A day in the life of Lucky Ncube isn’t quite that of your average chef. When I meet him at Butcher and the Farmer in Glebe, he’s standing over a 400 degree grill, checking the hardware, holding his hand at different heights over the flames to guage the heat, and not sweating a drop. As the Meat Master for Seagrass Boutique Hospitality Group, a role that was created just for him, Lucky is responsible for over 20 kitchens, all of which are famed for their ability to consistently turn out some of the tastiest meat in the country.
Meat Master isn’t a common job title, but Lucky isn’t a common chef. With over 20 years’ experience standing over fire and steel, his expertise is evident in the gentle, effortless way in which he handles a steak. From trimming it, gently beating it with a kitchen mallet to an even thickness, laying it on the grill–there is love in his work, and the proof is on the plate. He offers to cook me lunch, and before I’ve responded he’s preparing a New York Cut, surgically snipping tendons down to the flesh so that the thick cut of prime-Angus doesn’t change shape when it inevitably seizes over scorching flame.
“I started cooking back home, in South Africa”, he tells me in his thick accent, fat dripping into small droplets through the gaps of his grill plate causing fire to lick the slowly caramelising white rind.
“I’ve been with Seagrass for 15 years now. I was picked as Meat Master by the owners–they wanted me to be the guy who looks after the meat, and the best name they could give me was a “Meat Master””.
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Four minutes into cooking my lunch and it’s plain to see that the man knows his way around a kitchen. The perfect steak has been his life’s work since he first started cooking, many years ago, and it’s a skill level few could rival. But there’s a lot more to the title “Meat Master” than perfectly portioned, 180-day grass-fed fillet slices and seared-in, geometrically identical grill marks. His training program, which is compulsory for any chef hoping to get within ten feet of a Seagrass-sanctioned hotplate, installs a “Grill Master” in each venue. With his own, kind brand of culinary tutelage, he takes staff of varying skill levels under his wing, and shows them how to turn a piece of meat into the perfect steak.
But it’s a year before they’re allowed to actually cook one unsupervised.
This is his program, which he instituted. It goes beyond the principles of how to cook the perfect rib-eye, and covers broader ground, like his kitchen systems. Some days, there are over 40 steaks on the grill, all at varying temperatures and cooking times. Lucky can tell you which one is which, and how much longer it needs. With his eyes closed. He expects this same level of care and attention from his peers.
“When you come into our kitchens, I have to start you from scratch. My job is to make sure I start you from black and blue, rare, medium-rare, up to well-done. Sometimes for a person to understand all these temperatures isn’t very easy. You need to know also that you need to rest the steak so that it relaxes the muscle, and it’s very easily soft and tender. If you just cook it and then you throw it on the plate, all the juices will drain on the plate.
“And then you have a pool of blood on the plate”.
A dreaded puddle of myoglobin, the pink muscle-protein that ekes out of a poorly rested steak, is the sign of an impatient chef. Lucky is adamant that if I leave with one piece of knowledge, it’s to rest. My. Bloody. Steak. After. Cooking. It.
There’s little more quintessential to the pride of any Australian than the ability to cook meat on fire. The Aussie barbecue is an unofficial institution–church for the masses, a religion without a messiah and a movement without a cause. It’s an equaliser, a uniform practise that requires nothing more than a welcoming attitude, and with no membership fee.
This, however, does not much translate to a uniform skill level. When it comes down to it, many people make the same mistakes when they’re on the tongs in front of their Weber, and Lucky’s got no problem sharing his antidote to a poorly cooked steak.
For one, he hammers home his advice about resting the meat once it’s been grilled. For how long, exactly? “At least half the cooking time”.
And that cooking time is also an elusive concept. The classic rule of three minutes on each side for a medium-rare steak is all good and well. But do you know what temperature your grill sits at? Will it go to 400 degrees? Can it achieve the “Pittsburgh Rare”; black and bleu temperature made so famous by the steel workers from Pennsylvania? Most domestic grill tops would be lucky to achieve 300 degrees. Lucky wants you to know this, and adjust your cooking time accordingly.
“Once you start cooking, it drops the heat quickly. It’s not going to cook enough like what we do”.
He’s also got a pretty concrete opinion of well-done, and when a steak should be cooked all the way through, as is so common: never.
“If you cook the steak up to medium or well-done, it will be tough, because you’ve drawn all the moisture from the steak. The steaks will depend on how much marbling is in the steak. It can be cooked from medium-rare, medium-well, but not up to well-done”.
Perhaps the most unusual ingredient in Lucky’s kitchen, however, is a secret recipe that he’s reluctant to share: Seagrass’ basting sauce.
“With basting, of course, it’s a secret recipe for our company”, he firmly asserts. “No one does basting in many restaurants. I can say most of the customers, they come especially for basting in our stores”.
What does the basting do?
“The basting works in the flavour so that it retains the moisture of the steak and it caramelises outside of the steak.
“When you come to work with us, we will train you how to cook our steaks. Because we wouldn’t give this basting to just anyone out there. If they’re not trained how to use it, then you’re not going to get the same outcome from the steak.
“You have to know when to baste it, when to rest, for how long you want to rest, and then it will sit on the steak and caramelise the outside of the steak. When you eat it, it’s not going to be just water. It’s going to be nice, caramelised sauce on top of the meat”.
And the best cut of beef for a beginner who wants to be their own Meat Master? I proffer a Scotch Fillet as a suitable choice. I am quickly dressed down for this.
“A Scotch Fillet is very difficult to cook. To start, you can start with a rump steak. Cheap steak. You can practise with that and then you get it right”.
Birth-given moniker aside, there is little luck involved in the Meat Master’s pantry. Just years and years of experience, and the perfect steak.