If all goes according to plan and modern Chicago's first all-local, humanely raised, whole-animal butchery opens next week, don't be surprised if Rob Levitt talks you out of buying some pricey Dietzler Farms rib eyes and instead pushes something a little more economical, with less cachet. How about some sirloin flaps or spider steak?
It's not that he doesn't want the dollars the premium steaks will fetch at the Butcher & Larder. But only so many of those can be cut from a cow, and he'll need to sell every part of it he can to thrive.
"You can talk to people and say, 'You can buy this top blade steak and it'll feed two people and it'll be a third of the price of the rib eye and be really delicious,'" he says. "Or a chuck tenderloin. As long as they are willing to cook it medium rare and slice it a little thinner, it will be really beefy and wonderful. Rib eyes are great, but not the end-all be-all. There are a lot of interesting cuts that have a lot of great flavors and textures."
The Butcher & Larder, a modest storefront at Milwaukee and Noble, is Levitt's contribution to the nationwide resurgence of butchery as it was done a century ago, when meat wasn't entombed in plastic and Styrofoam but carved fresh from the carcass by a skilled tradesman. Levitt announced his plans to open it the day after Halloween, when out of the blue he, his wife and pastry chef, Allie, and other key staff left Mado, the pioneering Wicker Park restaurant they'd run for two and a half years. Just the night before they'd hosted what he described as a "Bacchanalian Roman feast." Very few of the family and friends invited knew it was to be the last hurrah.
When I talked to Levitt a few weeks ago he'd just returned from a stage at Brooklyn's Meat Hook—one of the more renowned shops in the movement—where he spent a few days cutting meat and familiarizing himself with the business end of a thriving butcher shop. Back in Chicago, his business license was still in the works, the contractors were behind schedule, and he was still homing in on a three-horsepower sausage grinder. But the giant stainless steel walk-in where Dietzler cows and Slagel Farms hogs will hang from meat hooks had been installed. And the smoker, salvaged via Craigslist, waited in a back room along with the shiny new red meat slicer that Levitt took in trade for butchering a whey-fed hog for Marion Street Cheese Market.
Levitt's leap from restaurateur to butcher doesn't seem as unexpected once you know his career trajectory. He took his first steps out of a sweaty, fluorescent-lit kitchen and into a sunny, air-conditioned cutting room five years ago as an overworked sous chef at 312 Chicago. It was there that then-chef Dean Zanella bought him his first whole pig—a 280-pounder from Wettstein's Organic Farm downstate—as a reward for his uncomplaining service. "Do whatever you want," Zanella told him. "Just save the ribs for the staff meal."
So Levitt took his first shot at curing salami. It didn't work out. But he also hung his first guanciale, and rolled his first pancetta, which was so good Zanella asked him to supply it for the restaurant regularly.
Guided by a copy of Cooking by Hand (by former Chez Panisse chef Paul Bertolli), he never looked back. At Mado, he earned international acclaim as one of the country's preeminent snout-to-tail chefs. Dishes like spicy pig's head stew and wood-grilled beef heart sold out every time they appeared on the menu. His monthly butchering classes were booked solid as soon as they were announced, packed with customers every bit as interested in where their porchetta came from as they were in the provenance of produce at the Green City Market.
But the Levitts wanted to make a break with their business partners (among them David Richards, who's slated to open the Wilmette restaurant Bluette this week; I was unable to reach him on deadline). About a year ago they started scouting locations for a new restaurant. Nothing panned out, and over time the couple came to the realization that they wouldn't mind a more conventional married life, one where they didn't share the stress of running a restaurant and then bringing it home every night.
"It was a wonderful experience, but I would rather just have Allie be my wife," Rob says. "For a while it was a very romantic idea because we could see each other every day. We could be around each other's food every day, which is great. But the reality was that I very rarely got to eat her desserts, and she very rarely got to eat my cooking." (Allie's currently looking for another restaurant job.)
Still, making a complete break from restaurant life hadn't occurred to him until he got an advance look at Marissa Guggiana's Primal Cuts, a cross-country roundup of new-school meat cutters that came out this October. There he found himself profiled in the company of the chef-butchers he admired most, like Tom Mylan of the Meat Hook; Josh Applestone of Fleischer's in Kingston, New York; and San Francisco's Chris Cosentino, of Incanto and Boccalone. Cleetus Friedman butchers whole animals at Ravenswood's City Provisions Deli, but Levitt wanted to take it further by offering a full-service shop.
"I said to Allie, 'Tell me if I'm crazy and tell me if you are too scared to do this and think it's too risky and just don't want to, and I'll forget the whole thing." And she just said, 'Why not? If not you then somebody else is gonna do it.'" The two of them rounded up a few longtime customers as investors and made offers on a few spaces beginning in late spring before settling on the nondescript storefront that recently housed a tattoo parlor and a temporary art gallery.
Levitt says he's had a hard time disabusing the food media of the belief that he's opening a new restaurant. Even so, he brought along his sous chef Chris Turner, line cook Amanda Roy, and dishwasher Richard Spears. Once it gets its business license—which is still pending—the shop will host monthly dinners served family style, a Mado tradition. Allie's sweets (including her Migas bark and shortbread) will supplement the small lunch menu Rob will use to maximize the potential of the animals he brings in. If a brisket isn't selling well, for instance, he'll make corned beef for sandwiches. If you like it, he'll tell you how to corn your own, and sell you the spices to do it.
A common misconception about the new place is that it will feature a gloriously variegated meatscape like those at industrially supplied butcher shops and supermarket meat counters. There will be patés, terrines, fresh sausages, bacon, and hams on view for sure. And Levitt will take orders for other animals—rabbit, goat, duck—and carve, cure, and grind for his chef friends. But he's installing only a single glass display case, and will cut meat to spec from whole pigs, lambs, chickens, and a half cow weekly to start.
"The aesthetic attraction is that you walk up to the counter and there are butchers there working," he says. "There might be half a cow on the table and someone like me sweating and grunting and cutting an arm chuck. Which might turn some people off. I'm guessing it'll really excite a lot of people to see what's happening. You can say, 'Hey, what are you doing?' and I can explain, 'This is flatiron. This is the chuck eye, and so suddenly you start a dialogue."
He'll revive the butchering classes too, and other plans are in the works, including inviting guest chefs to create daily specials and getting set up to accept Link cards from low-income customers. And he's budgeted for the not-insignificant amount of time and cash required to develop a Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points (HACCP) food safety plan. That will get him right with the law for dry-curing meats, a skill that he's been honing for years but couldn't openly practice at Mado.
But most of he's all going to be a salesman, educating his customers on every part of animal. "If Mado taught me anything, it was how to talk to customers. For most of my career I was the kinda guy that wanted to be holed up in the kitchen and didn't want to talk to people—that was what the front of the house was for. They can talk to people and I can stay back here. But the world isn't like that anymore."
And for the first time since he was teenager, Levitt's going to walk out of work and lock the doors at a decent hour. "I told Allie, 'Wherever you wind up working I'm probably going to show up stinking like meat and covered in blood and meat scraps. And I'll sit at the bar and order dessert."