Butchers: New Rock Stars of Culinary World

Breaking down meat as a profession is so primal that some now find it "hot."

August 14, 2009, 2:13 PM

Aug. 14, 2009— -- A new generation of butchers is cropping up in kitchens across the country. Wielding the same knives and saws as their traditional counterparts, these younger butchers also use their tattooed, muscled forearms to break down beef, lamb and pig.

It's such a primal, dangerous act that some have started calling butchering "hot."

"I'm sweating ... it's definitely hard work. Especially if you do it the old-fashioned way ... with a cleaver and a handsaw, it's a lot of work," said Seamus Mullen, chef at Boqueria, a New York City restaurant.

But, as first reported by New York Magazine and the New York Times, that raw appeal has led some to call butchers sex symbols.

"I would definitely not consider myself a sex symbol," said Ryan Skeen, executive chef at Allen and Delancy in New York City. "If you would see me at the end of a service, I definitely don't think anyone would consider me a sex symbol."

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"I think more people would be grossed out by someone cutting up an animal, a carcass, than be aroused by it," Mullen said.

But Josh Ozersky, national restaurant editor at CitySearch.com and a self-professed meat guru, said that people have a gut reaction that draws them to the gore, the blood and the violence of butchering.

"Let's face it, there's something very erotic about seeing whole animal carcasses cut up," said Ozersky.

The popularity of training to be a butcher started to fade in the 1960s when pre-cut meats arrived in grocery stores. Butchers were relegated to the back of the supermarket -- often just slicing bologna.

But now, butchers have emerged as the rock stars in the culinary world. With their faces plastered in magazine spreads and their names on meat products, the once little known group is gaining fame and, even, groupies.

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"I suppose there is an element of coolness to, like if you can cut an animal apart, that's kind of cool," said Mullen. "It's a little bit more cool than if you can peel a vegetable, a carrot or whatever. But I mean I think it's great that people are taking an interest in what we're doing."

Retail and commercial butcher shops alike have been inundated with requests from young people, many without any culinary background, to apprentice. Some are offering to work for free, in order to learn the intricacies of the trendy trade.

Pat LaFrieda Jr., a third-generation New York butcher and owner of Pat LaFrieda Wholesale Meats, said he has had to turn down around 40 requests for apprenticeships from "hipsters" in July alone.

LaFrieda warns that the craft isn't glamorous. It's hard, long work, on your feet in a workspace where the temperature's 36 degrees. La Frieda says it's dangerous and not everyone is cut out for it.

"This is serious business, there's nothing glamorous about a bandsaw ... or knives other than, watch your fingers," LaFrieda said. "I cut myself during the night last night. Bandaged myself up and got back to work ... some of us have the scars to prove it."

LaFrieda was one of the first butchers to hit it big in New York City and has gained strong recognition as one of the top meat purveyors. He's been asked to create custom hamburger blends for more than 50 New York City restaurants, including an exclusive $26 hamburger using his sought-after dry-aged steaks.

LaFrieda does admit there are some benefits to his status aside from making it easier to get a table at a restaurant. With his business steadily expanding over the years, he now sells wholesale meat to nearly 600 New York City restaurants, with many of their menus boasting the LaFrieda name.

Despite his fame, LaFrieda is skeptical of the spotlight on butchery.

"I have mixed reactions about all that. I don't know how many of those so-called butchers will be butchers next year. Probably next year they'll be pastry chefs, and then on to the next trend," he said.

Like LaFrieda, Ozersky is also wary of butchers who may only be interested in a fleeting trend.

"I mean, look, if you wanted to hire a great painter, you wouldn't go out and find the handsomest man that owns a paintbrush, you know? If you wanted to hire a contractor, you wouldn't get, like, a Daniel Day-Lewis who happens to own a hammer," Ozersky said. "A butcher, like a chef, should be someone that's basically fat and ugly, you know what I mean? 'Cause that's more time that he's going to spend in his shop, working on carcasses, like he should be, rather than out gallivanting like he's a hottie."

Nevertheless, growing interest in butchering has sprouted butchering classes, where novices can learn how to take apart whole animals on the weekend. Classes across the country have popped up in kitchens and culinary schools. State University of New York-Cobleskill just added its first ever monthlong extended learning course on meat processing from slaughter to packaging, created to meet the strong demand from those interested in working in the field.

Spotlight on Butchery Tied to Local Food Movement

And after years of seeing the doors close at butcher shops only to be replaced by pre-packaged meat at the supermarket, new stores are now just starting to open back up, as is in-house butchering in restaurants.

"We have become such a highly industrialized food nation, we don't really know anything about where our food's coming from for the most part. And it's fantastic that there is an interest in being aware of and learning about it," said Mullen.

However, Mullen has seen lots of culinary trends come and go.

"There was the miniburger trend, for a while, you know, the slider trend, everybody was making sliders, every variety of slider you've ever heard of. And I think that now, to a degree, it's the butcher trend. So this, too, probably will come to pass, to a certain degree, and when, like, it's all done, the smoke settles, we'll still be doing the same thing," said Mullen.

Although he's tattooed and may have many fans, Mullen knows that becoming a master butcher takes years of hard work and practice. "Guys that are doing this their whole lives and can break down an animal just by looking at it, those are the real rock stars," he said.

Frank Ottomanelli, a legendary New York butcher for more than 40 years and one of four butcher brothers in the family, earns the rock star title. Among "the meat elite," Ottomanelli of Ottomanelli & Sons Prime Meat Market, is considered a god.

Meat Market: Fleeting Trend?

Trained by his father and grandfather, his eye for meat has been passed down for generations and inspired praise.

"I look at [the meat] in the eyes. I use my hands, I look at the fat, at the bones," he said. "This is the way my father trained me. I can tell you the age of it, if it's an old piece of meat by the bone structure ... by looking and feeling."

Ottomanelli & Sons has also received many requests for apprenticeships. They don't take on workers because of insurance reasons, but they do try to give out as much knowledge as possible.

"We can explain to them what to do, we can help them, but we actually can't make real good rock stars out of them," said Ottomanelli.

But in all his years, Ottomanelli says he has never had a groupie, which is fine for a legend who says he doesn't crave attention. Ottomanelli knows that being treated like a piece of meat isn't always a good thing.

"What makes for a good butcher? The training, and the experience that was handed down to me from my parents ... I don't know about being so much of a rock star," he said.

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