First Light Wagyu Beef with Jason Ross & Crew

Picture
Why is it, one wonders, that on average, one in three steaks we buy will be chewy and the other two, well, not so much. From rump to sirloin, getting a tender cut of beef can be a bit of a lottery in New Zealand. Of course there are some cuts that are more tender than others, but even within these categories the quality of meat is hugely different from week to week. Actually, from cow to cow which means from farm to farm – the aggregate thereof being all thrown together into a large meat processing facility which has no rating for tenderness aside from general cuts. That’s why on any given supermarket shelf you will find a massive difference in the quality of steak as all rumps are not raised equally. One farmer may be taking amazing care of their cattle – producing great tender meat – while another may have had grass issues resulting in lower feed rates and tougher meat. Both farmers are getting paid by the pound regardless though so when the meat hits the market, it’s all mixed in together. As good a cook as you or I may be, we’re all taking a punt here.
Picture

First Light founders Jason, Greg & Gerard

As tends to happen though, when industries get a bit out of balance – in this case, with the growing aggregation of meat processors – there are often market correctors who see the opportunity to look differently at the entire chain, adding value and often returning to traditional ways of getting a particular farmer’s goods to the people who will appreciate them the most. For instance, I had a steak the other day produced by a particular farmer growing grass fed Wagyu in New Zealand. I could see through the packaging that the marbling was at least BMS6 or 7 on the Wagyu scale and when I got it home to cook it, it of course turned out perfectly. Super tender, lovely flavour and probably the best steak I’d had all year (at home). Looking closer at the company then (First Light), I could see that these guys have taken the problem mentioned above and turned it into an outstanding New Zealand solution aiming to bring a consistently great meats to home cooks and hospo crews alike. The really interesting thing to me about First Light though, is that while many Kiwi’s will head out into the world and bring what they’ve learned back home – where it usually stays put – First Light have taken the best of kiwi innovation (at least in the meat industry) and brought it back out to the big wide world. 
Picture
I learned this from Jason Ross, one of the three founders of First Light – a company that aims to take the best of NZ’s grass fed farm culture, it’s fresh water and outstanding agriculture and create the tastiest meat available for NZ and abroad. Looking through their web site, you immediately get the feel that these guys are a kind of huge extended family that honours not only the fantastic farmers of NZ, but of other nations, their histories and ongoing stories. Jason used to work in commodities in Australia and I think it’s this initial vantage point that allowed him and fellow partners Greg and Gerard to see the larger need in the world (back then, for leaner healthier meats like venison, and today, a grass fed quality cut of Wagyu). They formed a strong network of great farmers from Canterbury to Japan’s Miyazaki Prefecture to Northern California who shared histories and breeds and paired this with a world class team of logistic, sales and marketing pros. The result is this big family of quality buffs who have taken on one of the biggest challenges in meat making history, namely, to create grass fed Wagyu that is even better than the original grain fed cow.
Picture
To appreciate how hard this is, you have to remember that the Japanese Wagyu breed has been fed on cow chocolate (grains) and beer for hundreds of years. While this may be compared to the force feeding of ducks to make foie gras, the result is an amazing fat marbling that creates a steak that literally melts in your mouth. The cost to both the cow and the consumer ultimately is not a good thing though and the lads at First Light wanted to put their kiwi ingenuity to work on making what they felt could be a NZ first – outstanding grass fed Wagyu. Same marbling, same buttery experience, but with healthier animals and healthier environmental and consumer outcomes. To do this, they worked with a Japanese farmer who had come from Miyazaki to Hawkes Bay to raise Wagyu and paired his experience with Kiwi farmers around the country. They developed a grass feeding regime including leafy crops of kale, chicory and other grasses consistently available to keep up the weight and fat ratios. They allowed their cows to mature at a healthy rate (over 3 years) with kiwi farmers who invested their talents in creating quality beef. After 10 years of research and hard work by an extended team of people, NZ Wagyu is now an outstanding reality. In fact First Light have already been exporting this stuff for a few years to the likes of Whole Foods in the US and other places around the world. 
Picture
As is often the case though with kiwi’s either appreciating and returning home with a great new idea, or coming up with one here – the culinary tall poppy issue arises. Do New Zealanders even want a perfect steak to slap on some rusted steel plate BBQ or will the budding home cook seek out an opportunity to have some friends over to baptise their Big Green Egg or Infrared grill with a proper Wagyu sirloin? Do we want to have something special, consistently, that we know carries with it centuries of craft and tradition, but made in Hawkes Bay or the Canterbury Plains with a New Zealand spin even if we’re not living in Ponsonby? Will we eat this kind of quality meat five times a week, at these price points? Probably not. Not every day. But that’s also part of the ethos of First Light, and I believe, of a growing body of kiwi’s who choose to have something extraordinary a couple of times a week because eating meat and three veg every day is not only boring, it’s unhealthy for everyone involved. I would completely love, however, to have a piece of First Light’s steak a few times a month. Maybe more with different cuts as they hit my local Raeward Fresh shelves. These guys are an amazing resource for a country getting caught up in aggregate food processing, heading down a similar road to other nations that learned the hard way and now have outfits like Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farms (in the U.S.) to be their market correctors. The brilliant thing about First Light in this regard is that they are spreading these ideas to a national community of farmers who will not only bring us amazing new cuts of grass fed Wagyu but will continue to maintain a high standard of New Zealand farm practice while being paid directly for the quality they create. That’s worth every dollar in my book.
Picture

Check out the great set of recipes at www.firstlight.farm