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Maestro of Meat
Monica Schreiber | Photo: Chef Louis Robinson | March 22, 2019
For former winemaker Cameron Hughes, terroir’s also key to the “Holy Grail” of beef.
Cameron Hughes swears his sister cried the first time she experienced the “umami explosion” of an A5-grade wagyu steak. She might want to keep some tissues handy. Hughes, 47, now has a direct line to the most storied Japanese, American and Australian steaks through his 6-month-old Holy Grail Steak Co..
The San Mateo resident and Modesto native came to beef following a long career in wine, learning the business from his wine-salesman father after nixing the idea of pursuing a doctorate in literature. His first job: dumping expired vintages.
In the early 2000s, during the global wine glut, Hughes saw an opportunity. He bought surplus wine from high-end vineyards, blended it and repackaged it under his eponymous label, initially selling his product from the sagging trunk of his Volvo. An eventual Costco deal led to the glory years. However, the end of the glut ended his business model.
The self-described “huge carnivore” started eyeing a move to meat around 2017. “In visiting Japanese farms, I learned how different the beef was depending on feed, genetics and environment,” he says. “That crystallized the company concept. Like wine, a steak’s story can be told through the lens of terroir.”
Only the most prodigiously marbled wagyu receives an A5 rating—less than 1 percent of all Japanese beef. Kobe steak is A5- grade from the Tajima strain of Black wagyu raised in Japan’s Hyogo prefecture, of which Kobe is the capital. Hughes is the world’s only online purveyor authorized by the Kobe Beef Marketing & Distribution Association to sell Kobe beef.
Because of what he describes as “rampant” misrepresentation, “if you think you have eaten Kobe beef, there is a good chance you actually have not,” he says. For the real deal, you can visit approximately 35 certified restaurants or retailers in the United States (Alexander’s Steakhouse in Cupertino and Omakase in San Francisco are two)—or you can go it on your own by ordering his flash-frozen steaks online. An 8-ounce Kobe filet mignon is $299; flights of three to five A5 steaks run $599 to $799.
Hughes’ go-to is Hokkaido snow beef from Japan’s north. “The cold climate and genetics, along with energy-intense feed,” he says, “create a steak with power and structure akin to fine wine.”
Preparing a $300 steak is virtually foolproof, requiring only a hot skillet and sea salt, he says, noting: “Cook to medium to allow the fat to melt into the meat.” Of wagyu’s high percentage of fat, he maintains, “wagyu genetics, combined with the comparatively long time the cattle are fattened on grain, results in a healthier fat, with more oleic acids and monounsaturated fats than salmon.”
Originally published in the March issue of Silicon Valley