RIB STICKIN': We like the way raw fat adheres to the underside of Ryan Farr's hands at the Bloodhound Bar.
Meat the Maker
Watching butchers cut up whole animals is the newest live entertainment. Could this fresh group of hipster foodies save tradition?
By Gabe Meline
IT'S ANOTHER Monday night south of Market in San Francisco. As the jukebox blares Joy Division, the Bloodhound Bar is shoulder to shoulder with thirtysomethings sipping from Mason jars of bacon-infused whiskey cocktails. Beards, tattoos, bandanas and black T-shirts mingle. Suddenly, the back door flies open. Ryan Farr and Taylor Boetticher emerge, carrying giant goat and lamb carcasses high above their heads.
The two butchers throw their skinned animals onto tables. Boetticher makes the first of hundreds of cuts into the lamb, while across the dimly lighted watering hole, Farr pulls out a giant hacksaw and swiftly cuts through the goat's neck.
Some faces wince in shock. Most lean closer and click their iPhone cameras.
This is a butcher party, a phenomenon gaining serious steam in New York and the Bay Area, often at bars like this one on Folsom Street.
If the fawning atmosphere at the Bloodhound Bar is any indicator, the notion of butchers as stars isn't merely media myth. Once, a guy had to learn electric guitar, but now, as evidenced by the front-row gathering of girls at Bloodhound, a meat cleaver is just as likely to do the trick.
Not that these butchers need girls—both Boetticher and Farr are happily married—and not that butchery is anything new. What's new, however, is also what's old: the idea that meat should be locally sourced and prepared instead of shipped from factory-farm centers in the Midwest. Combined with a general back-to-basics movement resurrecting simple daily acts, the arcane idea of the neighborhood butcher who can break down a whole animal, carcass to plate, is a crucial role for the future of food.
Those lucky enough to get to the front row at the Bloodhound Bar ask questions. What's that cut called? How much does a whole lamb cost? Did you learn to butcher by trial and error? "Yeah," Farr replies, "but it's not really too much error, 'cause everything's edible." He slices meat off the ribs with a magician's flair, throws two kidneys into a roll and ties it off, sending it to the wood-fired grill out in the alley next to a creaking rotisserie motor turning a giant pig.
Butcher parties come in all forms. The next week, six butchers appeared at Primal, a food and wine event "celebrating fire cooking, meat and the art of butchering." Though held outside during a balmy fall afternoon at a scenic winery in St. Helena, the atmosphere was far more macho than at the Bloodhound Bar. A tall wooden gallows had been erected, full carcasses swinging from it by chained hooks. Two skinned goats' heads at the edge of the butchers' table greeted visitors, one with its tongue pulled ghoulishly through its teeth.
While the butchers—including a woman surprisingly clad in tight leopard-print pants, pointed shoes and a short top—carved up meat, runners delivered trays of flesh through the crowds to the open wood fire area, itself marked with a grinning pig's head and a spread-eagled, crucified goat corpse. A gruff, commanding man in tattoos, rubber boots, orange camouflage cap and USDA T-shirt tended to the enormous flame.
This was Chris Cosentino, star of Iron Chef America and chef at San Francisco's Incanto, who was seen last season serving cow testicles to Anthony Bourdain on the San Francisco episode of No Reservations. Clustered crowds for the sample tables were six deep and moving like molasses. Cosentino rushed over a plate of meat parts and barked orders to a hapless young female server.
"I'll give you one demo, and then we're gonna go! C'mon, get some forks out here so people can just grab and go!" he shouted, as if the lack of samples was her fault. "They're here to eat, not to stand around!"
As she sliced the chunks, a woman asked just what it was on the tray. "This is beef heart," the server replied. Hungry but aghast, the woman turned away. "Oh, no," she muttered, swimming her way back through the crowd. "No."
If there was any lingering doubt about butchery as voyeurism, Primal erased it completely. This was meat consumption in all its chest-beating glory, relishing the pleasures of the flesh. Most attendees seemed to be from the media, carrying cameras or digital recorders and talking about their wine blogs. Still others, like the two guys who showed up wearing Viking helmets, were harder to pigeonhole. They could have just been on the prowl, like the middle-aged man who suggested to two teenage girls that "there's nothin' better than seein' two beautiful ladies eatin' chicken."
With tickets ranging from $65 to $100 and all of those crucified carcasses warming in the afternoon air like morbid floral displays, Primal was a fairly disheartening spectacle, prompting the question: Are butcher parties just a precious foodie fad, or is there more to the trend?
Meat as Metaphor
Sasha Wizansky started Meatpaper magazine in 2007, not as a political act but as a cultural lens through which meat, a naturally provocative subject, can provide a limitless metaphor on how we live. "Meat is the world's best conversation starter," she says. "Everybody has something to say about it."
Meatpaper has featured a wearable suit made of steak on its cover and printed stories on everything from visiting a slaughterhouse to marinating and cooking a sweat sock. What it doesn't do is moralize. Instead, it chronicles, in an era-specific fashion, the present consciousness of meat—or, as its first issue famously coined, the "fleischgeist."
Wizansky, 36, has both hosted Meatpaper public butchery parties and judged at others, and she's seen both sides of the spectrum, from artful butchery to testosterone-fueled bravado. "Butchery has always been a male profession," she says, "but it's also a movement growing among women." She cites Avedano's Meats in San Francisco, which was opened by three women in 2007, and a recent SFMOMA event with a team of female butchers carving a spit-roasted 800-pound steer in the museum's atrium. "There was something very beautiful," she says, "about the way eight female butchers carved the animal down to its bones."
One thing is constant, Wizansky says. The fleischgeist is causing people to think about where their meat comes from and how it got to the table. "The new fascination with butchers is spreading really quickly," she says. "It's exciting, and I'm really happy about it, and I'm wondering if it's just a flash in the pan or if it really does represent a move away from more industrial and cordoned-off meat production."
Gwendolynn Gunheim had been a vegetarian most of her life until last fall, when she bought a chicken, turned it upside-down into a pylon cone hanging from her backyard tree, stuck a knife into its neck and watched it spasm into death. Gunheim, 25, and boyfriend Nick Haig-Arack, 28, then dunked, feathered and gutted the bird, engaging in the most basic rituals of meat eating—and, to modern eaters, one of the most taboo.
"I just felt like it was time," Gunheim explains of her apostasy from vegetarianism, "but I only wanted to do it that way." With the maxim that if one eats meat, one should also be able to look the animal in the eye and kill it oneself, Gunheim didn't sign up for any slaughter classes or check any bustling online message boards. She simply opened her copy of The Encyclopedia of Country Living, turned to the chapter on poultry and went for it.
Last week, it was Haig-Arack's turn. The two drove out to Gleason Ranch, a sixth-generation farm outside of Bodega specializing in grass-fed lamb, beef, pork and poultry, and picked up a live chicken. Once home, they strung their pylon cone from the tree and positioned it over a galvanized bucket. Haig-Arack placed the bird on a stump, thanked it, chopped its neck with an ax and drained it in the cone. Three hours and plenty of garlic, lemon and butter later, Gunheim opened their Wedgwood oven and served dinner.
This young couple aren't alone. In the wake of Novella Carpenter's illuminating book Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer, the idea of raising, slaughtering and eating your own animals has resurfaced with a vengeance. Or maybe it's just something in the air. Gunheim, whose great-grandparents once owned a chicken farm in Santa Rosa, had never heard the term "urban farming."
"I guess I was aware that there was this back-to-the-land revival," she says, "but when it came down to it, I just did it."
Haig-Arack had thought the experience would turn him off from eating meat entirely, but instead, he declared a reverent appreciation for a food he'd taken for granted, despite the tedious post-kill process. Plucking feathers took longer than he'd thought. Harder still was cutting around the anus and removing the innards, especially since the intestines smelled terrible and air displacement caused the dead chicken's larynx to make faint clucking sounds each time he inserted his fist.
Backlash in a Good Way
In Napa, Taylor Boetticher pulls a sizzling pork roll from the oven and resumes snapping beans into a bowl, too busy to sit down as he prepares lunch for the employees who are working hard in the cramped back room at his Fatted Calf Charcuterie.
"A lot of people are looking for more of a connection to what they're eating and where it's coming from," he says. "It's not just for elite Bay Area foodies. It's an important craft to maintain. Whether it's all-grain beer brewing or good coffee, cheese, bread—whatever. It's a backlash, in a good way. It seems like the last 20 years of the 20th century just got so crazed with excess and more-more-more, I feel like people are starting to pay attention to what's important instead of getting ahead."
At the Bloodhound Bar, Boetticher's butcher party with Farr, who runs 4505 Meats in San Francisco's Ferry Building, had a decidedly post-moral feel. The question of the animals' deaths was either never raised or, as was the case in St. Helena, overtly snubbed. (The Bloodhound animals came from local farms—Magruder Ranch, Marin Sun Farms, Robert Sinskey Vineyards—and were slaughtered by Bud's Meats in Penngrove.) Boetticher has killed animals before, and admits it "absolutely" feels weird. "Something's wrong with you if you don't feel anything," he says, solemnly. "It's a life."
Boetticher takes opinions about public butcher parties seriously, which sometimes allege a lack of respect for the animals when a fired-up audience turns the craft into a spectator sport. "I can see where people might be uncomfortable," he says, "but what are we gonna do? We're gonna have one of these things, and cut and use every single part of the animal—which we do—and tell people not to take pictures? Or tell people to act like they're in church or something? It's a bar. It's a party. And, no, I'm not glorifying anything. I certainly don't think it's crass.
"If it's gonna happen, it should be done as respectfully as possible, as peacefully as possible," he says. "Once its purpose has been carried out—that's what farm animals are for—I think we have a responsibility to use every piece, and make sure that it gets cooked respectfully, and made deliciously."
The celebrity butcher. The fleischgeist. The public dismemberment of animals. It starts small, like the worker at Fatted Calf who left the French Laundry to learn about meat; or the onlookers asking questions at the Bloodhound Bar; or the young couples who rethink where their chicken comes from. Slowly, it builds into rampant interest in a lost craft with sold-out butchery classes, raised consciousness and a potential threat to consolidated factory farming.
"I'm sure that there will always be Tysons and IBPs," Boetticher says. "There'll always be a market for the styro-packed, irradiated meat that's on sale cheap at Albertsons. I'm not really trying to change the world. I'm just trying to offer an alternative to somebody looking for something better."
BUTCHERING CLASSES happen regularly at 4505 Meats in San Francisco. For schedule visit www.4505meats.com. Closer to home, check www.tlcrancheggs.com.
Making the Cut
Local boy makes good butcher
By Traci Hukill
WHEN Chris La Veque was still working at restaurants, he'd go in on his days off and practice his newfound hobby of making sausages, mixing meat with herbs and spices as inspiration led him. "I wasn't even clocking in because I love doing it so much," he says. "It's my passion."Burly, ruddy-cheeked and good-natured, the 25-year-old La Veque is exactly the guy in the room you'd think was the butcher. As the one-man force behind El Salchichero, he makes sausages, rillettes, crepinettes and other delicacies for sale at local farmers markets. He's in the midst of transitioning to selling full cuts of meat , a precursor to his ultimate goal of opening an Old World butcher shop on the Westside, possibly as soon as this summer.
The Boulder Creek native used to be on the chef track. From his first job at Scopazzi to a degree at the California Culinary Academy to a stage, or apprenticeship, at David Kinch's Manresa, La Veque seemed headed for restaurants. But through friends at Lindencroft Farm in Ben Lomond he met Justin Severino, another Kinch protégé, who was making a name for himself locally as Severino Community Butchers. Severino took him on, and La Veque was hooked. Through Severino he met Brad Briske, currently of Café Gabriella, and began working as sous-chef there, and later at Cellar Door—all the while making sausage, of course, which is regularly featured on Gabriella's menu.
For La Veque, who grew up doing 4-H, humane production is essential. For pork he uses pasture-raised hogs from Devil's Gulch Ranch in Marin County. "Because they're happy pigs," he says. "They're treated very, very well. That's what I base my business on—humanely raised animals. It's far superior quality."
La Veque says Devil's Gulch pigs are finished on milk and bread, which gives their fat a creamy, buttery flavor that's instantly recognizable as different from the norm. "Commercial pork has a very strong flavor that we think of as pork, but that's the taste of factory farming," he says. "There's no room to move. They're living in their own feces, and you can taste that."
For La Veque and his friends, butchering meat that's raised well is increasingly becoming an integrated part of life. Just weeks ago, he tells me, he helped a friend slaughter and butcher four cows to feed his family. "I think every meat eater should witness the harvest of an animal, large or small," he says. "See what goes into it."
That desire to respectfully participate in the production of meat drove Santa Cruz resident Charles Sigismund to learn how to butcher a hog not long ago, and to sign up for an upcoming class at TLC Ranch in Aromas on butchering chickens. "The industrial process is just a horrible one," Sigismund says. "There's a much more respectful way to do it. I wanted to see more of the process. It seems to me if you're going to eat meat, you ought to know what it is."
EL SALCHICHERO sausages are available at the Scotts Valley and Live Oak farmers markets (Saturday and Sunday, respectively).
Send a letter to the editor about this story.