A Cut Above

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When the meat industry started producing leaner beef, the drastic decline in quality left a vacuum at the top end. The disappearance of USDA Prime beef from grocery stores coincided with a meteoric rise in the number of high-dollar steak houses on the restaurant scene. Deprived of the highest-quality beef in the supermarket, the American gourmet consumer went looking for it elsewhere. Expensive steak houses that served USDA Prime thrived -- and then, in the last couple of years, along came Kobe.

During the holidays, Vic & Anthony's Steakhouse in downtown Houston is running a special on 12-ounce "Kobe" strip steaks. Each steak will sell for somewhere around $115, according to executive sous-chef Grant Hunter. "And that's a good deal," he says.

"The marbling melts in between the layers of meat, making it incredibly tender and extremely flavorful," says the chef. "Then there's the glamour of it. When you say, 'We have Kobe in the house tonight,' it creates excitement. We put them in the display case up front so you can see the incredible marbling when you walk in the front door. It's real eye candy."

Given the demand and the insane prices being paid for Wagyu, you'd think Gary Yamamoto would be in an enviable position -- but in fact, he has pissed off Allen Brothers, the Chicago premium-meat supplier that was once his main customer, and put his cattle herd in jeopardy. One problem, according to Allen Brothers president and owner Todd Hatoff, is that Gary Yamamoto spends little time raising his cattle. "He's off fishing most of the year," says Hatoff.

"Gary Yamamoto is the Magic Johnson of bass fishermen," says my fellow dining guest Joe Burleson. He hands me a trading card with Yamamoto's smiling face on the front. On the back are stats of Gary Yamamoto's top-ten finishes in major bass-fishing championships. In Japan, he's a famous sports figure.

Yamamoto made his fortune with another company: Yama Custom Baits. That company makes salt-impregnated plastic worms that fish evidently find irresistible. "I am the largest manufacturer of soft plastics in the world," says Yamamoto.

Yama Custom Baits once sold the majority of its fishing lures to anglers in Japan. But when the Japanese market peaked, Yamamoto decided to turn his attentions to the bass-crazy American South. He bought this ranch because of its proximity to Lake Fork, the granddaddy of Texas bass lakes, where 15 of the top 20 state-record largemouth bass have been reeled in.

The original idea was to turn the ranch into a fishing resort. But Yamamoto's accountant told him he should also get some livestock in order to cut his taxes with an agricultural exemption. A half-dozen cattle would have done the trick.

"But when I started looking into the cattle business," he says, "I found out that the Japanese were paying $10,000 for a good Wagyu carcass." If you're going to be in the cattle business, you might as well make money at it, he figured.

As it happened, Yamamoto had made friends with a man in the position to help him. "Gary had just lost his father. Takeda didn't have a son. They formed a bond. That's why he sold us his entire herd," says Beverly Yamamoto.

"Takeda brought 80 cows and ten bulls to the U.S.," she says. Although he never produced a herd large enough to sell much meat, Takeda sold Yamamoto a genetic gold mine. The best genetic strains of Wagyu cattle in this country come from the descendants of these full-bloods.

At dinner, Beverly's chef brings our Wagyu strip steaks to the table to see if they're done to our liking. The meat is cooked medium-rare, as requested. But I'm shocked by the flavor. It's terrible. The beef tastes bloody and metallic.

"Has this meat been aged?" I ask.

"No," Yamamoto says. "Have you seen beef dry-aging?" he asks with a look of disgust. "It smells rotten and it has mold all over it." It turns out Gary Yamamoto doesn't believe in aging beef. None of the meat Yama Custom Beef sells over the Internet or to restaurants has had any aging. Which explains why a box of expensive Yama Beef Wagyu steaks I sent to relatives as a birthday present didn't get rave reviews.

It also explains the symbiotic relationship between Yamamoto and his Chicago distributor. Allen Brothers buys quality meat from around the world and does its own wet and dry aging. "Gary Yamamoto is not a meat man," Todd Hatoff told me. And when it comes to aging, Allen Brothers is the best in the business.

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Robb Walsh
Contact: Robb Walsh