Friday, July 31, 2009

Restaurants are incorporating in-house butchers

Nathan Anda turns the 250-pound pig on its back, grabs hold of its sides and forces the carcass open with his hands. Over the next hour, Anda, an in-house butcher for several restaurants in Washington, D.C., will use a variety of knives, a cleaver and a hacksaw to break down the pig into what will become bacon, pork chops, baby back ribs, ham, prosciutto and even headcheese.

In an age of prepackaged and pre-portioned meat, it's a primeval process. But a new generation — many of them former chefs — is reviving the craft of butchery and putting a modern spin on the traditional butcher shop.

"As a chef, you're trying to get a better product at a better price," says Anda, 32. "Using the whole animal lets you do that. I get both the expensive and inexpensive cuts for less money from a farmer I know and trust."

Anda, who has gone from chef to butcher/chef, plans to open Red Apron butcher shop in the capital this year. Besides slicing and portioning meat, Red Apron also will sell cured meats, hot dogs and bacon made in-house, and he will have a small dining room for customers.

The addition of a gourmet market, dining room or class space is the biggest change to these new butcher shops. In New York, the restaurateurs behind Marlow & Sons and several other Brooklyn restaurants opened up Marlow & Daughter. The butcher shop provides the meat for their restaurants and is a small retail store that also sells cheese, risotto and other sundries often used in their own kitchens.


In Alexandria, Va., Robert Wiedmaier opened The Butcher Block next to his bistro, Brabo. The shop offers wine, international beers, cheese, desserts and prepared food, as well as charcuterie and prime cuts of meats. Wiedmaier also offers regular cooking demonstrations from deboning a chicken to stuffing a pheasant.

"It's not purely butchering animals all day long," Wiedmaier says. "I'm getting better-quality meat at a better price, and we pass those savings on to the customer."

Though customers may find less expensive meat at the local grocery store, butcher shops tend to offer the same high-quality cuts you would find at gourmet and high-end stores like Balducci's or Whole Foods for less.

And for a generation of home cooks who devour food magazines and the Food Network and have a real thirst for information about different types of food and cooking, the new butcher shops helps develop their skills.

Shops such as Avedano in San Francisco don't just offer classes (one allows customers to break down suckling pigs or a full-sized lamb and take home the meat); they have professional chefs to offer assistance.

"It's great for customers to be able to come in and get real suggestions on how to prepare things," says Tia Harrison, one of the chef/owners of Avedano.

"We can expand their cooking. A lot of times you go to a supermarket and have a younger kid who doesn't know much about what he or she is selling. Having an old-school butcher shop where you can get real people helping you sets us apart."

Avedano is truly an old-school butcher shop. Harrison and her partners took over a space that had been a butcher shop since the early 1900s, and they rent it from the family who owned the shop in the 1950s.

Harrison sees the current crop of butcher shops as a full-circle return to an older era with a modern twist to make it worth an extra stop.

"Today, people want to know more about their food," Harrison says. "They'll make that special trip to a butcher shop, but only if you offer them something extra, whether it's a greater knowledge about their meat, cooking advice or a unique product."

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