Rob Levitt of The Butcher & Larder shares an insider’s perspective.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard the good news: butcher shops are back.
Just as more people are flocking to farmer’s markets for fresher produce and a greater connection to where their food comes from, more people are demanding better-quality and locally sourced meats.
But for many of us, the butcher shop is unfamiliar territory. Until recently, meat was usually something that came shrinkwrapped in a styrofoam tray—just another food product sitting under the fluorescent lights in the supermarket.
Now we’re seeing a return to the old ways. Small independent butchers cutting up whole animals one at a time, right in front of you. Sourced from farms they’ve seen with their own eyes. Some might even say it’s a golden age of meat: charcuterie is all the rage, offal has gone mainstream, and bacon? It’s practically a religion.
So how do you navigate this “new” meaty frontier? How do you even find a good butcher these days? How do you shop? And how do you UNLEARN the way you bought meat in supermarkets?
I spoke with Rob Levitt, owner of The Butcher & Larder in Chicago, and he shared some of his meatastic wisdom on butchers, butcher shops and whole-beast butchery.
Here are a few tips on what to look for in a butcher shop, and what you need to know to have a good experience once you get there.
What to look for in a butcher shop
The most important advantage a good butcher offers over the supermarket is transparency.
You want a butcher shop that’s willing to talk about where their meat came from and what it’s all about. As Rob points out, if you were buying a car and the salesperson couldn’t tell you any of the details about the model you were looking at, you probably wouldn’t buy from them.
It’s the same with butchers in many large supermarkets. Ask them about where the meat came from and they’ll tell you it came from “somewhere up North” or “I don’t know, it came in on the truck.”
You also want a butcher that buys whole animals. Many butcher shops don’t do this. Even if they’re getting decent product, it’s often been vacuum sealed in a bag inside a box, and you don’t know where it came from or how long it’s been sitting on a shelf.
But a good butcher is more intimately acquainted with the meat.
Rob says, “At a shop like mine, we can tell you who raised the pig, what they ate, how old they were when they died, where all the cuts of the animal come from and how best to cook them.”
Just like with your doctor, your butcher needs to have good “bedside manner.” Look a for a butcher who’s willing to talk to you about what you want and help you find the best cuts for what you’re doing. A good butcher will be happy to talk you out of buying a more expensive cut of meat if there’s a better cut for what you’re doing.
Like when people come in and say ‘I want Ribeye to make beef jerky.’ We’ll sell you ribeye for whatever you want. But if you’re going to make beef jerky there’s some other cuts that are going to be more cost effective and actually better for what you’re making.”
10 Tips for a better butcher shop experience
1. Resist the urge to go overboard your first time
Your first trip might seem like an expedition to a foreign land. Everywhere you turn you see weird and unique things popping out at you. It’s tempting to grab a little of everything. Rob says that guys are especially guilty of this. Just because of the novelty, you find yourself collecting little odds and ends: some sausages, some pate, different steak options. And before you know it you’ve racked up quite a bill. It’s better to go slowly, and plan for one dinner or event at a time. After all, you can always come back…
2. Meat doesn’t have to be exotic to taste amazing
If you’re new to the butcher shop, before you branch out you may just want to try something simple. Because you might just be blown away. Rob says people often come in for the most basic things, like a couple pounds of ground beef, a chicken, or some Italian sausages—simple things you could get anywhere. And because of how fresh everything tastes, they get hooked.
It’s a world of difference from the meat we’re used to getting at big chain stores.
You go into a supermarket and there’s a package of ground beef, and you don’t know how long it’s been sitting there. And that’s the biggest thing: the freshness of the meat. That’s what’s going to make the difference between an okay burger and a great burger.”
3. It’s about a dialog, not just a purchase
One of the biggest differences about shopping at a butcher shop is that it’s not the “run and gun” experience like at the supermarket. You don’t just whiz past the cooler and grab a pack of steaks on your way to the soda aisle. Shopping at a butcher shop is as much about the journey as it is about the destination. You almost have to think of the butcher as a “meat consultant” more than a store. You’ll get the best experience if you engage the staff and tell them what you want to do. They can often recommend a better or less expensive cut of meat than you originally had in mind.
“It’s the people who really express an interest in what we do and how to get the most out of us that have the best experiences and wind up coming back,” said Rob.
4. Tell them about the event you want, not just the meal
For the best results, give your butcher as much information as possible. People sometimes get too hung up on a recipe and don’t think about what they want to get out of their event. Rob says that a good butcher is going to think practically and help you figure out solutions that will allow you to enjoy the overall experience.
If you bought skirt steak for 15 people and you had stand at the grill and make sure everybody’s steak was cooked perfectly…it’s going to be a bad experience.”
If it’s just a get-together with your buddies, Rob said you might be better off getting a giant pork shoulder and putting it in the oven all day rather than slaving away at the grill. “And when the party starts, pull it out of the oven, get a pair of tongs and get a stack in the middle of the table with some pickles and mustard and call it a day.”
Ideally, you need to tell your butcher:
- The nature of the gathering
- Any preferences or ideas you have
- How you plan to cook, and how much time you want to devote to it
- Your budget
5. Don’t be afraid to set a budget
Some people are embarrassed to say they only have X to spend, but it’s only going to help your butcher serve you better. If you let them know what you’re thinking of doing and what your budget is, they can spin that information a bunch of different ways.
For instance, you might walk in and realize that it’s going to be expensive to do 8 ribeyes for your friends. The butcher can provide other options.
Maybe you can’t get them all steaks, but you get one big impressive steak and slice it up and get a bunch of different sausages and basically do a mixed grill. And for the same amount of money or even less, you can have this great spread of stuff.”
6. Unlearn what you think you know about “good cuts” of meat
One of the questions butchers often get is “what’s the best cut you have?” This can be frustrating because a good butcher works hard to source great animals that can provide a multitude of “perfect” cuts. It all depends on how you’re using each cut.
Rob once had the privilege of watching the great Italian butcher Dario Checchini work. Dario often said, “Every cut of meat is the best cut. What matters is the purpose of the cut.”
And the meat that you’d traditionally think of as a “good cut” is often subpar depending on what you’re making.
If you want to put something in your slow cooker, then a filet is the worst cut. If you want to cook a steak cook well done, a filet or a ribeye or a New York is not the best cut of meat. If you’re making soup, we’ll sell you knuckle bones and beef shanks. It’s not the best cut for a steak dinner, but it’s the best cut for a hearty broth.”
7. Don’t be precious about your recipe
Again, to get real value out of the butcher, you need to listen to their advice. Sometimes this means straying from a written recipe. For instance, if your recipe calls for lean pork chops, but you like the look of the fattier, thicker cuts, the butcher can tell you how to cook them on the grill to get crispy skin.
“As long as customers can get over the fact that the recipe they’re following does things a little differently, they’re usually into it.” Rob said.
Sometimes people have their heart set on a particular ingredient because it’s spelled out in the recipe. But the butcher can often save you money and improve the results if you let them help you.
People come in wanting to making Philly Cheese steaks, and they know it usually calls for shaved ribeye. But for half the price, I can shave off some pieces of chuck eye, which is the same muscle and it’s much less expensive. And it has just as much if not more flavor.”
8. Sausage isn’t lips and assholes
One of the big misconceptions in the butchery world is that sausage is just made from the leftover junk swept off the butcher shop floor—the unwanted odds and ends.
The truth is, a good butcher is going to use as high a quality ingredient as possible in order to make the best product possible. And often, just by virtue of starting with whole animals, the quality is improved.
“Obviously I’m not putting pork chops into the sausage. But the quality of the meat is great since we get our pigs whole,” said Rob. “It’s our job as good butchers to source great animals, and get to the core of what their end results will be.”
9. Bacon is just bacon. Get over it.
One of the most unusual trends in the meat world is what bacon has become in recent years. People wear bacon hats, bacon band-aids, bacon t-shirts. But to Rob, bacon is just bacon.
“Don’t tell me you can never have enough bacon. And keep it off my desserts.”
Rob loves the taste of bacon as just as much as anyone, but he’s not buying into the hype.
When I was a kid, bacon was just something that you had with your breakfast. Or that you put into a chowder. I don’t know when it became a thing, where you put bacon everything.”
People often come into the Butcher & Larder and ask what kind of bacon they have. Rob just answers “We just have ours. We make bacon, and that’s what it is.”
10. Respect for the animals is key
While it may sound ironic, respecting the animals is a big part of good butchery. One thing that’s healthy about going to a butcher shop is that you are reminded that your meat was once an animal. Your meat didn’t live its life in a styrofoam container, it grew up on a farm and it was a living thing. A good butcher respects that.
“Before I sell you an obnoxious amount of meat…before I sell you and your three buddies four 2-½ lb ribeyes, I’m going to tell you that that’s too much. I’m going to tell you that that’s too much meat.” Rob said. “Because it’s taking advantage of the fact that there’s only so much of that on the cow.”
With things like gourmet charcuterie becoming more popular lately, you forget that the roots of butchery are in using the whole animal as responsibly as possible without wasting anything. Chefs are buying boneless pork shoulder to make salami and making bacon from pork belly. And Rob sometimes feels like they’re forgetting about the rest of the animal.
The reason we have salami and prosciutto, and bacon or pancetta, is there was a time when people would raise a pig, and kill it and use every last bit of it so they could survive. Not because it was cool or trendy, but because that’s survived.
Despite some of the flashy trends like gourmet charcuterie and bacon worship, the resurgence of butchery means great things for food lovers. More than just getting better-quality meat, there’s something satisfying about having your own butcher—one that knows you by name. And one that really cares about his craft and doing things right. It gives you the sense that you’re part of something bigger, something good.
With a hint of sentimentality, Rob recalls another great quote from Dario Checchini:
“An animal needs 4 things: a good life, a good death, a good butcher, and a good cook.”
Now go find your butcher and play your part.