TORONTO - The controversy over a special Quebecois-themed event in a Pittsburgh restaurant where horse meat was served has been blown out of proportion, says a Toronto chef who helped prepare the meal.
Scott Vivian, who owns the restaurant Beast in Toronto, was asked by Cure restaurant chef and co-owner Justin Severino to contribute to Monday's US$95-a-head event with a horse tartare dish.
The horse meat came from an Alberta farm that raises the animals sustainably for human consumption. Severino, a four-time James Beard award nominee, had dined on horse tartare at Vivian's restaurant.
"It wasn't meant to shock or surprise people. It was the idea to do a delicious meal," Vivian said Friday from his restaurant, where he serves cuts of meat that customers aren't necessarily used to trying, such as horse and beef cheeks.
"I've done seal dinners in Newfoundland. I've cooked with beaver. This is the first time anybody's ever made a big deal about it."
He said the 70-plus people at the dinner loved the tartare, which was accompanied by salt and vinegar chips, cured egg yolk and black garlic mayonnaise. Horse meat's delicate texture is well suited to a tartare dish because the finely chopped or minced meat absorbs the flavour of any seasonings, Vivian explained.
The chefs, including Nate Middleton of Toronto's Home of the Brave, also served lobster nuggets, elk tourtiere and foie gras, but it was the horse tartare that captured attention when Severino's PR team posted photos of the dishes on the Cure's Facebook feed the next day.
Equine welfare advocate Joy Braunstein expressed outrage and has launched an online petition to ban horse meat from being served in Pennsylvania restaurants. Other people posted they were shocked, or wondered if dogs would be next.
"I feel like it's gotten blown out of proportion because at the end of the day they're concentrating on making Cure the bad guy.... If this is an issue that is near and dear to the people who are protesting hard they really need to concentrate and go after the processing plants that are picking unsustainably raised horses and processing them in China and places like that," Vivian said.
"I think that's where the real issue is, just as it is with unsustainable practices of feed lots for cows and pigs and chickens. You could name so many animals that are poorly raised."
Vivian said he and Severino are both concerned with knowing the source of their ingredients. Severino is well educated on raising and butchering animals, Vivian added.
"If you eat meat then you should know where all of your meat comes from," he said.
"You don't single out the animals you think are cute, or that you want to have as pets. I'd like to ask the people who are protesting and making a big deal about that when was the last time they went to a McDonald's or ate a chicken sandwich or something like that. Do they know where that meat came from? It's just as bad."
Severino declined to give a phone interview but said in an emailed statement to The Canadian Press that the horse tartare "was available for one night only and it is not part of the Cure menu."
Horse meat is widely eaten in parts of Asia, Europe, South America and Canada.
"I think any time something's new people have a hard time making a transition, even understanding, because they base everything on whatever it is they already know and sometimes they don't think outside of the box," said Middleton.
"In the horse situation, they know riding horses and pet horses and stuff like that — and you treat that horse a lot different than you would a farmed horse, so you're putting different things in that horse's body than you would a horse that you're going to eat. And I think people just don't understand."
It's not the first time that controversy has raged over horse meat.
The reality TV show "Top Chef Canada" came under fire over an episode in its first season in which one contestant was asked to prepare a dish using horse meat.