top of page

Well-Done Steak Without Shame


On a recent visit to a steakhouse in Omaha, Neb., Caroline Zaayer Kaufman went through a song and dance that may be familiar to anyone who always orders their steak well-done.

The server, incredulous, asked if she was sure. (She was.) “So that means it’ll be cooked all the way through.” (Yes.) “No pink in the middle?” (Correct.) “The chef will probably need to butterfly it.” (That’s fine.) “Your entrees will take longer to come out.” (That’s OK.) “You know, you could just eat a hockey puck covered in blue cheese instead of wasting a steak.”

Ms. Kaufman, a 38-year-old marketing writer, laughed. A lifelong Nebraskan, she knows the rules: “In this state, it’s considered a crime against beef to eat it cooked more than medium.” Adding to her culinary rap sheet, Ms. Kaufman occasionally requests A1 sauce for her well-done tenderloin. “My husband has vowed to never take me out for a nice steak again because of my blasphemous eating habits,” she says.

The revelation that President Donald Trump orders his steak well-done has drawn attention to the long-suffering portion of the population who like their meat bloodless.

For Gwen Weiler, a book editor in Columbia, S.C., who’s been shamed in restaurants for requesting A1, learning that Mr. Trump favors ketchup also gave her a boost. “I’m a classier steak-eater than the president!” she says.

The 35-year-old gets a little pang of anxiety when she goes out for steak. “I’ve had to send steak back multiple times because my version of well-done is not their version,” she says. “It’s like they’re saying, ‘Bless your heart, we know better than you so we’re going to give you something bleeding.’ ” She worries it makes her seem difficult.

About 19% of diners prefer their meat well-done or very well-done, according to a 2014 study by the Cattlemen’s Beef Board. (That’s compared with the 30% who prefer medium-rare, the most popular preparation.) Many in the well-done camp have grown accustomed to deep resistance—even condemnation—from restaurant staff. They also expect a second helping of scorn from tablemates.

“There is definitely a feeling of shame that comes with ordering your steak well-done,” says New Yorker Tom Gesimondo, owner of business brokerage firm Transworld Business Advisors of Brooklyn West. Mr. Gesimondo, 58, goes to steakhouses several times a month with clients.

“I am so tired of apologetically ordering my filet mignon and offering ‘the chef can butterfly it if he wants’, and having the waitstaff accept my offer like they’re embarrassed for me,” he says.

Butterflying—slicing a thick cut of meat into two thinner cuts attached at the center—allows a steak to cook through faster. But it also lets out more natural juices and can lead to a drier end result.

For that and myriad other reasons, most chefs resent it when customers ask for well-done. “It’s true. I cry on the inside,” says executive chef Victor Chavez, who spent 38 years at New York’s Smith & Wollensky and recently opened his own restaurant, Greenwich Steakhouse. “It takes me three to 12 weeks to age our beef, and I also butcher it myself into these beautiful little steaks,” he says. “It hurts to see all that work wasted.”

Matt Belton, 47, a cattle rancher in Steamboat Springs, Colo., feels no shame. He says he’s used to the snickering and “harassment” he gets for ordering his steak very well-done while wearing a cowboy hat. His wife Christy won’t even defend him. “I like to rub it in. I tell the waiter, ‘Just bring mine out—don’t even bother to cook it,’ ” she says. “I guess opposites attract.”

Well-doners have various reasons for their choice: Some say they’re concerned about possible bacteria in what they see as undercooked meat, or that red beef juice makes them squeamish. Others say they prefer a firm texture or the flavor of char—despite studies linking burned meat with increased cancer risk. And some shrug it off as a generational thing.

“Unfortunately, well-done is the only way my in-laws will eat their steak,” says Zach Ellsworth, a 36-year-old caterer and owner of The Foundry, a modern American eatery in Uniontown, Pa.

He trains his staff to pre-empt such orders by saying, “The chef recommends the New York strip medium-rare. Is that OK with you?” They strongly advise against well-done, but after informing the diner of the potential consequences—tougher texture, longer wait times—the indemnified servers happily take all orders.

Rodrigo Fierro, a welder in Houston, refuses to accept that well-done meat must eat like shoe leather. “I don’t like having to pull my steak with my teeth like an animal,” he says. “But the way I cook them, at a very low temperature, slow, heavily seasoned, it’ll cook completely through and be just as tender as any other steak. I guarantee it.”

Chef Nigel Spence, owner of Ripe Kitchen and Bar, a Jamaican restaurant in Mount Vernon, N.Y., may be one of the few pros who understands the draw of well-done meat.

“In Jamaica, our cattle and meat in general isn’t bred to be soft, so we’ve always done a lot of stews and braises,” he says.

A classically-trained chef, Mr. Spence defeated chef Bobby Flay on his Food Network show “Throwdown” in 2007. One of Mr. Spence’s signature dishes is a jerk rib-eye steak, which he says is best served medium-rare. “But everybody wants to order it well-done.”

He always urges people to try it his way, but says he often gets nowhere, especially with older people. And he’s OK with that.

“My customers really taught me how to make a rib-eye steak well-done so it’s good and juicy,” he says, adding that any top chef can do well-done meat well with extra effort. “If it tastes like cardboard, it’s just because the chef is pissed off at you for ordering a well-done cut, so he annihilates it to say, ‘If you don’t care, then I don’t care.’ ”

bottom of page