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Butchery trade captivates new crop of cooks

THREE CUTS TO CONSIDER

What to know how to get the most out of your butcher? That’s easy, says Butcher & Larder’s Rob Levitt: “Talk to me.”

And come in with an open mind. “I’m not always going to have what the recipe says, but tell me what you are interested in and we can start a dialogue to figure out what will work best.”

Here are three underused cuts Levitt thinks you should try:

Beef sirloin tip. It comes from the leg and has great beefy flavor. Very similar to a flat iron steak but more tender and forgiving if you cook it beyond medium-rare.

Tip: Use as a roast or a grilling cut. It can be cut into steaks or cooked as a whole roast beef.

Pork collar. It has all the benefits of a piece of boneless pork shoulder, but it comes packaged in nice, uniform roast. It’s an impressive cut for a party and since it’s shoulder, it’s super rich. Plus, you can put it the pot, throw it in the oven and forget about it for a few hours.

Tip: Levitt usually serves it with the fat cap and skin on. After 11

2 to 2 hours in a moderate oven, you’ll have beautifully braised pork with really crispy skin and golden roasted fat.

Lamb spare ribs. Great alternative to pork ribs, and a fun way to eat lamb that’s not rack, chop or kebab. They are a little on the fatty side but if you like to use a smoker, the fat will render off and take up a lot of that nice smoke flavor.

Tip: Lamb lends itself to different spices. Try a rub made with spicy harissa paste, then smoke and char the ribs on the grill. It’s like being in Morocco.

Lisa Shames

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM



In late 2009, when Rob Levitt, then the chef at Mado, first started doing butchering demos at the Bucktown restaurant, he received more than one angry e-mail.

But contrary to what the senders thought, “We’re not chasing pigs around the restaurant with a knife,” said Levitt during one of those laidback Sunday morning demos.

These days, it’s all about butcher love.

There’s a new wave of young cleaver masters opening up shops across the country, with books like Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat and Obsessions from blogger-turned-butcher’s-apprentice Julie Powell also helping drive the rising interest in the trade.

Local events, such as a recent suckling pig butchering demo by Bristol chef Chris Pandel, are selling out.

This month’s issue of Bon Appetit devotes a page to butchering tools and accessories for the home cook.

Then there’s Levitt, who after stepping away from Mado opened the Butcher & Larder, a boutique butcher shop in Noble Square offering humanely raised meat, in February.

“It got to the point where I was enjoying the butchering aspect of the restaurant more than the cooking,” Levitt says.

Satisfying the curious

Butchering has become a spectator sport of sorts.

Cochon 555, an annual culinary competition that features a whole pig breakdown and a roasted pig dinner, recently hit town on its 10-city tour.

Cochon 555 founder Brady Lowe admits that when he put a butcher in the middle of the room at the first tour in 2009, “Everybody’s jaws dropped.”

Now it’s the spotlight at the heritage pork-centric event that brings together chefs, farmers, winemakers and eaters.

“It’s all about putting the love back into knife skills,” says Lowe. (Those looking to go beyond bystander status can check out Lowe’s Protein U at proteinu.com, a virtual library of videos of chefs and butchers sharing their skills.)

At Vie in Western Springs, sous chef Nathan Sears, the restaurant’s go-to guy for breaking down animals and making charcuterie, had been toying with the idea of doing whole-hog butchering demos for some time but wasn’t sure if he’d get enough takers.

After sending out an e-mail to the restaurant’s fans, the $150 class sold out within 24 hours. It was held in January.

Three more classes were added through May; all are sold out.

Included in the half-day class: a cooking demo, lunch and plenty of Slagel Family Farm pig parts to take home (attendees come back two weeks later for cured items and stock).

“Obviously, it’s a pig and everyone loves pork,” says Sears, but he believes there’s more to it than that. “These days, a lot more people want to know where their food comes from and the integrity behind it.”

Kim Hack, president of the Chicago chapter of the American Institute of Wine and Food, which sponsored the Bristol event, agrees.

“I don’t think anyone is going to go home and butcher a suckling pig,” she says, “but it’s part of this intellectual process and journey of re-localizing our food system.”

Into the home kitchen

That’s the inspiration behind the new Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) meat share at City Provisions Deli, 1818 W. Wilson.

Owner Cleetus Friedman, a supporter of local farmers and purveyors through his three-year-old catering company, got the idea for the 10-week, 10-member program when he started bringing in whole animals to turn into terrines, pates and sausages that fill the deli’s cases.

It made sense, says Friedman, to create a “club” where members come in every other week and take home not only sustainable, humanely raised cuts of meat from Midwestern farms — Gunthorp Farms duck breasts, lamb from Mint Creek Farm, Cook’s bison rib eyes — but prepared products, too.

“The butchering and meat share really drives our mission to get people excited about eating locally,” he says.

Purveyors like Dietzler Farms are happy to help. The family-owned cattle business started out as a “hobby farm,” says Michelle Dietzler, whose engineer father, Dan, bought the southern Wisconsin land in 1999.

The demand for their beef has grown from 35 cattle sold in 2007 to 250 last year. Dietz­ler beef now can be found at some of the city’s farmers markets and top restaurants, as well as at Butcher & Larder and City Provisions.

Also on the rise, says Dietz­ler, is demand from home cooks for more obscure cuts such as cheeks and oxtails.

More meat markets

At Paulina Meat Market, owner Bill Begale, who’s been working at the Lakeview shop since 1984, has seen a rise in people coming in and wanting to learn how to cut meat.

“Years ago, nothing. We struggled to get somebody in,” he says. “Now, two to three times a week, someone comes in asking for work.”

Even with hipsters rushing to sharpen their knives, it’s still business as usual as this traditional butcher shop.

“We’re not changing the old ways, just adding new ones to it,” says Begale.

For chef Paul Kahan and his business partners Donnie Madia, Terry Alexander and Edward Seitan, the inspiration to open a butcher shop across from their Fulton Market restaurant the Publican grew out of necessity.

“We’ve outgrown our meat processing capabilities at the Publican,” says Kahan. “We want to do a lot more stuff but we didn’t have the space.”

At the yet-to-be-named shop, scheduled to open in late summer, expect to find custom raw meat offerings from local farms and beyond, as well as cured meats, smoked fish and the same fresh, housemade sausages served at the Publican.

Look for the restaurant’s signature chicken in the meat case, too, marinated and ready to be cooked at home.

The space will include a private party room and eventually will offer breakfast, lunch and weekend brunch in addition to beer and wine.

“There’s something really Old World about saying, ‘Have a glass of wine while you shop,’ ” says Kahan.

Kahan doesn’t buy into this whole butchering-as-a-new-trend idea; any serious restaurant already butchers everything in-house, he says.

But, he adds, the few new butcher shops he sees opening around the country do signal a step toward doing things in a more artisanal way.

“The chef butcher shop is the logical extension for some of us that have meat-driven restaurants and want to do a better job,” Kahan says. “We want to get more farmers and better meat in Chicago, not just for us but for all the chefs in the city.”

The Butcher & Larder’s Levitt is happy to report that the sandwiches they offer daily — one hot, one cold — haven’t taken over the meat sales.

“It’s nice that we’re not just a novelty, but people are coming in and are buying meat for the week,” he says. “One of the benefits of using whole animals is that I get a better price per pound on every cut.”

Another pleasant surprise has been the shop’s diverse group of customers, says Levitt. He was worried he would get inundated with people wanting just rib eyes and pork chops.

“We have people that come in and ask for pigs’ feet, hog jowls and kidneys, and we have people who buy a variety of pates,” he says. His housemade sausages have been selling “like crazy.”

In the near future, Levitt hopes to host family dinners, classes for professionals and, once again, butchering demos.

“We hope this is less of a trend and becomes more of a normal thing about being aware of what you are eating, — what’s the most delicious and what’s the most socially responsible thing to do,” Levitt says.

Lisa Shames is food/dining editor of Chicago Social magazine.



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