You deserve better than a well-done steak

I used to enjoy my beef with the consistency of Italian leather — until I saw the error of my ways

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published July 8, 2023 4:00PM (EDT)

Skillet with large tomahawk steak and potatoes. (Getty Images)
Skillet with large tomahawk steak and potatoes. (Getty Images)

Ordering your meat "well-done" is childish, limiting and you deserve better. 

I can say this because I was a well-done guy. Like very well. So well, I'd ask servers, "Can the chef make my steak extra-extra well done? I really enjoy when my meat tastes like Italian leather." 

We didn't eat a lot of steaks in my family. My dad would usually pan sear it when making his favorite pepper steak and rice dish. My mom who wasn't into red meat at all, so she would rarely make steaks and when she did it, they were always well-done. And then, of course, no one is going to walk into a sub shop and say, "Give me a medium-rare cheese steak with everything, extra hots." 

My little well-done life world was perfect. I thought I enjoyed nice steak, but it was because I'd never had a good one. 

My first exposure came on a date. I was 16, she was 19 and told me that she normally dated older guys. I wasn't intimidated at all, because I had car — an Acura Vigor with peanut butter seats, to be exact — a budding mustache, and a pocket full of cash made up of mostly fives, tens and twenties. But when folded together and jammed into my sweatpants pocket, I swear it looked like I was hiding a million. 

Outback and that delicious honey wheat loaf with the thick-ass chunk of butter they give you and that blooming-goddamned-onion was fine dining.

"I want to take you somewhere nice," I told her as I pulled into the Outback Steakhouse parking lot. 

Don't laugh at me — remember, I was 16, Instagram wasn't out, and there were no micro-food bloggers schooling to me to hippest and fanciest spots. So yes, Outback and that delicious honey wheat loaf with the thick-ass chunk of butter and that blooming-goddamned-onion was fine dining. 

I held the door like gentleman and followed behind her slowly as the hostess escorted us to our booth. I had the fake ID ready, but they didn't card us, so I ordered a round of drinks while we looked over the menu. 

"The grilled chicken is good here." I said, still looking. 

"What kind of guy comes to a steak house and orders chicken?" she responded, with wide eyes. Her face twisted to the left and then right. 

"I'm not a big steak guy, but you are right, I'll go for steak."

The waiter came back with our booze and pulled out a pad, ready to jot down our entrees. We both ordered a steak dinner. "And how would you like those prepared?"

"Well," I blurted. "Very, well, like cooked all the way through!"

My date laughed. "You are such a child, I'll take mine rare, please I want to see the blood spill out," she said.

"My kind of the lady," the waiter laughed, making her laugh again. I didn't. 

She then dove into a 20 minute conversation on how her elderly lovers eat raw steaks, too, and how I should give it a try. Apparently she was once a well-done meat eater, as well. I listened, because she was older, clearly more experienced and may have been on to something. 

After our food was served, she bowed and her head and said grace.

"Oh, you a child too, you think praying over your food is going to kill the germs," I joked. "Won't you wash your hands." We laughed. 

Next came one of the most glorious images I ever saw in my life. The young woman took the steak knife, sliced across her filet and used her fork to pull up bloody drippy chunk that she devoured like a monster. Red fluid spilled across her lips and dribbled down her cheek. I was paralyzed. 

"Mmmmmmmmm," she said, "Nice and bloody, just like I love it!" 

She then carved off another fleshy chunk and aimed it at me with one hand while sopping up the steak juice with a once-beautiful piece of honey wheat bread with the other. "Please try," she beckoned.

"Check, please," I said, peeling out my cash and leaving a wad on the table. 

Needless to say, that was our first and last date. But I got a little older, had some experiences and even started hanging out at restaurants where I learned the golden rule over and over again. Always, always, always go with the chef's recommendation. If the chef says medium, then go medium and if the chef says rare, then you go rare or order another dish if you can't stomach it. What I learned this, my dining experience got better across the board. The meat was juicier and more flavorful and I was more satisfied.

I discovered Ahi tuna, which is better served rare, and even salmon served medium makes the boring, unattractive fish way more interesting. Lamb chops and hamburgers were transformed from regular meals for me to glorious dining experiences worth dreaming about, all because of a temperature change and having an open mind. 

Full transparency, I have not graduated to the bloody steak guy yet, medium is always safe unless the chef has a recommendation and I proudly comply. Here is my personal cheat-sheet absent their advice: 

Toast: Brown, not burnt. 

Tuna: Rare

Steak: Medium, unless the chef says different

Lamp Chops: Medium 

Salmon: Medium or medium-rare or don't eat it at all. No cares about salmon

Burgers: Medium or medium-well because they get mushy and become a mess

Liver: The trash can or nearest dumpster 

A note on "medium push"

For those who are new to making this transition I would like to recommend "medium push." Now medium push isn't a globally recognized term, but it needs to be, as it is the perfect phrase for the person eagerly wanting to liberate themselves from overcooked meat. Medium push is right between medium and well-done, the center is slightly pink, but not so pink that you become turned off early in your journey. 


By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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