The waiter hesitates, dangling a knife blade over my shoulder, but then thinks better of it. “You won’t be needing this,” he splutters, returning it to his tray. “You’ll need a saw if you want your steak well-done.”
A well-done steak, while never fashionable, used to be something you could get away with ordering, at least in Britain. Ask for one now and the chef will give you a dirty look through the kitchen porthole or refuse to cook it altogether.
You’d think you were in Paris. Over the past six months I’ve had a waiter tell me I’m “desecrating a cow”, another served me a rare fillet because he was sure I’d like it once I tried it, while a chef in Florence claimed that it was against his beliefs to cook “leather”.
In London recently I was given a medium-rare rib-eye, apparently for the convenience of my fellow diners. People have pretentions to enjoy leisurely dinners, but when it comes down to it no one today is willing to wait 25 minutes on one diner’s behalf. If there isn’t a fork to hold or plate to distract then the phone will have to come out to dull the pain of time ticking by.
The red steak brigade has even been bolstered by some unlikely allies: the raw-food aficionados, who graze on “raw pizzas” (gluten and dairy free) and exciting sprouts. There are now “raw” cafés from Notting Hill to Hackney. They specialise in vegan dishes, but for those who prefer to liven things up with a little meat, raw-food diet websites recommend steak tartare.
I’ve never understood why people find rare meat so superior. Why salivate over bloody flesh like an animal when you can savour the chalky smokiness of a barbecue all year round? Whether a well-done steak provides significantly fewer vitamins than a rare one is negligible; both are rich in iron. It’s perverse logic for a sophisticated human palette to prefer a slab of meat that still throbs with life to one that’s actually cooked.
The backlash against us dark steak-eaters has gained new impetus from celebrity chefs, who have succeeded in deluding half the population into believing that they, too, could cook Michelin-star food on their cramped sideboards and gas ovens. Whatever they say goes, and for them it’s rare steak or bust. Gordon Ramsay claims well-done steak lacks flavour. Raymond Blanc, who was forced to pull rare lamb’s liver from his menu in 2012 when two people suffered food poisoning, provides recipes for rare or medium-rare steak only in his cookbook My Kitchen Table.
Like Vindaloo, raw meat has become a metric for manliness. How low can you go? With things like offal, the contest favours the foolish. So I’ve resolved to play the game to the other extreme. At a table of mega-blade-wielding steak-eaters, I’ll be the one left with the dainty table knife. I may look like a child, or an inmate on day release, serving time for all the cows I’ve subjected to intense grilling, but this way I’ll prove the chef wrong. I’ll glide through my beef with a little knife. With a prod of the fork it will fall apart on my plate. I’ll sigh, and reduce it to a pile of embers, a cremation on the tablecloth. Because I am a rosbif.