The New American Butcher: St. Louis’ rising cadre of chefs turned butchersBetween the pig’s head, the hanging quarter of beef and the trays of hocks, trotters and loins, there was barely enough room to move around in the closet-sized walk-in of Bolyard’s Meat & Provisions, the boutique butcher shop Chris Bolyard and his wife Abbie Bolyard opened late last year in Maplewood. Yes, an honest-to-goodness butcher shop.
There are meat markets in town, of course, fine ones that cut slabs of meat into smaller portions for sale. Others rely on boxed, case-ready cuts. But a butcher shop that brings in whole pigs and half beeves to “fabricate,” or separate into market-ready cuts and prepared products, is an entirely different, well, animal. If your image of a butcher shop is more Leave It to Beaver than Modern Family, then say hello to the new American butcher.
At 35, Bolyard, a former chef at Sidney Street Cafe, is one of several young chefs who recently traded their toques for butcher’s scabbards. These local meat geeks are part of a national butchery revival driven by other erstwhile chefs more interested in animals raised in pastures than fattened in feedlots. It’s a renaissance that largely began in 2004 in the Hudson Valley town of Kingston, New York, where Jessica and Joshua Applestone opened Fleisher’s Pasture-Raised Meats, the whole-animal butcher shop that helped beget a new wave of similar butcheries in Brooklyn, San Francisco and, now, St. Louis.
Often described as the new rock stars of the culinary world – evidently there is something sexy about the raw, physically punishing work of cleaving apart huge animal carcasses – these new butchers embrace a dual mission: procure and sell the meat of humanely raised and killed animals while also heightening consumer awareness that there’s more than just ribs, chops and tenderloins. In short, they preach whole-animal eating – nose to tail, hoof to backstrap.
Like chefs at chic, open-kitchen restaurants, butchers at these shops are showing off their skill. At Bolyard’s, there’s the cutting room where, visible through a large window, Bolyard breaks down animal carcasses into sections ready to be cut, ground, stuffed, smoked, boiled and pulled. Butchery, another whole-animal meat shop that opened last year at Truffles restaurant in Ladue, has a glassed-in room lined with pink Himalayan salt for dry-aging beef. And while The Block in Webster Groves wasn’t the first restaurant to butcher meat on-site, it’s among the few to sell to retail customers; the cold case, full of the day’s cuts, is the first thing you see when entering the restaurant.
As popular imagination tells it, it used to be – before plastic wrap and Styrofoam rectangles replaced brown paper; when boning knives, not meat slicers, were the tools of the trade – the neighborhood butcher shop was where you went to get fresh cuts from anything that mooed, clucked, baa-ed, quacked or grunted. It was where the guy behind the counter educated and suggested alternatives: “Say, Sam, how do you cook oxtail?”
So, what changed?
“Wal-Mart,” said 35-year-old Andrew Jennrich, a butcher at Annie Gunn’s and its adjoining Smokehouse Market, and former chef at Farmhaus. “You don’t get a connection to your food at Wal-Mart. You get that connection by coming into your butcher shop, whether you want to be more conscious of where your food is coming from, that your food was raised properly or that you’re buying product from an upstanding source.” And although Wal-Mart became the nation’s largest food retailer within 12 years of opening its first supercenter in the late 1980s, Jennrich could have just as easily singled out Costco, Sam’s Club or any large supermarket that sources meat from a few giant food corporations, pre-packaged and ready for the case.
Even before the big-box stores, the infrastructure of industrialized butchery was already in place a century ago. “It’s like that episode of The Simpsons,” said Chris Ladley, butcher for The Block and cook at Quincy Street Bistro. “The one where Lisa is watching a film about where meat comes from and the cows go in one end of the building and come out the other as burgers.”
In the early 20th century, even small-time butchers sourced meat from big packinghouses, which operated their facilities near major urban livestock markets and controlled everything, from stockyards to transportation to marketing, before antitrust laws broke their monopolies. Since the 1950s, the path from production to consumption has grown increasingly complex. Consolidation of production and supply systems, policy more favorable to corporate agriculture than family farming, mergers and buyouts, increased reliance on low-wage, non-union and immigrant labor, centralized butchering, aggressive marketing and consumer demand for all things cheap and convenient have made the disconnect easy, if not inevitable. The notion of a family-owned, locally focused butcher shop, as the new generation of butchers imagines it, may be exactly that – hazy, embellished, even somewhat fictionalized.
But that doesn’t lessen the importance of the movement, and it’s not as if a problem doesn’t exist. About 60 years ago, the four biggest packinghouses – Armour, Swift, Cudahy and Wilson – controlled 40 percent of the fresh beef trade. Today, Tyson Foods, Cargill, Swift (now JBS) and National Beef Packing Co. are the powerhouses, controlling nearly 85 percent of the U.S. cattle market. Three of those same companies, plus Smithfield Foods (now a subsidiary of the Chinese Shineway Group) process 64 percent of America’s pork. With government oversight and enforcement flagging, it’s as if those antitrust laws were never written.
Ryan McDonald, who heads up Butchery and was formerly chef de cuisine at Juniper, attributes part of the problem to consumer acquiescence. “It became easy to choose convenience over quality and (for) people not as informed – or choosing not to inform themselves – of where they’re food is coming from,” said McDonald.
Why, then, the recent interest in whole-animal butchery? Despite rising prices, we certainly are not eating less meat; last year the average American chowed down on about 202 pounds of red meat and poultry, most of it from only a few parts of the animal. Yet consumers are becoming increasingly concerned with the ethics of meat production and processing. “People have always been into meat (but now) care more about what kind of meat they’re eating,” McDonald said. When it comes to pork, he noted, people want a well-fed, well-bred pig raised without hormones and antibiotics. “They don’t want the commodity pork that’s been treated poorly and fed crap food.”
Ladley agreed. “One of the good things with the increase in food culture over the last eight years and people’s re-interest in food – whether they’re taking pictures of it because it’s pretty or doing sous vide at home or just cooking food again – is that they are getting connected with their food,” he said. “It’s a very comforting trend, the fact that people are getting more into the quality.”
Think how the locavore movement of the past 10 years has changed our expectations and raised awareness of issues surrounding sustainability, access, health and animal welfare. When consumers ultimately responded to sustainably grown, locally sourced food, we saw the rise of farmers markets and grocers like St. Louis’ Local Harvest Grocery. Today, even large grocery chains are circling back and listing the local provenance of their produce.
Restaurants have been a driving force in artisanal butchery, with many St. Louis chefs bringing whole animals into their kitchens to break down themselves. Consider how the humble hamburger has been elevated by restaurants grinding their own blends, or the increasing number of kitchens making charcuterie. “The love affair with old school butcheries by my generation comes from the movement of restaurants producing more in their kitchens instead of outsourcing, whether they’re baking their own bread or pastries or making charcuterie,” said Jennrich.
As it did a century ago, meat raises cultural anxieties. Books like Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, movies like Food, Inc. and Fast Food Nation have sensitized people to the perils of industrialized meat production and the dispassionate, often brutal treatment of the animals we eat. “If these animals are giving their lives to feed us, then they should have the best lives possible before they meet their demise,” Bolyard said. Before opening their “whole beast” butchery, he and his wife visited the farms they wanted to work with, insisting that animals be grass-fed, hormone- and antibiotic-free and transported to local processers who adhere to maximally humane slaughter standards.
For Ladley, the detachment people have with meat is befuddling. “When I was working at The Dubliner, people would see us carrying the pigs off the truck to the kitchen and think it was gross, but they were perfectly fine seeing a stack of ice-covered boxes full of pork,” he recalled. “I’m not saying we have to go back to Little House on the Prairie, but the better connection we have with our food, the more we’re not going to stand for really horrible farming practices.”
At Bolyard’s, rib-eyes are the most popular cut by far. At Butchery, beef tenderloin is asked for constantly. This raises a very big question, one that encompasses small business economics, environmental sustainability and consumer education: If you’re buying a cow or two a week, plus a couple pigs, but all that people request are the usual cuts from a very small part of a very large animal, what’s your role as a butcher who wants to stay in business?
For Bolyard, it’s information. “It’s our responsibility to educate people on the rest of the animal and all these awesome cuts you can get besides the rib-eyes and strips,” he said. He doesn’t stock casefuls of primal cuts like a supermarket would. “I tell people we get one cow a week and when those cuts are gone, they’re gone. So we turn people on to all these other cuts, like a heel steak or a ranch steak.” Baffled looks are met cheerfully. “We explain where it comes from, how to cook it and what it’s comparable to.” The shop uses every part of the animal to make sausages, sipping broths, lard, smoked hocks and trotters, even dog treats and tallow-based soaps and balms, sold at nearby boutique Maven.
It’s a bit different for Butchery because its parent restaurant, Truffles, must stock certain popular cuts like tenderloin, strip loins and hanger steaks. But the butcher shop itself still relies on the half and whole beeves and two pigs it receives each week. McDonald uses the same approach as Bolyard. “There are cool cuts like Delmonico, which is carried over from the rib-eye,” he said. “And even at the end of the Delmonico section you’re going to get a couple of chuck-eye steaks, but they’re still great. They have the same kind of fat content and you’re going to pay half the price.”
The Block likes to showcase off-cuts like Denver (underblade steak) and culotte (sirloin cap). “They’re really good cuts of meat that are unfamiliar to the general public,” Ladley said. He’s also a big fan of the teres major, a muscle inside the shoulder. “They aren’t gigantic, but they’re a great balance between tenderness and flavor.” For him, it’s all about educating consumers. “I think once we get people into off-cuts and humanely raised and properly butchered animals, the next step is getting more people into eating offal (organs and entrails). That’s what I would want to see.”
But first there will need to be more butcher shops. “There’s definitely room for more in St. Louis, just for the convenience factor,” McDonald said. Jennrich agreed. “It will come from community support because it requires the consumer be on board,” he said.
Of course, price remains the major obstacle to consumer support of local and artisanal food products, including meat. But as awareness and information spread, and as more local butcheries open their doors in town, it’s possible that demand will increase enough to drive prices down and cause meat eaters to recognize the advantages of shopping local. Quality, safety and flavor improve, and customers develop a relationship with their local butcher – like the imagined old days, made real here and now.
146 W. Lockwood Ave., Webster Groves, 314.918.7900, theblockrestaurant.com/butcher-shop
Annie Gunn’s and Smokehouse Market
16806 Chesterfield Airport Road, Chesterfield,636.532.3314, smokehousemarket.com
Bolyard’s Meat & Provisions
2810 Sutton Blvd., Maplewood, 314.647.2567, bolyardsmeat.com
9202 Clayton Road, Ladue, 314.567.9100, todayattruffles.com