Picture a butcher. Are you thinking of a guy in flannel shirts and suspenders? Stop that. You’re thinking of a lumberjack. When most people picture a butcher (especially a Chicago butcher), they think of a thick-fingered galoot with a blood-stained apron and a gruff attitude. That is most certainly not Rob Levitt, owner of the revered Chicago meat shop The Butcher & Larder. Mild-mannered as he may seem, this man — who’s also a chef — knows his way around a hog. And a cow and a chicken and pretty much everything that lived near Charlotte and her web. As part of Food Republic’s ongoing Charcuterie and Butchering series, we asked Levitt for the rules he follows while running a modern butcher shop.
1. There is no ‘I’ in sausage making
You absolutely loved the pâté grande mer and just had to tell me! My response? Jimmy made it. The Varmlandskorpf sausages were divine? Just like Grandma used to make? I’m flattered…and Erin made them. Just can’t get enough of our bacon? You want to buy it by the truckload so you never run out? Your kids won’t even touch supermarket bacon anymore?! Thanks, Chris made it. If I was responsible for everything we sold at the store, I would never sleep or see my family. I have an amazing staff, they work really hard and are really great at working as a team to come up with fun ideas that keep the shop in the press and all over social media. They deserve as much respect and credit as I do.
2. Designer burger blends are complete bullshit
Thomas Keller, Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay, Hubert Keller all have a “custom burger blend” for their fancy-pants burgers and I’m calling shenanigans. If you don’t know where your beef is coming from and want a good, juicy burger, you can mix brisket, short rib and whatever else to get a good mix of fat and texture. Mostly, though, it’s the fat and the fact that these are tougher cuts that naturally have more flavor in the muscle than sirloin or round. Often these restaurants are doing such volume that the meat is being ground for them, vacuum-sealed and stored (possibly frozen) for days. If you want a good burger, THE CUT OF BEEF DOESN’T MATTER! You need three things: 1. Quality beef. 2. Lots of fat, 20-30% 3. Freshly ground. I will stand by that in the face of any chef in the world. Burgers are humble.
3. Vegans are not Enemy Number One
Truth is, we have a lot more in common with them than people might think. We [butchers] are very careful to only source animals that are treated kindly both in life and in death. I hate the guy who only ever wants ribeye and feels the need to eat a pound and a half in a sitting. I hate the people who want lean short ribs. I hate the people that feel like eating meat is a right and not a privilege. On the other hand, I hate when vegetarians come into the store to buy meat for someone else and act disgusted and put off. They act like they are being forced to tolerate us. If you think we are barbarians, miscreants with blood-stained hands and icy hearts, then don’t come in. We have had several former vegetarians and vegans come to us ready to return meat to their diet and we feel proud that they chose our store as a place to start. [See our 2011 profile on Levitt, Chicago’s Most Ethical Butcher Shop.]
4. Farm visits are not a marketing ploy. They are essential.
I have been to our farms and seen the cows in the pasture. I’ve patted piggies on the head and fed them apples. Prime is just Big Ag’s way of telling you which piece of factory feed lot garbage will be less revolting. It allows fancy steak joints to charge $52 for 12 ounces of “Sadness Au Poivre.” And organic, more often than not, is the government regulating just how much industrial drek producers can pump into the food and still get a ‘certified’ label. I talk to the people that raise the food. Isn’t that more reassuring?
5. The best cut of meat? It’s the one most appropriate to what you are making.
I was lucky enough to meet the great Tuscan butcher Dario Cecchini and watch him cut a beef hind quarter. Every muscle, tendon and joint had not just a recipe, but a story. At one point, he paused and told us in his resounding baritone, “There is no one best part of the animal. As butchers, it is our responsibility to offer the best quality meat we can. If the meat is great, every cut is the best. What matters most is each cut’s purpose.” In other words, if your customer needs a roast for a big group but can’t afford much, a standing rib roast is not the best cut. If someone asks you for five pounds of filet mignon to make stroganoff, it will be a great sale, but you’ll lose that customer because it will be the worst stroganoff ever.
6. Bacon is not the answer
I hate it when people say, “you can never have too much bacon!” To quote butcher Chris Turner, “If a semi truck full of bacon emptied its contents on you, that might be too much bacon.” I hate it when people say, “Everything’s better with bacon!” and for god’s sake, keep the bacon out of my dessert! It’s done. We can retire that novelty. I don’t want to see bacon on your shirt or your hat. I don’t want to see bacon on your wallet. If you have bacon tattooed on your arm, I don’t care. Truth is, I love bacon, I just hate what it has become. It’s today’s truffle oil, a crutch. And there is so much bad bacon out there! Over-smoked (or liquid-smoked), too sweet, stupid flavors (apple cinnamon bacon? Sun-dried tomato bacon?)
7. Butchering takes patience, training, work ethic and real talent. It is not a hobby.
I’ve heard it before. “DUDE – I’m a cook at Restaurant Blah. How about I come in on my day off and you show me how to cut some shit up…” Butchering is not a novelty. It isn’t something you do casually in your spare time away from the important work of cooking. It is a craft and requires real training. You know the guy that walks up to the chef and says, “Hey, I’m a trader down at the Board right now, but I really love to cook at home. My friends all say I should be a chef! Do you think I could come in on the weekends and learn some stuff?” That’s you to me. You know that guy doesn’t know the first thing about cooking as a profession and will either be spun dizzy by the frantic pace, overwhelmed by the infernal temperature or disheartened by the mountain of thyme he has to pick. If you come into my store never having so much as cleaned a skirt steak, don’t expect me to give you a sharp knife and a hog and let you go to town.
Meat, especially the amazing animals we get, is expensive, and every mistake you make comes out of my pocket. Not to mention the time I have to take away from my own work to show you how not to disfigure that rack of pork chops. If you want to start at the bottom cleaning trim for grinding, pressing breadcrumbs through a tamis and picking mountains of fresh thyme leaves, then maybe, after a lot of time and dues paid, we’ll let you take apart a fresh ham. And please (to echo Jason Vincent) don’t spend your day bitching about the restaurant where you work. I probably know the chef.
8. You get what you pay for
“The skirt steaks at the carniceria by my house are, like, half the price of these. What’s the deal?” My go-to line in response to why our meat is more expensive than the supermarket is something like, “You don’t go to a Mercedes dealer, walk up to a Gullwing and wonder why it’s so much more expensive than a Honda Fit, right?” We go to great lengths to find really high-quality animals. We buy them whole and cut them ourselves. We hand-mix and stuff hundreds of pounds of sausages every week. We spend time with you to help you find the right cut of meat and explain the best methods of preparation. Seems worth the extra expense to me.
A guy came in once with his girlfriend and was blown away by how cool we were. His lady did not agree and couldn’t wait to leave. When she saw how much he’d spent, she freaked out (they could clearly afford it). His response to her? “How often do you drag me to Neiman’s? This wouldn’t even cover the cost of one shoe!” She left in a huff, but he made a great point! Food brings some the same kind of joy a new pair of fierce pumps does. You get what you pay for, and if you are on a budget, just talk to the friendly folks behind the counter. We are happy to help and more often than not, our favorite cuts are the cheaper ones.
9. Fruit, stay away from the meat
I can do citrus segments or apple slices in a salad, and that’s about it. I’m not saying it’s wrong, it’s just not my thing. Dried/brandied cherries in your pâté? No thanks. Currants and pine nuts in your en saor? I know it’s traditional, but not for me. In fact, raisins are probably the worst offenders. Dusty little mouse turds. My staff likes to remind me of the time I (supposedly) said raisins were, “Like a piece of fruit took a shit.”
10. Yes, our meat is good
“Is it good?” The question is asked often. No, dude. I just spent 20 minutes telling you all about how great a cut of meat is, how I used to prepare it at my restaurant and how quickly it sells out every week but the truth is, it sucks. I’m totally bullshitting you, because that is how I run my business. Or… “Hmm…the roast beef sandwich with pickles and mustard. Is it good?” No ma’am. We just slopped something together and called it a sandwich. Didn’t even taste it. We would never eat it, because it’s terrible. Don’t order it because we intentionally offer up a sandwich today that tastes really, really bad.
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