Chef José Andrés tells me that meat should be like a beautiful kiss.
"When you kiss somebody, it's enjoyable from the beginning to the end," he continues at a table inside his SLS Las Vegas Hotel & Casino restaurant, Bazaar Meat by José Andrés.
The other people around the table agree with the romantic statement. I'm sitting across from a number of industry players including Bay Area rancher Bill Niman of BN Ranch and James Beard Award-winning author-slash-butcher Adam Danforth. It seems unlikely that a group of meat experts would be advocating for people to eat less meat, but that's exactly what's happening.
"Here I don't go to sell more meat. Here I go to sell the right kind of meat," Andrés says of his restaurant. "Here we decided not to give you a steak that you can do what you want to. Here we want to give you a piece of the steak."
He adds: "We don't go for the volume here. We always go for the quality. If you want volume, go somewhere else."
Behind Andrés' booming voice, the fires of the kitchen grills crackle loudly. We're gathered for the inaugural event of the Las Vegas Food and Wine Festival: a whole ox feast inspired by an unusual gift.
When Andrés first opened Bazaar Meat, Niman gave him an ox named Little Dogie that had been kept as a pet by his family for more than ten years. Now 11 years old, the 2,200-pound ox was broken down in a live butchery demo by Danforth—who autographs his butchery books with a note to "Eat less meat! Eat better meat!"—to be served later at a 12-course tasting dinner.
While Americans tend to value younger cattle for its tenderness, Spaniards opt for older, more flavorful beef. "If you have something that has a super-great texture, but it doesn't have the flavor, it's only going to be a momentary enjoyment, not a lasting impact," Danforth says in support of more mature beef. "You don't have the emotional component."
The Bazaar Meat concept was inspired by the older meat preference of Andrés' homeland. Finding the right product for the restaurant was a challenge thanks to the supply and demand realities of the American market. Andrés sampled about 500 cuts of meat before finding the right flavor in cattle from Mindful Meats.
The Petaluma, California-based beef company sources organic, non-GMO verified, dual-purpose cows that offer more bang for your resource buck. "One cow provides an average of over 80,000 pounds of food during her lifetime, including milk, cream, butter, cheese, ice cream, and beef," the company's website reads, contrasting their cows with typical cattle that provide only about 600 pounds of beef.
Hunks of Mindful Meats' products take up a considerable amount of real estate in Bazaar Meat's dry-aging fridges. The older beef is darker than its more youthful counterparts like beaming Japanese Wagyu. The copious amount of meat strewn about the restaurant almost doubles as decoration. It serves as a centerpiece, but Andrés doesn't want it to be the only focus.
"Meat, to me, gets boring when there's too much of it. I'm not a lion," he says. "That's why we have such an amazing menu of vegetables. We don't want people to fill up on steak—it works against us. These guys can only produce so much."
These guys like Niman want to encourage the American public to give more mature meat a chance. "For me, the Wagyu is very tender and it's very fast. It's like eating butter instead of having the full flavor of beef," Niman says. "We believe that older cattle have more flavor."
Through his cross-country butchery demos and staff trainings, Danforth is also pushing an alternative meat agenda.
"My goal is for it to be revelatory for people," he says. "All of the work that I do is challenging people's stigmas about what they feel are the expectations of meat."
On paper, the "Whole Ox Feast" looks like a Vegas-worthy bacchanal, and it is. The evening is set to be filled with caviar and wine and excess, but even in Sin City, the event has also started a dialogue on the environmental sustainability of American meat production, encouraging a conversation about the consequences of our dietary choices.
Andrés tells me about his vegetable-driven fast-casual concept, Beefsteak, and laments American subsidies that make meat more affordable than produce. He is hesitant to accept praise about his efforts, through his restaurants and advocacy, to make the food industry more environmentally sustainable.
"I'm not Alice Waters. I'm not a hero of the environment. I am more pragmatic," Andrés says. "Pragmatism is always going to win today. It's not one solution that saves the world. It's smart solutions that come from people like them."
After hours of tasting meat for the impending feast and sampling his Ibérico mezcal—a personal collaboration with Del Maguey literally made with Ibérico de Bellota ham—it's time for the evening's festivities to begin.
"Hey, Thomas, do we have to mingle?" Andrés asks the restaurant's executive chef, David Thomas.
We get up from the table and Andrés does a lap of his Philippe Starck-designed restaurant. A gaggle of paparazzi follow the charismatic chef as he gives legendary pastry chef François Payard a tour of the place. The natural entertainer occasionally stops to pose for selfies with elated diners.
Andrés is Twitter-verified, Instagram-verified, and President Barack Obama-verified twice over. In 2014, the Spanish-born chef was named an Outstanding American by Choice, and this week will receive a 2015 National Humanities Medal. Tonight, the unlikely advocate for less meat consumption works the dining room, spreading joy and his impactful message.