Jam Out with Your Lamb Out

Two tales of one defining product.

August 24, 2016 ● 4 min read

This post is sponsored by the American Lamb Board.

The first time chef Sophina Uong had great lamb, it was in the presence of belly dancers.

There was chicken (or was it pigeon?) pie, and lamb tagine. 20 years have passed since she sat in that San Francisco restaurant, the tinkling of coins shaking past and spices catching the air, and she still hasn’t forgotten it.

Uong — who will continue to lead the kitchen at Oakland’s Oaxacan outpost Calavera for a few more weeks before lending her expertise to a new lamb-focused spot slated for next year — has won the San Francisco Lamb Jam three times. This year, she cinched it with a lamb shoulder pave dressed in an eggplant-date lutenitsa, sumac pickled corn and cherry bomb harissa — turns out the Middle Eastern influences of this Cambodian chef cooking in a Mexican restaurant are off the hook. This month, she’ll head to the James Beard House to compete for Lamb Jam Master.

The Lamb Jam tour, which is sponsored by the American Lamb Board, gives chefs the opportunity to experiment with new lamb cuts and make connections with local ranchers in a communal setting. The events have a particular electricity to them; when the product is beloved the world over, any limits to culinary expression go out the window.  

“The tour has helped introduce chefs and consumers to the versatility and wonderful flavor of American lamb,” says ALB’s executive director Megan Wortman. “The events have also helped us make meaningful connections between chefs and local lamb producers in each of the markets – or what we call the shepherd to chef connection.” 

In the beginning, lamb was mostly unfamiliar to Uong, whose price point typically excluded it from her family’s repertoire; the presence of Lebanese friends during this period lent a certain spin to what she began to prepare professionally. She featured lamb in curries, smothered it in spices; not dabbed in mint jelly or mustard in the European style.

“When I was first learning to cook, I decided I wanted to do a rack of lamb for my father and his new French-Cambodian wife. We didn't really…like each other,” she recalls. “She got up from the table, grabbed some Grey Poupon Dijon mustard, and completely smothered the thing. I was super offended at the time, but now I realize she was right. The meat needed some kind of counterpart.” Now, she favors the shoulder cuts, smoked and braised, or Denver ribs with their thick, fatty chew. “It's an incredible product,” she says.

Richard Hamilton doesn’t remember the first time he had great lamb, because as a born and raised rancher, he’s been eating it his entire life.

Hamilton Brothers ranch makes its home in the Montezuma Hills, along the Sacramento River in California. It’s a member of the Niman Ranch network, with its own genetics program: in the early 1970s, the ranch raised a new breed of sheep, and they continue to supply their peers with rams from time to time to diversify their own flocks. The ranch is home to around 2,500 ewes.      

Hamilton and Uong have never met, but their work with Niman Ranch — one a customer, the other a producer — unites them.

“I've seen how much of an ambassador a chef can be for the wholesomeness and sustainability of a ranch. There is a real connection there, and it's getting bigger,” Hamilton says. He’s driving, and his voice rises over the whir of his tires. “I think many of us have lost our touch with rural America — a lot of the public doesn't really understand how their food is raised. The more interaction that can happen there, the better.”

Here’s what he wishes consumers would remember: the sheer amount of work it takes to get that lamb to you. Whether it’s the politics or the climate or the competition, when a rancher raises animals they’re working on a product that won’t hit the market for more than a year. It’s slow work, especially when there are genetic tweaks at play. “A farmer has to be very creative and have a lot of fight in him to deal with what we face today. You want to stay ahead of yourself, differentiate yourself against the competition, make yourself unique, but stay authentic. I always worry about losing our identity in all that,” he says.

And how do you do that? By echoing the words of every great chef since the dawn of time: taste, taste, taste. If you're in the business of trying to better the flavor, he says, not tasting it makes that very difficult to do. “If you don't taste your product, you don't know if you are doing a good job,” he explains. “There's always evolution in the process; when you think you've gotten to the peak, and you can't get any better, you're in trouble.”

So how does a decades-long rancher cook his own product? Straight on the pan, au naturel, so he can make note of his work. “What does the natural beauty taste like? Then decide how you can balance the seasoning to enhance that flavor, make it express itself a little bit more. That's how I look at it.” Though, if you push him, he’ll tell you he’s particularly fond of garlic, and marinades are a no-go.  

“People who appreciate good quality meat, whether it's a chef or a meat buyer in a high-end mom and pop store, have a real interest in how it’s produced. I’m always surprised by the level of questions and information they want about the product they’re purchasing — what goes into it, how do you do this or that— and I’m very appreciative of that. They’re not just cooking up a piece of meat, they want to have a real understanding,” he adds.

Being a part of Niman’s extensive farmer network (725 and counting) creates its own kind of peer pressure among the families, Hamilton says. Being consistent as one ranch means constant communication and alignment. It’s a challenge he’s happy to take on. “I don't think you'll find a company with more consistent lamb than Niman,” he says. “We take a lot of pride in doing that, because that's what we want to eat. I wouldn’t sell something that I wasn’t proud of.”

Lamb, perhaps more than any other meat, plays to our soft side. It’s a meat historically reserved for holidays, the rack arranged just so; for roasting whole on a beach somewhere, onlookers gathered in a ceremonious circle and the fire spitting as it turns; for rough, glistening slices caught in a warm pita, dashed with spiced yogurts and herbs.

Thanks to the tenacity of Richard Hamilton and his fellow ranchers out in the hills, and visionary chefs like Sophina Uong, lamb has cemented its place in the protein pantheon. The love affair only gets better from here. 

Cassandra Landry | Collage by ChefsFeed