Chefs are butchers, too!

We have many members that are chefs because we think much of the truly excellent sourcing and creative butchery is happening in restaurants these days. The Spoon and Trowel blog explores this line of thinking in a good post about why restaurants are the new middlemen.

Turkey Dealers: When butchers disappeared, did restaurants fill the void?

by Joanna Flamm on November 23, 2011

We’ve all heard what it was like in years gone by: you bought your meat from the local butcher one cut at a time, carefully wrapped in paper by hands as thick as steaks. But as American cooking habits changed (to involve, generally, less cooking) butcher shops have disappeared across the country. The grocery store is our primary meat market these days—why would we want to go two places to get groceries when it’s so much more convenient to get everything at the same store? Most Americans would lump butchers in with cobblers or blacksmiths: jobs you hear about in fairy tales, not something you might want to get into after college.
While small, sustainability-focused butchers have made a comeback in urban centers (Dickson’sThe Meat Hook, and Fleisher’s being NYC examples) another type of business has stepped in to help fill the void: restaurants that specialize in local food.
When we think about how our food chain has changed, this makes perfect sense. The butcher used to be the middleman between the people who grow meat and the people who eat it, because the people eating it were also cooking it. These days, that middleman is much more often a restaurant kitchen. Think about it: who is still taking the time to worry about meat quality? Who knows enough about cooking meat these days to care about how animal diet affects marbling? Restaurants gain prestige by serving quality products (and they can charge more for them), so restaurant chefs have made their own connections with high quality meat producers. Now that we eat a lot more meat prepared in restaurant kitchens than in our own, it seems natural that customers would start inquiring about getting their hands on some of the same meat their favorite restaurants serve. We want what the experts want, and the most visible experts today are chefs.
We see this primarily at holidays, which makes sense: even Americans who don’t cook on a regular basis try to roast a turkey at Thanksgiving (sort of like the people who show up to church just on Christmas and Easter). And restaurants are obliging. Typically offered as part of their holiday catering menus for pre-order, they’ll sell you a free-range, antibiotic- and hormone-free local turkey raised by whatever farm they’ve been sourcing from for their own use.
Applewood in Park Slope, Brooklyn had local, pasture-raised turkeys from Oink & Gobble Farm in Interlaken, NY ready for pre-order earlier this month, and Prime Meats had turkeys from an Amish farm in Lancaster, PA. Seersucker in Carroll Gardens had organic, local birds for sale roasted and ready to eat, as did Bklyn Larder (Franny’s retail offshoot). In Minneapolis, Lucia’s had turkeys available through their To Go shop, and the Birchwood Café sold free-range turkeys from Wild Acres in northern Minnesota. Most of these restaurants also offered prepared sides and desserts, making their restaurant your one stop shop for Thanksgiving cooking.
Ordering your entire Thanksgiving meal from a locavore restaurant is definitely in the “luxury” category: you’d be hard pressed to get any of these birds for under $50, and many run closer to $100 if they’re ready to eat. But restaurants wouldn’t offer to do special orders if it wasn’t profitable, which means that there are people willing to pay for something that isn’t a Butterball from the freezer section at Walmart. The people (at least a small portion of them) are demanding a different kind of relationship with their meat sellers and producers, and where butcher shops were once the obvious choice, now restaurants are filling that role. As demand grows, will we see more restaurateurs opening retail shops that look a bit like the butcher shops of yesteryear? We’ll have to check back next Thanksgiving.
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