Bryan Mayer is the head butcher at Fleisher’s flagship shop in Kingston, New York, nowdays he’ll be splitting his time between Kingston and Brooklyn.
The Butcher’s Case: You were formerly a professional musician. How did you end up becoming a butcher? Do you see any similarities between the two gigs?
Bryan Mayer: Becoming a butcher was cheaper than going to therapy (and you don’t have to talk about your relationship with your mother). Seriously, between touring taking its toll mentally/physically and studio session work becoming more difficult to find, I needed to find something I could dump all that creativity and passion into. I started reading a lot of food memoirs and cooking obsessively. I was reading Bill Bufford’s Heat, and when I got to the section where he gets back to New York and hauls that pig into his apartment, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. Minus the singing opera and quoting Dante.
There are lots of similarities between the two gigs. Personally, I find them both to be cathartic. We’re a team at Fleisher’s, but everyone has to be dedicated to his or her own part, much in the same way a band operates. I was primarily a bass player, which is a very supportive role in the group dynamic, and i feel like that’s exactly how we work at the shop. We’re a support network — for farmers, for each other, and for our customers and community.
TBC: You used to live in Brooklyn, until Fleisher’s enticed you upstate. Do you find it a little ironic that you now are going to be spending half your week in Park Slope? And when exactly will we see you behind the counter in Brooklyn?
BM: Once I trained with Fleisher’s, I couldn’t stay away. On my days off from my old shop, I would hop on the bus and head back up! Brooklyn holds a special place in my heart — my family is from there, I have relatives who still live in Park Slope, and I spent many years in the neighborhood, so I’m very excited to be in the neighborhood again. I’ll be down in the shop fairly often. Oh to posses the ability to clone!
TBC: What is your favorite type of meat/muscle to break down and why?
BM: I love to work with lamb, because you’re working on the whole animal, not a part, not a section. Head to tail. You can really get in there and attack a side of beef, but with lamb I feel that’s there a bit more precision needed. I worked with fish before meat and really enjoyed the art of butterflying and perfectly filleting. It all speaks to my somewhat obsessive-compulsive nature.
TBC: If you could say one thing (and only one) about why people should buy better meat what would it be?
BM: We all know it’s better for our health to eat food that’s been raised properly — that’s all been covered. I try to focus on the bigger picture, how the food decisions we make affect everything around us. The environment, our communities, everything.
TBC: How does being a father affect your view of the food industry and the role you feel you can play in changing or challenging the way we (and our kids) eat?
BM: Food played a central role in my upbringing, as it probably does in most large Italian families. Everyone was cooking together, houses had multiple kitchens, everyone had “their” dish. I want my little one to experience that same thing, with one major difference: the ingredients. I also understand there’s a need for moderation. Change the way kids eat and they’ll change the way you eat. They change everything else!
I look at it like a little science experiment — what’s going to happen to this little person if she consumes half of the garbage I ate while growing up, especially during her formative years? Maybe nothing, but I take the Mark Bittman approach to the whole thing. There may be no conclusive evidence that eating a diet with more veggies and grains is going to make you a healthier person, but we certainly do know that a diet full of sugar and empty calories is going to impact your health negatively.
TBC: Okay, quick questions: Favorite pairing of beer and type of burger?
BM: I really love a Hennepin paired with any — I mean any — cheese, especially from Consider Bardwell. As for burgers it’s got to be lamb. I mix in some brined capers, white wine vinegar, and some Dijon mustard. Done!
TBC: Favorite ingredient?
BM: Salt. Simple but true.
TBC: Favorite food or meat web site?
BM: The University of Nebraska-Lincoln has a great web site devoted to myology (the study of arrangements, structures, and actions of muscles), complete with instructional videos showing how to break down various cuts of beef. It’s a great teaching resource.
TBC: Favorite music to listen to while working?
BM: That’s a hard one. i guess it depends on what needs to get done and how fast. At the shop there’s always a steady stream of Wu-Tang, Dragonforce, Marvin Gaye, Wilco, etc.
TBC: A knife should …
BM: … never used as a screwdriver substitute. (I mean the tool, not the drink. But you shouldn’t use a knife for that either.)
TBC: Customers should be …
BM: I think customers should be open to suggestions. Trust us — we cook everything, in a lot of different ways. Let us help you move beyond the realm of boneless/skinless chicken breasts. How boring life must be if you’re not open to learning new things.
TBC: A butcher should be …
BM: Humble. It’s about community. The attention that the craft has received over the last few years is exciting, but I’d like to see it grow and become even more popular. Move outside the “trend” zone. I think one of the ways you do that is to focus on the butcher as a part of a much larger community. Necessary within that dynamic, useless on his own.