when they can get it.

And at the center of the Wagyu cattle frenzy is Gary Yamamoto. The Wagyu breed of cattle is all black and not very big. Typically, a Wagyu steer is several hundred pounds smaller than an Angus. They have a strange stance; their hind ends are higher than their shoulders.

After we tour his operation, Yamamoto invites me to dinner at the lodge, whose dining room is now called Beverly's Restaurant. There, Gary's half-Japanese wife, Beverly, arranges for the kitchen staff to prepare a dinner of Wagyu beef strip steaks. I sit down with the Yamamotos and their friends Joe Burleson and his wife, who do the marketing and accounting for Yama Custom Beef. Over cocktails, Yamamoto talks about his herd and how he got into the beef business.

About 15 years ago, one of Japan's foremost Wagyu breeders, Shogo Takeda, got permission from the Japanese government to take a limited number of Wagyu cattle to Australia and the United States. Because real estate is so expensive in Japan, he wanted to find a place where he could raise high-quality beef for the Japanese market at a lower cost. But Takeda's foreign-raised Kobe never caught on in Japan. So in 1998 he gave up on his dream, sold his American Wagyu cattle herd to Gary Yamamoto and moved back to Japan.

As Yamamoto continues the story, Beverly, who has the looks and poise of a former beauty pageant contestant, interrupts him. "Takeda had no son; he said Gary would be his son," she says, going on to brag about deals with grocery stores and other places that would soon sell Yama Beef.

"Shut up! You don't know what you're talking about!" Gary Yamamoto yells at his wife.

Then he begins to talk excitedly about sperm. Yamamoto believes that he'll someday dominate the American Kobe market because he has the best bull semen in America. But what he doesn't want to tell me is that Yama Custom Beef has just lost its biggest customer and that his precious genetics may soon be lost along with the rest of herd.

When it comes to beef, marbling -- or intramuscular fat -- is the measure of quality. The marbling in Kobe beef exceeds anything else in the marketplace.

Earlier in our nation's history, extremely marbled USDA Prime was readily available. But in the last 20 years, in response to consumer preferences for lower fat, the beef industry has changed the way it feeds cattle in order to produce leaner beef, according to Molly Patterson, a spokesperson for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. "As a result, the highest level of USDA Prime isn't even produced anymore," she said. "American beef is 27 percent leaner today than it was 20 years ago."

The USDA grades beef as Prime, Choice or Select. USDA Choice is roughly 15 percent more marbled than USDA Select, and Prime is about 15 percent more marbled than Choice. Beef from Wagyu cattle goes off the USDA scale. The highest-quality Kobe is around 20 percent more marbled than USDA Prime.

How is all this Wagyu marbling achieved? "Genetics and feeding, those are the two keys," says Beverly Yamamoto.

What she means is that the production of high-quality Kobe beef depends on both the cattle's genetic propensity to put on fat and an extensive and costly feeding regimen. While American cattle typically spend 90 days on a feedlot fattening before slaughter, Wagyu cattle spend a year or more developing their incredibly high levels of marbling.