In 2010, fans of Rob and Allie Levitt’s cooking were heartbroken when the married couple mysteriously up and left the Chicago restaurant they opened together, Mado. However, excitement began brewing in November as sustainable meat and charcuterie enthusiasts began passing rumors of the couple’s new venture — a whole beast, old-school butcher shop using all locally sourced and humanely treated animals. It opened in January.
The excitement and hype were justified. This is going to sound like hyperbole, but I’m going to say that Butcher & Larder is the most important thing to happen to Chicago’s food scene this year. (And, yes, I realize that Grant Achatz recently opened Aviary and Next.) It’s big news because a meat-obsessed city like Chicago really hasn’t had much in the way of sustainable meat and charcuterie.
So what is the shop like? Inside, it has a rustic feel, with a lot of wood and an old-fashioned cash register. There’s a modest display case housing cuts from various animals as well as fresh sausages, pâtés and quarts of prepared foods. The butcher table usually has some sort of beast on it in varying stages of disassembly. Not far from it, Rob Levitt spoke with us about Butcher & Larder and more.
Are you political when it comes to food? Do you care about the ethical treatment of the animals or is it more that ethically treated animals taste better?
Both. It all factors in to how we work. I’d feel like a hypocrite if I opened a business like this and didn’t think about what went into raising the animals.
Have you ever taken part in the slaughter?
No. I haven’t. And not to sound too morbid, but I’d really like to. I’m trying to arrange something with my new beef guy — maybe go to the farm to pick up a half a cow and go through the process, including the processing plant.
People should think about where their meat comes from. That’s why the butcher table is completely visible and out in the open. Some of my customers don’t agree with me and are bothered by having to see it. They say, “I want to eat meat, but I don’t want to see any of how it got here.” I totally disagree with that attitude. It’s an animal, and people should always be aware of that.
How do you choose your suppliers? Obviously, they’re local, but what else goes into it?
Almost all of them are farmers that Allie and I have been working with for a long time [at various restaurants]. But there’s one new beef farm that I’m using — Quarter Circle 7 Ranch. We’ve used other farms for a long time — Gunthorp Farms [chicken, pork and duck out of Indiana], Slagel Family Farm [beef, pork, lamb and chicken out of Illinois], Dietzler [beef, Wisconsin], and Pinn-Oak Ridge [for lamb, Wisconsin]. And all of the vegetables we use for prepared foods come from local farms. Even our spices are from a local spice company called Terra spice.
What got you interested in butchering?
I was working at a place as a sous chef and that’s when Paul Bertolli’s book came out. I read that and it changed pretty much everything about the way I approach food. One of the things that’s a big part of this book and a big part of what he did as a chef was charcuterie — fresh sausages, terrines and a lot of dry cured stuff like salami. So that was the first time that I got really interested in that.
In addition to that, at [one] restaurant, we used to get a whole lot of suckling pigs and we would roast them whole. Part of my job, after they were roasted, was to take them apart and portion them for a plate with different pieces of the whole pig. That really made me want to try doing it to a raw pig. Like actually butcher a whole pig. So between that and this book, it all sort of made sense that if you really want to make charcuterie or salami, it really starts with butchering. I started cutting small pigs there and eventually we started getting bigger pigs and that was it. I was hooked from then on.
Other than pig, what is your favorite animal to work with?
Actually, beef is my favorite because it’s much more of a challenge! Pork is very versatile, but there aren’t all that many cuts. With beef, the possibilities are endless. There are so many different cuts — French cuts, English Cuts, Italian cuts. I was just talking to a couple from Brazil who were explaining to me their favorite cut that they haven’t been able to find. I think we figured it out and I’m going to try to cut it for them. I love that kind of stuff. It’s really exciting to me. And I love the challenge of trying to use as much of the animal as possible.
You opened the shop with your wife, Allie. Do you have specific jobs, or do you both do more or less everything?
Allie doesn’t do much with the meat. She helps run the business and tries to make sure I don’t spend too much! She’s trying to get back into baking, and hopefully we’ll be selling some of it here, as well. Shortbread cookies and migas bark, and some of the stuff she was known for at the restaurant. She’s also interested in doing more retail stuff for the store — selling some of our favorite meat cookbooks, t-shirts, things like that, as well as some meat-focused goods like dry rubs, and sea salts. But there’s no real timeline for that since we’re three months away from having a baby! We’re due in September.
I know you’ve had lamb, goat and duck (along with beef, pork and chicken). Anything else? Mutton? Venison? Other birds?
Mutton, veal. We don’t really deal with much game because farm-raised game isn’t all that exciting and, legally, we can’t sell wild game.
Yeah, if a hunter came in here with a deer, I could butcher it for him and he could take it all away, but I would not be allowed to sell it.
You’ve done some in store dinners. How do people sign up for these? And what are they like?
So far, we’ve done a couple of private dinners. But we want to start doing public dinners soon. The private dinners have been a lot of fun. A local wine group wanted to do a beer dinner. We’re BYO, but we worked with the group and a brewer to choose a bunch of great beers to bring in. For the public dinners, we’ll have themes — maybe seasonal, or a particular farm, or an animal. Something like that.
We’ve also done some butchering demos and those sold out as soon as we posted them to Twitter and Facebook. So far, we’ve done two pig demos, one beef and one lamb.
How do those work?
It’s more instructional — it’s not hands on at all. I go through the whole process and talk about the various cuts, and how to incorporate them into their own cooking. At the end, people are able to buy anything from the animal at a discount.
The Butcher & Larder, 1026 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago, IL 60642, 773-687-8280