"I learned a lot about cutting meat, but I also learned a lot about what kind of meat shop I wanted to open," Rob Levitt says to a group of meat-eaters huddling inside Honey Butter Fried Chicken after being temporarily chased off the patio by a passing rainstorm. Levitt, the co-owner of the Butcher & Larder, was telling the crowd of about 50 about staging at Tom Mylan's Brooklyn butcher shop the Meat Hook a few years ago, prior to opening his own Chicago butcher shop.
We were there Tuesday night to mark the publication of Mylan's The Meat Hook Meat Book in the best possible way: by grilling high quality meat at a simpatico business with a patio. Levitt brought over some of the obscure cuts that real butchers offer but that don't make it into commodity "boxed beef" in grocery stores. The cuts ranged from bavette steak (sort of like skirt) and pavé, or sidewalk steak (the find of the night for me, a steak with the earthiness of stew meat), to offal like tongue (almost bacon-like) and heart (steak with an iron-y hint of liver). Why, you ask, would someone want to eat such things? Well, Levitt and Mylan would both argue (1) because they're really good in their own ways, and (2) because it's more respectful of farmers, animals, and the planet to eat all those cuts and not just grind most of the animal into generic hamburger. If you're going to eat meat, this is the way to do it, they believe.
It may seem a little late in the day for one of the original "hipster butchers" (to use a phrase guaranteed to make Levitt's eyes roll) to finally get around to putting out a book, but Mylan tells the crowd he's kind of glad other artisanal butchery books beat him to the market—"Those guys did the books about all the boring technical shit, and I get to do one about all the fun shit." Levitt praises the book as a practical, not a flashy lifestyle guide to whole-animal butchering—"There's some really down-home, dirty, trashy stuff in there. This is the kind of stuff that you'll actually make, and it's really good and it's fun." As the steaks grilled, I chatted briefly with Mylan about his book, and Levitt as a student.
Michael Gebert: Tell me about the book.
Tom Mylan: Oh, well, jeez. I mean, it says what it does and it does what it says. It is The Meat Hook Meat Book. I own a butcher shop in Wiiliamsburg [in Brooklyn] and we only do whole, local animals. There is butchering in it, but it's really about meat and the way that we do meat at the butcher shop. What it really is is a complete education on every single part of the animal, that's like hidden in all these recipes. The recipes seem really random, some of them are really time consuming and some are supersimple, but it's really about arming you with a bunch of techniques and examples of what you do with different types of cuts, whether it's something that really needs to be braised or something that needs to be cured and smoked.
And then of course there are real gimmes, like how to make your own bacon and how to make pastrami. With some outliers like the Cannibal Sandwich, [which] is basically steak tartare on a hamburger bun with some onions.
Is that an old-fashioned thing or is that something you invented?
It is actually a recipe from one of my business partners' dads, it was one of the two things he would make when the mom was out of town. It was the Cannibal Sandwich, and fancy-pants hamburgers that were just like bell peppers and stuff mixed in, and then grilled.
A lot of the recipes are things like my stepmom used to make or one of my partners' dads used to make. And then the way that we make bacon at the shop. It's real high-low stuff.
So it's things that go back to when people actually had a butcher they could go to and it wasn't just boxed beef?
Exactly. A lot of it is showcasing cuts that you wouldn't see at a normal grocery store, but you would see if you had a butcher like us or Rob around the corner. So one of the things we're going to have tonight is marinated beef heart, grilled, tongue steaks, and some lesser-known cuts that are really great steaks but you'd just never see them at the grocery store because they're part of the seven-bone, family-pack steak roast. They just cut it on the band saw instead of taking it apart as individual muscles. Those cuts would just be one eye of the seven-bone steak. It all kind of reflects the way that we take animals apart, and all the dry-aging stuff.
So do people really pick up on this and does it change how they cook and eat meat, or is it all still just something somebody does for them?
Yeah, some of the stuff that we put in there is kind of outlier stuff, that even our customers don't ask for. We have great customers that are into eating beef shank and beef heart and tongue, and making their own pates and stuff. But it's in the book for its educational appeal, but also to help popularize it. I'm not trying to put anything in there that . . . sucks. Like, people will say, "Oh, you should do this things with kidneys." Well, kidneys are hard to make taste good. But heart is not. We tried to put in stuff that is fairly simple to succeed with, maybe using a part that you never thought that you could eat before.
What's taken off since you opened the shop that you wouldn't have guessed would happen?
Bone marrow. I think it has more to do with the paleo lifestyle, but a lot of beef heart, a lot of bone marrow, a lot of relatively unknown cuts like an inside pork skirt steak called the secreto, we sell a lot of that.
It literally means secret cut?
It does. And that's not the only cut that's referred to as the secreto in the Iberian Peninsula, there's also one in the shoulder, but we try to sell our shoulders whole, bone-in. But we're taking the spareribs off anyway, and turning the belly into bacon, so we get that skirt piece.
Also, people really like head cheese. I didn't see that coming. The popularity of head meat is a thing that's kind of really blown my mind. Because the weeks where we don't make head cheese, we'll alternate and make scrapple out of it. People really love scrapple too. And then we do a tacos de cabeza kind of a thing too. Basically we braise the heads, cube the meat, crisp it and then toss it with cilantro and onions and lime juice, and sell it like that.
The main thing is, and it's not like a talking point about the book or something like that, is that it's really fun. It's trying to take the liberal guilt, the Michael Pollan-Alice Waters thing, out of eating humanely raised, locally sourced meat and sort of just enjoying it for what it is.
Really great food. And all the things that come with it like community and companionship and friendship and fun. And drinking. There's a whole minichapter about drinks.
So when Rob Levitt was learning his trade at the Meat Hook, how hopeless was he?
In the beginning, kind of hopeless! To be fair, I was pretty hopeless when I started—but it's like the old Albert Einstein quote, if you have problems with math, I assure you mine are far greater. That's some kind of encouragement for people to pick up this book and start butchering themselves: no matter how bad sort of apprentice you are at butchering, I assure you can't be as bad as I was, teaching myself in a shed out back of the restaurant with some YouTube videos to watch.