Chef Knows The Cows That Go Into 'The Truth'

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"The Truth" is the signature steak tartare of John J. Jeffries restaurant in Lancaster City, Pa. Served year-round, this summer it's accompanied by mozzarella and heirloom tomatoes.

Lancaster County, Pa., is well known for its pastoral landscape, Amish community, and agricultural heritage. Despite this reputation, few local chefs have embraced the farm-to-table concept until recently.

A restaurant called John J. Jeffries, in Lancaster City, was among the first. Although the menu changes seasonally, customers can order the restaurant's version of steak tartare year-round.

The restaurant titles its signature raw ground beef spread "The Truth," and it's the kind of dish you would only want to make from meat you trust. As the chef and co-owner of John J. Jeffries, Sean Cavanaugh likes to escape the kitchen and visit the local farms he relies on.

"It keeps it real to know where it's coming from," Cavanaugh says. "I think we value that meat more because we're out, we know the dedication, the work and the love that goes into it."

There are about 450 head of cattle at Thistle Creek Farm in rural central Pennsylvania. George Lake is the third-generation farmer who manages their movements carefully around the pastures, with the help of his three border collies.

Lake says the best grass-fed beef starts with good grass — he sources it from five different countries.

"Romania, New Zealand, Ireland, Denmark and the Czech Republic," Lake says.

This is not the way a lot of beef is produced in the United States. At factory farms, cattle are often fed corn. It fattens them quickly, but Lake says it's not the best way.

"I don't like to point fingers at anybody, but this is a much more natural way of growing things," he says.

That's why Cavanaugh says he feels good about serving it.

"It's not industrial farmed meat," he says. "They're not on feed lots. They're not knee-deep in their own mess."

Thistle Creek is one of just two farms where Cavanaugh gets all the beef for his restaurant, including that special steak tartare. "The Truth" is raw beef, ground fresh every night, then mixed with egg yolk and a little seasoning.

In a nod to the famous scene from the movie A Few Good Men, the menu jokingly asks, "Can you handle The Truth?"

At John J. Jeffries, plenty of customers handle it quite well. On a busy Friday night, Cavanaugh checks every plate before it leaves the kitchen.

The restaurant is inside a hotel frequented by business travelers and tourists. But locals, like Michael McKoin, also swear by "The Truth."

"There seems to be a lot of acceptance for raw fish," McKoin says. "I mean, people eat sushi all the time and think nothing of it. And yet somehow raw beef is a problem? And when you think about it, raw fish actually seems a little sketchier than raw beef."

Dale McMichael agrees. He says he only has "The Truth" here.

"You definitely want to know where tartare is coming from," McMichael says. "You don't want anything that's not fresh."

Making a good meal is also matter of trust — and respect — for Chef Cavanaugh.

"It's really a labor of love. And we're not going to just take any meat and put it on our menu and serve it as a steak, or raw, that doesn't have all that thought behind it."

This summer, the restaurant is pairing "The Truth" with local goat mozzarella and heirloom tomatoes.

Recipe: The Truth

12 ounces freshly ground beef

4 egg yolks (reserve 2 yolks for topping)

1 tablespoon shallots

1 tablespoon capers

1 teaspoon chili paste

3/4 teaspoon sea salt

1/8 teaspoon pepper

2 teaspoons parsley

4 teaspoons olive oil

Mix ingredients together. Top each serving with an egg yolk. Serves two.

NPR has not tested this recipe.

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