In May, I cooked dinner at Cure in Pittsburgh with chef Justin Severino. We wanted to do a traditional Quebécois-style meal, and when we were throwing ideas around, one of the things that I wanted to do was a horse dish. It was a no-brainer, given that it was a classic regionally inspired meal. I didn't want to push too many boundaries; I just wanted to do something that Justin was comfortable with and that tasted good.
I chose to do a horse tartare, because one of my fondest childhood memories was going to France, where horse is often prepared as a tartare. It's very lean meat and super tender, and the flavour is really nice; it's clean-tasting and not too gamey. I think it's the best way to showcase the meat, because there's no masking it or hiding it—it's in its truest form. Because it's a meat that doesn't have a strong flavour, you can add seasoning to it to make it shine, so I added a cured egg yolk, black garlic mayonnaise, and salt-and-vinegar chips.
The dinner went really well, but the day after the dinner, while I was getting a tour of Pittsburgh from the chefs, Justin's PR people had posted recap pictures from the night before, one of which was the horse tartare. And when they posted it on Facebook, it was immediately getting backlash.
At first, it was basically one person who found it offensive, and then they tagged someone else who they knew and would also find it offensive, and it just snowballed and escalated from there. We got this call from the PR people saying that people were going nuts over it.
Eating horse is a pretty new thing in the US; they only made it legal to consume about three or four years ago. They still don't have the proper distribution channels, and it's not something that diners there are used to seeing. In Europe and even Canada, it's much more available and it's been accessible for a long time; restaurants have been serving it forever.
When you're dealing with the consumption of an animal, there's always that element of emotion. Like opposition to seal meat; the first thing they always post is a seal with big, round eyes. They use that to touch on people's nostalgia and emotions. Plus, horses are domesticated pets; people who own and ride horses have that direct emotional link, and I understand that.
The part that I don't get, as a chef and animal lover, is that, as far as I'm concerned, pigs are cute as well, and so are chickens.
There's a lack of education on the topic of horse meat, and once the backlash started online, there was a lot of talk about the injections and antibiotics that go into the horses. But what they don't understand and maybe don't want to hear is that like any other meat that we serve at the restaurant, we source everything sustainably. Obviously, old race horses are not treated for consumption. Like the cows and porks and chickens that we buy, the horses receive no hormones or antibiotics.
The larger problem here is the industrialization of eating animals. In terms of the people who started the backlash at Cure, I don't know what kind of eating habits they have, but at the same time, there's a good chance that they go to the grocery store and consume [plenty of other] shit that they shouldn't be eating, if those are their ethics. I think this knee-jerk reaction is more on an emotional level than on an actual sustainability level.
If an animal's going to die, then I feel that it's my responsibility to make sure that all of it is served and consumed and not wasted and thrown away. This is the philosophy underlying how we purchase meat that we serve at Beast. We have federally inspected seal meat that we get from Quebec; I've cooked seal at Mallard Cottage in Newfoundland, where I've taken tours of seal processing plants. I've even taken classes to become a certified seal hunter at novice level. All of that stuff interests me, and when you live in a country that's open-minded about preparing food this way and [creating] access to it, it makes sense to use it.
I've also cooked with beaver and wild hare. Whatever [meat is] available, we like to eat it and share it with the patrons who come to Beast. That's definitely one of the meanings of the name "Beast"—because it sums up our philosophy.
Scott Vivian is the chef-owner of Beast restaurant in Toronto, which focuses on locally sourcing, butchering, and cooking whole animals.
As told to Nick Rose. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.