Cumbrae Toronto |Stephen Alexander|

I haven’t eaten so much meat in my life, I begin to think that my motto is eat meat. The chef this night is Stephen Alexander an Australian come Canadian, and if you adore meat there is no doubt you’ll enjoy making a trip to his shop named Cumbrae’s on Queen west. The store is immaculate and the owner Stephen Alexander knows his stuff.


Stephen’s collar seemed ruffled by our attempt to season his meat and he diligently wipes it off his two cowboy steaks as we smile and chuckle staying serious. He takes salt and pepper and does what most purists do, he douses it with black pepper and sea salt. Patting it down, he makes sure his seasoning is well placed.


A trip to the BBQ, he points out that the weber is inferior in comparison to his green-egg. The fire is toasting hot, and he gets ahead of himself and starts cooking in order to time the arrival of our last guest. It’s not an official meat cook off but I have my ways of cooking and the challenge is on.

I made a trip to Cumbrae and had a quick tour of his meat locker with Stephen. The meats are immaculate with surface fuzz, and the standard is what you expect from an A-grade butcher. The son and grandson of master butchers, Stephen knows his stuff and is passionate about what he does. He promises me a day when we will break down a full cow, something I haven’t done before.


There is something special about standing in front of a locker with racks of aging meat. His beef comes directly from his farmers and he’s proud about that. It makes perfect sense and allows him to control his quality.

The meats are aged to allow enzymes to break down the muscle tissue resulting in improved texture and flavor. These days most beef is aged in plastic shrink there is no doubt and dry-aged beef further concentrates the meat’s flavor.


I believe that dry aging can profoundly improve the flavor of meat. The slow and steady evaporation of moisture concentrates sugars as well as those sacred umami enhancing protein that are a by-product of the aging process. Concentrating molecules makes meat taste more rich and when meat is cooked these concentrated molecules help boost the very important Maillard flavors.

I choose a filet and Stephen gives me the end cut of the cowboy. I cooked it my way at home as Stephen seems intrigued by the way it looks, (or not) he says sarcastically ‘it looks like you dragged it behind your car’. I seasoned my filet and it simply needed a few rolls on the BBQ but perhaps in the dark it was over seared, or commonly known as charred. He seemed shocked when I cut the filet length-wise and I guess he is still wondering why. I didn’t explain why but I had my reasons. The cowboy steaks were another matter, juicy as hell and everyone looks at me like I am mad for choosing filet – but I am not.

So what did I do to my two meats? ….. I bear in mind that raw meats are 70% water by weight and approximately 90% of this water is contained in the spaces between that make up the muscle fibers. As temperatures rise in cooking meat, these proteins begin to denature and the core of each muscle fiber starts to collapse. The collapse releases the tension and the tightening of the collagen sheath and hence releases water that adds to the overall taste. These waters aren’t just water, they contain critical umami sugars and salts that mix with the meat’s fats and oils. These vary juices are critical in the end result of any good piece of meat.

Meat that is over cooked lacks in free waters as most of the moisture is squeezed out. So when you chew and not much happens except a dry and hard bite. Be careful when BBQ’ing because you can easily over cook your meat. The green-egg is more consistent in temperature but remember high and dry temperatures ultimately dry out the meat.

See here:

Temperatures over 50°C begin to dry out the meat and hot dry air is the culprit for a steak that is dried out. Luckily a thick cut is that it’s more tolerant to those dangerous flames and a lot of the juices are far enough beneath the surface of the meat and remain trapped.

The trick is gentle cooking at lower temperatures and searing the steak on the BBQ. Remember high and dry heat is the enemy of a good meat expert. Control and consistency is what makes the difference and finally a good level of moisture. When you close the top of the grill, the hot air convection is not what sears your steak, it is intense radiant heat from the Charcoal that does the job.

You shouldn’t concern yourself with the idea of the green-egg doing a much better job over a weber BBQ, because the BBQ’s radiant heat from below is what cooks the steak. The topside of the steak is cooling anyway (wet-bulb) and so by using a wide BBQ grill area you can achieve (to some degree) in direct cooking.

see wet-bulb:

The fats drip onto the flames as they flare and instantly the meat is swathed with aromas you normally wouldn’t find. The secret to the flavor of grilled meat are those fats and oils that fall onto the hot coals and burst into smoke and flames. The intense heat of the flame have a myriad of chemical reactions (Maillard) that coat the surface of the steak. This is the principle reason for using intense radiant heat from charcoal.

However the key to a perfectly cooked steak is low temperature cooking. You can try to cook in an oil bath at 48°C-50°C – something commonly used in kitchens of Michelin chefs. Don’t worry because the oil doesn’t impact the meat negatively and the end result is juicy evenly cooked meat :-).