The Art of Butchery

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We call him Jake the Steak, and he is the man behind the curtain. More specifically, he is the man responsible for that veal schnitzel, that rabbit sausage, that pork liver mousse, that flat iron steak.

He’s our butcher. Reynard, the restaurant where I work, is one of a handful of Brooklyn restaurants to employ an in-house butcher. Even Prime Meats, where I had a fabulous steak dinner recently, gets shipments of pre-cut meat. Having a butcher in the restaurant strikes me as incredibly efficient. Farmers have their livestock delivered right to our door, and Jake literally carts them down to the freezer, then takes them one by one into his “cave” and takes them apart with incredible skill, using a knife and hook. He separates the parts of the animal, knowing exactly what will be done with each section–whether it will be aged and served as steak, or made into bacon or ground into sausage, or sliced into tenderloins. And almost nothing gets thrown away; what cannot be served as-is or made into a derivative product is used for stock, sauce, or flavoring in a vegetable dish.

I think it’s amazing! It feels somehow very honest to serve people meat that I know was butchered by this friendly guy Jake in our restaurant’s basement. But it also makes for a very interesting, diverse menu; we have options that many of our customers have never heard of, like knockwurst and headcheese. So, I explain to them that we have these things because we use whole animals, which ultimately requires a little creativity in terms of dealing with parts like pigs’ head and feet (that’s headcheese! so yummy).

So the real reason I’m hanging out so much with Jake the Steak is that I’m doing research for a fiction writing project . . . that’s all I’ll say for now! But it’s actually a lot of fun to watch him work; it’s incredible to see him pulling fat and muscle off of bones, and breaking into ribs with a handsaw, and adeptly moving a 110-pound animal carcass around on a table while identifying all of the parts and simultaneously evaluating how healthy the animal was and how it will taste. Butchery is a true art and it’s revolutionary that we’re seeing such a comeback of artisanal butchery in U.S. cities; although now it may be overpriced and seem unreachable to most customers, it’s only a matter of time before it becomes mainstream. (Industrial butchery, as opposed to the “artisanal” approach, does of course involve human labor, but first machines tear animals into big hunks and it’s generally more wasteful.) What I like most about it is the efficiency and the strengthened connection between producer and consumer; even if customers at Reynard don’t see Jake the Steak at work, their dollars are being filtered through fewer people to get to the farmer, and less energy is expended to get meat onto their plate. It’s an elegant system.

But it’s not entirely glamorous. Poor Jake’s back and neck are killing him, and he’s getting arthritis in his hands. It’s extremely hard labor to deal with these heavy, clunky animals. (It’s not an accident that we think of butchers as big, hulky guys.) Nevertheless, Jake seems to have a lot of fun working on an animal. It’s like watching a mechanic fixing a car, or a sculptor making a piece of art–complete absorption. Am I just a romantic, or shouldn’t we all eat meat that was not only well-treated and raised with love, but even butchered with real passion? What you wind up with on the plate is a product that was treated with the utmost importance and care from its grass-grazing days to the butcher’s block to the grill to plating; it’s more than a meal, it’s a collaborative endeavor involving so many skills and resources. Now that’s something to chew on (oh, I couldn’t resist the pun ending!).

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