More and more, distinguished chefs are involving themselves with the art of butchering. Here's why
Throughout much of the 20th century, the butcher shop was a totem of the small-town American experience. Back then, local families knew their neighborhood meat purveyors by name. They turned to them not just for the quality raw ingredient, but also for counsel on how to prepare it. The proliferation of the supermarket era all but erased this intimacy. By the start of 21st century it seemed as if those relationships were nothing more than romanticized fables stolen from Norman Rockwell paintings. But a new movement in dining promises to revive the stature of this long essential craft. The restaurant/butcher shop hybrid is taking a tradition and re-purposing it to better reflect the needs of today. In other words: The butcher is back, and better than ever.
Over the past decade, nose-to-tail cooking has refocused attention on how meat is processed, as a necessary precursor to quality preparation. Typically, the butcher and the chef were two separate entities. But they’ve become increasingly intertwined, as distinguished chefs are involving themselves, more and more, with the art of butchering. The physical offshoot of this blurred line is an established outpost where whole animals are both torn down and assembled into cuisine within the same space.
Such is the case at White Gold Butchers on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where patrons can actually observe a tear-down prior to dinner. Wearing the white aprons here are Jocelyn Guest and Erika Nakamura, partners in the restaurant and champions of the hybrid concept. They connect the rising trend to a more conscientious consumer.
“Customers who watch the process of whole animal butchery are more closely connected to the food they consume,” says Nakamura. “By being able to actually identify the body part on your plate, you begin to understand the responsibility of consuming meat and feel the gratitude for the life that was given. The appreciation for this actually helps you taste more and better, we think.”
Throwing down full bore on the practice is Los Angeles. It might seem ironic for a city consistently associated with kale smoothies and juice cleanses, but California chefs have long been preoccupied with sourcing. Stepping up a rung on the supply chain is a logical extension of this concern.
At in West Hollywood, chef Jared Levy brings in whole animals to butcher by hand, on-site, cutting out any mysterious middlemen. “When the animal is slaughtered we take delivery directly from the farmer,” he says of the process. “These are the most special butchery projects, because we know the entire life story of the animal, and only a few humans have come into with it before it hits the customer’s plate. Once we take possession, we may butcher it immediately or let it age in our walk-in fridge. We do all the butchery at once so that the meat is exposed to heat and bacteria as little as possible. We often will serve raw/tartare/carpaccio dishes that evening.”
Levy is willing to pay a premium in order to offer his guests sustainability with a story. In turn, diners appreciate a chef who proudly stands behind the quality of what he plates — as he’s inserted himself into every step from farm to table. In contemporary cooking, it’s all too easy to pay lip service to that trendy term; putting in the effort to legitimately practice it is another matter entirely. “You’d be surprised how many working cooks these days can’t even butcher a chicken, let alone a pig or a lamb.” Or a goat, as was recently featured on a whole animal menu at Eveleigh. “We use these butchery sessions as a time to teach the younger cooks about Old World techniques and a craft that is lost in most modern kitchens.”
Just down the street, chef Curtis Stone’s restaurant/butchery hybrid is inspired by similar traditions. “The heartbeat of is the neighborhood European-style butcher shop,” he notes of his two-year-old Hollywood hot. “The shop receives whole animals including heritage breeds where they are butchered, processed and divided to be used in the case and in dishes for the restaurant. Cuts that the kitchen may not be using end up in gorgeous terrines and rillettes that we offer in the case and at our local Sunday farmers’ market.”
Although the restaurant’s elegant tasting menus and expansive wine selections threaten to steal the show come nightfall, the primacy of its midday meat market is difficult to overshadow. “I’m proud of the butchers,” says the chef. “They’re always trying to up their game — to source rare items like venison, elk, wild boar and game birds, while educating our guests and customers about responsible practices that are best for the animal and environment.”
Elsewhere around the country, restaurants built around butcher cases are becoming commonplace: Cochon carried the trend to New Orleans. In Chicago, Publican Quality Meats is delivering the gourmet goods to a city renowned for its carnivorous tendencies. Slowly but surely, butchers are re-assuming their rightful roles at the heart of conscientious cooking. Well-informed gourmands are even starting to know them by name, again. You can just call them "chef," for short.