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Young Idols With Cleavers Rule the Stage

Article from The New York Times

By Kim Severson

OLD SCHOOL Adam Tiberio at work in Massachusetts. Jodi Hilton for The New York Times

IF chefs were rock stars, they would be arena bands, playing hard and loud with thousands cheering.

Farmers, who gently coax food from the earth, are more like folk singers, less flashy and more introspective.

Now there is a new kind of star on the food scene: young butchers. With their swinging scabbards, muscled forearms and constant proximity to flesh, butchers have the raw, emotional appeal of an indie band. They turn death into life, in the form of a really good skirt steak.

And it doesn’t hurt that some people find them exceptionally hot.

“Think about it. What’s sexy?” said Tia Keenan, the fromager at Casellula Cheese and Wine Café and an unabashed butcher fan. “Dangerous is sometimes sexy, and they are generally big guys with knives who are covered in blood.”

Of course, there is more to butcher love than that. “Obviously everyone is the middle of a total meat obsession,” Ms. Keenan said. “That’s definitely part of it.” In the last few years, quality meat from small producers has started to make a comeback. These farmers do not send their animals to the large processors that dominate the meat industry, creating a demand for people who know how to extract short ribs from a side of beef or pork belly from a hog.

So young men and women, many with culinary backgrounds, begged their way into apprenticeships with the few old-school butchers and small slaughterhouses that survived. Or they simply taught themselves.

Now they’re working in boutique butcher shops that are opening in cities like New York, New Orleans and San Francisco. The ones who are famous enough to have a following use Twitter and blogs to organize cutting demonstrations that sometimes feature cocktails and sausages.

In San Francisco, Ryan Farr calls himself a “producer of porcine pleasure.” Mr. Farr, 30, is a former restaurant chef who is working on opening his butcher shop, 4505 Meats. In the meantime, people pay him $75 to learn how to break down a young 90-pound pig. They get to take home about 12 pounds of pork and nibble on roasted pork head and Mr. Farr’s signature chicharrones.

Max Heilbron, 31, bought slots in a late spring class as a birthday present for his girlfriend, Jade Le, 28. She hacked away at a leg while he documented the event on his iPhone and Mr. Farr tried to give away some of the grimmer tasks.

“Who wants to start taking the face off the head?” he asked.

For $30, Farr fans can be part of meat and liquor mash-ups at a local bar where he butchers a pig (and soon, a lamb and a quarter of a steer) while people drink cocktails and eat his handmade corn dogs and pulled pork sliders.

Mr. Farr visited New York last week, and one thing on his list was to meet another rock star butcher, Tom Mylan of Marlow & Daughters in Brooklyn. The broody, moody Mr. Mylan, 32, has become such a cult figure that his classes sell out quickly and he sometimes dodges fans, who approach him at parties, and calls from the news media.

Mr. Farr had a dream. “I want to throw a 300-pound pig in the middle of a room full of people and just tag-team it with him,” he said. So far, Mr. Mylan hasn’t set a date.

Butchery skills began to recede in the 1960s, when beef and pork, already cut and boxed, started arriving at supermarkets. Neighborhood butchers, who once handed a child a slice of bologna and saved the hanger steaks for special customers, began to evaporate. Modern butchers became more like slicers.

But the trend began to reverse with the rise of locally raised meat, and the popularity of so-called off-cuts. Some restaurants brought butchery into their kitchens, even though it’s a skill barely taught in culinary school.

“For chefs, you’re not really in the game if you can’t cut up a pig anymore,” said Tamar Adler, a chef who learned butchery at Farm 255, a restaurant in Athens, Ga. She teaches butchery and also coordinates a Web site for people in the Bay Area who want to share in the purchase of whole animals.

The roots of the butcher as an icon of cool might be found in the writings of Bill Buford, who fashioned an operatic meat hero out of Dario Cecchini, a towering, Dante-spouting butcher from the Chianti countryside. Mr. Buford immortalized him in an article for The New Yorker and in his book “Heat.”

“Dario might be in some ways the first rock star butcher, but he did a lot of things others hadn’t done,” said Mr. Buford, who is working in a restaurant kitchen in Lyon. “He was the first polemicist. He is the first unapologetic meat eater.”

In New York, the butcher’s emergence as a haute player snapped into focus in 2004 when Danny Meyer asked Pat LaFrieda, a third-generation Manhattan meat purveyor, to craft a custom blend of hamburger for his Shake Shack restaurant. The butcher’s name gained so much currency that Keith McNally commissioned a special LaFrieda Black Label made from prime dry-aged cuts that is fashioned into $26 hamburger at his new Minetta Tavern.

As a result, Mr. LaFrieda, 35, has been inundated with young would-be butchers who want internships.

Does he think the new breed of rock star butchers are any good? “No. This is a business that takes a lot of training, and where are you going to find good meat to practice on? It’s hard.”

More drive than training among beginners can lead to garage-band butchery.

Part of what some people call the hipster hottie butchering phenomenon is that sometimes the meat isn’t up to par, said Josh Ozersky, senior restaurant editor for Citysearch and author of two books on meat-related subjects. “It’s like some kind of tattooed lothario is now going to give you the horrible shins raised by some other hipster who doesn’t know anything about meat.”

Joshua and Jessica Applestone, owners of Fleisher’s Grass-fed and Organic Meats, are trying to prevent that. Since they opened their butcher shop in Kingston, N.Y, four years ago, they have released a load of young butchers into the world, Mr. Mylan among them. He spent a year sleeping at their house, learning the craft from Mr. Applestone, 39, a pony-tailed butcher with a porn-star mustache whose grandfather was a kosher butcher in Brooklyn.

They, too, are inundated with requests from people who want to work for free at their shop. So they formalized the program and charge $10,000 for six to eight weeks of instruction. Students can sleep in an Airstream trailer.

Julie Powell — the Julie who inspired the upcoming film “Julie & Julia” — sought them out before they started charging. Her affair with a good friend had left her marriage in shambles, and she was looking for a way to repair her broken heart.

“Standing at the table all day breaking down chuck shoulder just focuses your mind,” she said. “For eight hours a day I am not thinking about any of the mess in life.”

The resulting book, “Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession,” is set to come out in December.

The difference between male and female butchers also came into focus during her time there. She would watch a parade of young people, mostly men, come into the butcher shop for weekend lessons, and the testosterone level was “poisonous,” she said. Once, someone put ice down her shirt. She figured bra snapping wasn’t far behind.

Jessica Applestone, 42, understands. Gender, she said, makes a difference. Men approach breaking down a carcass the way they might approach rock climbing, muscling their way through it. Women, who often lack the upper body strength to pull a 100-pound piece of pig from the hook to the table, take a more strategic and delicate approach.

“Their cutting is a little more sensitive and precise because of it,” she said. But even among the women who butcher, Ms. Adler said, there is that swagger.

“There’s a macho performal nature that some of these people crave,” she said. “And what better a performance than the blood and guts of butchery?”

Melanie Eisemann, 34, said that when she and two other women bought a butcher shop in San Francisco called Avedano’s Holly Park Market, they weren’t interested in performance or machismo.

The vintage shop they took over two years ago has features that would be prohibited by health codes today, like the wood-lined walk-in, with its track for carcasses snaking along the ceiling.

An old white enameled meat case sells cuts by name and provider, all broken down by hand. In the back, a little door reveals a secret room where Tia Harrison, an owner, cooks meaty dinners of tri-tip, black cod and cowboy steak. Competition for a seat is stiff.

“We never did it to be rock stars,” Ms. Eisemann said. “For me, it was a way to promote small farms and certain fish. That’s it.”

Of course, as in music, there are always new styles and new challengers coming up. In June, two Japanese butchers in trousers and ties landed at Japanese Premium Beef, a pristine downtown Manhattan storefront that looks more like a Prada boutique than a butcher shop. Using knives beveled on only one side, they slice blocks of wagyu into sashimi-like slices of beef, some of which sell for $49.99 a pound.

And in August, Adam Tiberio will roll into town from Massachusetts and take up the knives at Dickson’s Farmstand Meats in the Chelsea Market.

He is one of the few young butchers who has worked in a slaughterhouse and cut beef for a supermarket chain. His idols are South American butchers, whose YouTube videos he studies to learn how to break down hanging beef with their poetic elegance. And Mr. Tiberio, 26, writes about the old-school Northeast meat cutters who taught him how to work with speed and precision, withstanding the bone-chilling temperatures of the cooler by stashing a brandy flask in the belly cavity of a lamb.

When he’s in New York, the butchering game might become more competitive, he says. But he means no disrespect to other young butchers in town.

“There is always going to be some guy in some meat room in some part of the world who is going to be faster than you,” he said. “I just leave that alone and cut.”

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