By Seth Truscott,
College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences
When Chef Jamie Callison wants to impress at his Cougar Football tailgate dinners, he brings out his best: Student-crafted, locally made foods that tell the story of Washington State University.
Near the top of the list are delectable cuts of WSU Premium Wagyu beef from Cougar Quality Meats, a working butcher shop and meat science lab where students in the Department of Animal Sciences learn the science and craft of great meats.
“I’ve never had a better cut of beef in my entire career,” said Jamie Callison, executive chef in the School of Hospitality and Business Management. Chefs from Japan and Europe tell him the same thing: “There is no better beef.”
When it’s time to season such a prime cut, Callison keeps it local and turns to Cougar Seasonings and Rubs, the retail collection of spice blends he and his wife, Tonya, designed personally with WSU premium beef in mind.
“With all their marbling and rich flavor, why would you want to hide that?” Callison said. “You want to showcase the meat and, sometimes, enhance it. It’s like a happy marriage.”
That perfect marriage grew even closer this year, when the Callisons donated their Cougar Seasonings retail business to the Department of Animal Sciences.
Sales of the spice blends now benefit WSU students. Every shaker sold helps students gain valuable career experience at Cougar Quality Meats, and enhances training programs at the WSU Meats Lab.
“This is a win for everyone,” said Jan Busboom, WSU Extension meats specialist and adviser to Meats Lab students. “Jamie and Tonya’s gift is an amazing way for us to give students more and better learning experiences.”
A prime partnership
In 2007, the Callisons founded what was then called “Rival Rubs” out of a rented storefront in Uniontown, Washington. Jamie and Tonya did all of the work themselves, creating spice blends branded for nine different universities, packaging them in metal cans, shipping them, and drumming up retail buyers.
“As our company grew, we were hard-pressed to keep up with demand,” Callison said. “We worked until early morning, then got up and went to our regular jobs. It got to be too much.”
To handle demand, they began working with Shelley Milligan, owner of S.A. Milligan Co., Inc., an Auburn-based spice wholesaler. She maintained the same great quality that their customers had come to expect.
The business thrived, but after 10 years the Callisons were ready to pass it on.
“We really thought about who would benefit most,” Callison said.
At the same time, Callison had developed a 10-year relationship with Jan and the Department of Animal Sciences.
He took part in one of WSU Animal Sciences’ first “Beef 300” courses, joining cattle ranchers and small beef producers to learn industry essentials, from genetics and nutrition to the demands of professional chefs.
“We got to know each other, and I put Jamie on the program as our resident chef,” Busboom said. “He was a natural fit – Jamie has a tremendous interest in understanding top quality beef production, from farm to table.”
Traveling with WSU researchers, Callison saw firsthand the value of their outreach.
“They create amazing opportunities for farmers and ranchers to do a better job at what they’re already doing,” he said. “And, through Cougar Quality Meats, they’re creating openings for students so that when they begin their careers, they’ve already made a difference.”
A teacher himself, Callison knows the importance of on-the-job learning.
“Doing something that benefits our students — that’s where my heart is,” he said.
With such a wide impact, Animal Sciences was a natural fit for the Callisons’ donation.
Along with seasonings and rubs recipes, they gifted the finished product as well as retail relationships — essentially, a standalone business. Milligan, the spice wholesaler, also chipped in, donating a $1,500 start-up package.
“She really believed in the product and wanted to help both Tonya and I and the school,” Callison said.
“The Callisons and I have been a great team, and we’ve created great products,” Milligan said. “I am happy to help the school, any way I can.”
Center of quality
Just down the lane from fields where cattle graze sits the WSU Meats Lab, a modern brick building with rooms dedicated to every part of meat science. It’s home to Cougar Quality Meats: a training center for future leaders in agriculture, business and the food supply.
“There is tremendous demand for students with hands-on experience, especially if they go on to the food safety field,” Busboom said.
Learning safe meat handling is doubly critical because the Meats Lab is one of the few facilities in the state where small farmers can harvest meat under U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection, allowing them to sell commercially.
“No one else locally does that,” Busboom said. “We’re a vital link between small growers and their customers.”
The lab employs a small staff of students who learn how to safely harvest, process and sell quality meat, including bacon, Cougar Smokies, steaks, roasts and whole carcasses. Everything comes from WSU-owned livestock, including the prized Angus and Wagyu herds.
“Our emphasis is on quality,” Busboom said. “People tell me that we have the best sausages and steaks they’ve ever had.”
Cougar Seasonings are available at Cougar Quality Meats and Ferdinand’s Ice Cream Shoppe on the WSU campus; WSU Connections stores in Everett, Spokane, and Pullman; Dissmore’s IGA and Crimson & Gray in Pullman; the Artisans at the Dahmen Barn in Uniontown; and online at the WSU Connections Store. Cougar Quality Meats is also planning to offer a seasoning gift pack for holiday presents.
Sales have been strong so far, and the department plans to develop a retail case and expanded counter at Cougar Quality Meats. Proceeds will ensure the program stays cutting-edge, increasing student involvement through employment, class visits and research.