STORIES

Cutting through the Bull with Chef Aaron Ziegler

By David Jenison on August 20, 2018

"I buy the whole cow," explains chef Aaron Ziegler as he cuts through a thick bone with a butcher's saw. "Well, I buy the whole cow cut in half down the middle."

Three nights per week at his home in Venice Beach, the chef hosts eco-conscious dinners—which he calls The Herb Project— through his company Bull&Dragon. Prepping for the weekend service, Ziegler is butchering dry-aged beef in a custom kitchen he built in his garage.

"You can't dry age grass-fed [beef] unless you're butchering the animal yourself," he continues. "The traditional American way of butchering cuts the animal in the wrong place for what I'm doing. The fat and the bone has to be a shell around the outside so that it can dry out and you can trim the outside off."

Against the wall, an industrial-sized refrigerator holds what's left of the cow, and the chef takes a few pieces of meat at a time to an oversized table in the center of the garage. He cuts a meaty chunk and holds it up for a closer look.

"I dry age the whole loin first, and then I butcher it," explains Ziegler. "You see how it gets that nice red color? I vacuum pack it so I can leave it like this for a few weeks, but I won't need to because these [steaks] will be gone this weekend. I'll reopen these and season them with salt and pepper, add some rosemary and cook it sous vide at rare for a couple of hours so all the fat and muscle breaks down. Then you cool it down and char it on a wood-fire grill so you get this nice crust. It's medium rare the whole way through and picks up the rosemary flavor, and you throw a little Bordelaise on there."

As the chef cuts the steak, he also saws the bones into smaller pieces whether they have meat or not. He says they are for the sauce, which is where the infusion takes place.

"So these bones are gonna go into this guy right now," he says, tossing his most recent cut into a container. "I put all the bones in here with water, onions, herbs, et cetera, and this is how I make the Bordelaise sauce. Separately, I'll make the infusions. All this is a multi-day process, which why I'm starting now for this weekend."

At one point in the process, he struggles to saw through a particular bone and decides to replace the saw blade.

"This looks like quite a workout," I remark.

"Yeah. Imagine doing a whole cow," the chef replies. "Thank god I don't do it all at the same time."

Ziegler apparently found his calling at an early age because, at 14, he started cooking professionally and smoking cannabis. Landing a skiing scholarship, he then attended Western State College of Colorado, and it was in college that he started cooking with cannabis. The chef's interest had more to do with the flavor profile of cannabis, not its psychoactive properties, and he started infusing butter with high-mountain plants that he describes as "real shrubby, lots of colas, super-resiny and fuckin' beautiful."

The chef eventually moved back to Los Angeles and worked under chefs Suzanne Tracht (Jar Restaurant) and Govind Armstrong (Willie Jean, 8 Oz.) and became the Executive Chef for Wolfgang Puck's catering business. In 2013, Ziegler launched Bull&Dragon—"I'm a Taurus born in the year of the Dragon"—and started The Herb Project that same year. He debuted the series with a Korean menu and quickly followed with an infused wild game dinner at the Venice breakfast spot Flake. He continued doing a few pop-ups per year, but then he realized he could expand the series by hosting them all in his home.

"Before, I partnered with some other chefs and rented a whole restaurant space that we could open like a public restaurant," Ziegler recalls. "The difference here is that my home is not a public restaurant. It's a private dinner. You can't just walk in off the street. You don't pay for any food, you don't pay for any alcohol, none of the infusions. You're just coming into a dinner party, and the only charge is for getting on the list."

Ziegler's family has extensive ties to the Venice Beach community—his great grandmother moved here in 1938—and the chef (who also surfs, naturally) recently moved to a larger home on trendy Rose Avenue to accommodate the growing success of The Herb Project. He normally hosts 14 diners per night (with scaling potential for 50) on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and guests make reservations and pre-pay on the Bull&Dragon website. When guests make a reservation, they choose between infused and non-infused, and 90 percent opt for the infusions. However, approximately half the people who opt out change their minds after the chef explains how the dishes are micro-dosed.

"I think about 99.9 percent of all edibles are way too strong—I'm doing, like, three milligrams a course, maybe 20 for the entire dinner," explains Ziegler, who then points at the sauce he's making. "I know that one spoonful of this sauce is three milligrams, and I add it per plate. I can have 14 people, and 10 of them are doing the infusions, and four aren't. I can take four portions of sauce and put it over here, and then infuse the rest."

Infused olive oil is another popular staple at his dinners.  

"You're literally doing a finishing oil on the plate—really bright, floral oils—and the CO2 extractions don't heat up the flower too much," continues Ziegler, who will soon launch an infused Chef's Finishing Olive Oil for retail. "This saves the terpenes and flavonoids, [and] you're not heating the olive oil, so all the terpenes and flavonoids are there, too. You can get a really badass local olive oil that's really robust, whisk in something like White Cashmere, and that's how I would start the meal. The THCA and CBD literally counteract any uneasy feelings of the heavier THC down the road. This system is working because no one's really gotten anxiety or anything like that in two years."

Mirroring his original interest in cooking with cannabis, Ziegler also stresses that the plant plays an important role in the dishes' flavor profiles.

"It's a beautiful flower," he explains. "I mean, I love it like I love basil. You know [when] you get a really great opal basil or beautiful lemon thyme? It's the same as a Sour Tangie or a Blueberry Skunk. So for the last 25 years, I've been trying to figure out how to decarboxylate the flower and still use it as an actual herb for its flavor and smell and essence."

For the dinners themselves, the chef handpicks locally sourced ingredients (many from his own garden) to craft five- to seven-course wine-paired dinners as guests sit at communal tables in his elaborately decorated backyard. He never posts a menu ahead of time—"I'm not writing something out on paper that I have to adhere to for some arbitrary reason"—and the coursing doesn't start coming together until he visits Santa Monica's famed farmer's market on Wednesdays to select the best-available produce.

His next dinner is two days away, and he's preparing the dry-aged beef, but he cannot say much else about the upcoming fare. However, he paints a culinary picture by describing the previous weekend's dinners.

"We started with compressed melon and burrata with opal basil and a Hammerhead flower extraction in extra virgin olive oil," Ziegler recalls. "I used that extraction one more time in the next dish, which was fermented Chinese long beans and pickled papaya with heirloom tomatoes and fresh oregano and puffed rice, topped with a drizzle of the olive oil extraction. The third course was steak tartare with grilled radicchio treviso and nutmeg, and garlic bruschetta. And [with] that, we moved into Green Crack, and that was a heat-extraction olive oil."

Ziegler makes it easy to adjust the dishes for those who don't eat meat, dairy or gluten, but for those who do eat meat, the former vegan stresses the importance of respecting the animal. Growing up, he could not convince his mother to buy him meat at the grocery store, but she finally agreed to let him eat meat if he hunted and butchered the animals himself. He accepted the challenge at age 10.

"I really approach it from a Native American philosophy of respect for the animal," he explains. "That's why I do the whole-animal butchering because it's my way of respecting and honoring the animal. I mean, life grows and life dies. All life sustains all life. For me to say that a cow is more valuable than an asparagus… I don't even think that we're more valuable than asparagus."

Nevertheless, he prefers to make the produce, not the meat, the star of the show. He continues, "With all the regenerative agriculture here in California, the produce is so amazing that, in most of my dishes, the protein is more of a garnish. It's a very vegetable-forward and -focused menu. I love meat and I eat a lot of it, but as a culture we eat too much. The plate doesn't need to be an eight-ounce steak and a couple pieces of broccoli. It should be this beautiful vegetable creation with four ounces of steak."

At a time when many chefs treat cannabis as a gimmick, Ziegler's approach to culinary cannabis seems firmly rooted in gastronomic principles. In fact, while others call themselves cannabis chefs, Ziegler would likely describe himself as simply a chef who likes to use cannabis as an ingredient, even if he was one of the first Angelenos to host infused dinners that were widely promoted and open to the public. Colorado helped shift the public opinion on cannabis, but The Herb Project started before modern legal sales occurred anywhere in the U.S. and while stigma still ran high.

Unsurprisingly, the chef's thoughts on stigma mirror his approach to gastronomy. He concludes, "Well, I've never been one to give a shit about stigmaI do what I want, and I always have."

David Jenison (david@prohbtd.com) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD.

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