Chef Justin Yu of The Whole Ox. Photo courtesy Melissa Chang.
Believing in honoring the entire animal and the land it comes from, Chef Justin Yu practices “the whole envelope” of food sustainability at his O’ahu restaurant, The Whole Ox. The name of the popular lunch/dinner/late night eatery is a peek at what’s going on there.
Chef Yu uses the entire carcass of both local grass-fed steers and pigs to create his menu, offering a line of hearty signature sandwiches for lunch and entrees for dinner that ensure the use of all the animals cuts. However, he also believes in the importance of driving local produce at The Whole Ox and supporting island food sustainability not only by the ingredients he uses, but also by “sending out the message” on the importance of desiring and eating foods that are produced sustainably.
“There a huge disconnect between the farmer and the consumer,” shares Chef Yu. “People eating food here need to know about our island food situation, taking into account where food comes from and that we’re a tourism economy that has a lot of people to feed.”
Chef Yu’s philosophy of changing Hawai’i’s eating culture and the importance of using locally raised foods sustainably will be shared at Taste’s annual student seminar. The session is offered to culinary students and food industry professionals the afternoon before the Taste gala.
Color-coded blackboard drawings show customers where menu items are sourced from the animal. Photo courtesy The Whole Ox.
A native of New York City where he did whole animal butchery, Yu came to Hawai’i this spring, after working at well-known eateries like Quince and Hawker Fare in the San Francisco Bay Area. He says he got into the culinary arts as “there’s something about creating something using hands as well as stimulating all your senses at the same time.” Chef describes his cooking style as honest and simplistic. “I focus on one ingredient and find others to make that first ingredient’s natural flavors shine.”
Q: Please explain WHY you purchase grass-fed beef (GFB) as a whole carcass.
A: We purchase whole carcass because of the principle. We as a restaurant believe in being responsible in our usage of our land, especially with our limited lands here in Hawai‘i.
I believe that the nose-to tail idea is a very, very romantic ideal. Being a romantic I am behind it 100 percent. Only a few chefs or restaurant owners are able to execute these ideals and still be sustainable as a restaurant. Until we bridge the disconnect between the consumer as a whole and the rancher and raise demand for a different eating culture, we have a long road ahead.
Q: What are the challenges for purchasing GFB as a whole carcass?
A: Pricing for whole carcass is pretty high after bone weight and trimming.
Roast beef sandwich served on a potato bun with arugula, horseradish mayo and cheese sauce. Photo courtesy The Whole Ox.
Q: What are some of your favorite beef cuts?
A: I like the hanger steak, two small pieces off the carcass (under the ribs). Hanger is gamey, irony, one of those steaks people throw away because of different striations, but when marinated and cooked properly, it is tender with great flavor. I also like the short plate, the chest, because it’s the most versatile, tender and has good marbling.
Q: What do you like about GFB…do you prefer the flavor over feedlot beef?
A: The flavor with GFB is cleaner and definitely feels better in my stomach, lol.
Q: Please share your thoughts on Hawai’i's overall food sustainability and how The Whole Ox is involved.
A: The original concept of The Whole Ox was using the whole animal, one at a time, to provide foods we love here, responsibility. That attracted me. But when I got here, the steaks, braised cuts, etc. were not utilized correctly. The restaurant was going through 300-400 pounds a week to meet its burger demand…that isn’t utilizing one animal at a time, that’s fulfilling the need for burgers. The chef couldn’t fulfill the demand using on-island carcasses as they are smaller than feedlot beef and so the restaurant was forced to supplement its beef from elsewhere. I found everything was very upside down.
My restaurant background is farm-to-table; I’ve worked at places that are on the forefront of sustainability. I changed some things around at The Ox so the demand for burgers would go down while the demand for other cuts would go up. It’s all about pushing the whole envelope of using the whole animal correctly and in a sustainable way.
If we want to say we’re respecting the whole animal, then we should respect the land it lives on and the water it drinks. I fell in love with the land here and the farmers I have visited, so we source other local food products. We make an effort to source on-island veggies and greens, and 75% of our produce is from here. We use all local pork and beef.
Q: What is The Whole Ox doing to change Hawai’i’s eating culture?
A: We’re in a McDonald’s mentality. People want what they want to eat now and instead need to be aware of what is available and why. We get one animal at a time and we break it down and use it. That’s why I limit my burger count and why the price is what it is. If burgers sell, and not the roast beef, there’s a mismatch. We have a color-coded picture aid at The Whole Ox that shows customers how the menu is divvied up regarding where on the animal the burger, roast beef or sausage come from. It’s about using what’s available sustainably.
The Whole Ox is located at 327 Keawe St., Honolulu (Kaka‘ako), 808-699-6328. Open 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5:30-9 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, plus 9:30 p.m.-1 a.m. Saturdays. www.wholeoxhawaii.com.