Meet the Butcher

Photo by Flickr user CarbZombie

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.

Photo by Flickr user CarbZombie

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JasonFox.jpg

Photo by Lindsay Pugnali

Jason Fox will be the manager of the new Fleisher’s shop in Park Slope, Brooklyn. He recently sat down with the Butcher’s Case to talk about the new shop, his background in the food world, and his pick for the most underrated cut of meat.

The Butcher’s Case: How did you decide to become a butcher?

Jason Fox: I have a history of working in the food industry. I worked in my grandfather’s deli when I was growing up, and I was a food photographer and food stylist for several years. And the more I worked with food, the more I realized I wanted to open my own restaurant in Brooklyn. I wanted it to be nose-to-tail and seasonal, and I wanted to do my own butchering. I knew about Fleisher’s, so last winter I took their eight-week butchery course and apprenticeship.

During that time, the restaurant plans fell through. I was talking to Josh [Applestone, Fleisher's co-owner] about it, and he said they were planning to open a shop in Park Slope, and he asked if I wanted to run it. I couldn’t refuse an opportunity like that.

TBC: So when did you really know that you’d made the leap and you were doing what you were meant to do?

JF: I was driving home from Fleisher’s after cutting all day, literally still covered in blood, and instead of being disgusted I realized I really loved the smell.

TBC: You’re going to be running the Brooklyn shop—which makes sense, because you already live in Brooklyn, right?

JF: Yes, I live in Bushwick. I’ve been commuting back and forth to Kingston, but after a long day of hauling and cutting meat, carrying rounds and arm chucks, you want to be in your own home. My boyfriend is in Brooklyn, my dogs are in Brooklyn, so it’s worth the long trip back home. So, I’m looking forward to the commute from Bushwick to Park Slope. It should be much better!

TBC: It seems that everyone at Fleisher’s has a specialty. Some people focus on charcuterie or creating sausage recipes. What is your forté?

JF: People in the Slope tend to be very busy, so I’ve been working a lot in the kitchen with various cuts of meat to come up with new additions for our line of prepared foods. Cottage pie, meat loaf, meatballs, a sausage pie. The sausage pie was my biggest challenge, but I was able to marry the two textures (sausage and flaky pie crust) by creating a mustard béchamel. It’s delicious, and a recipe I’m really proud of, but there are going to many options to choose from.

TBC: Everyone on the Fleisher’s staff seems to have been a vegetarian at one time or another, too. What about you?

JF: I was a vegetarian for 16 years, but I really felt like I was missing out after awhile. I was doing a lot of cooking for other people and it was often meat-based, so I started to feel left out. I felt like I couldn’t be a good cook if I didn’t start to eat meat.

TBC: Let’s talk a bit about the Brooklyn shop. If someone walks in, will they see you cutting meat, just like in the Kingston shop?

JF: Yes, that’s the Fleisher’s way, to work out in the open. You’ll see us cutting every day for the case.

TBC: The Kingston shop is only open on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. What about the Brooklyn shop?

JF: We’ll be open every day except Monday.

TBC: Okay, lightning round questions: What’s your favorite steak to eat?

JF: You can’t beat a rib-eye. One rib-eye, an inch and a half thick, will feed two people. Personally, I like it very rare.

TBC: What’s the most underrated or overlooked cut of meat?

JF: People tend to be scared of oxtails. But they’re very affordable, they have a really beefy flavor, and they’re easy to cook, because you just put them in the oven and braise them. If people would try them, I think they’d be surprised how good they are, and how simple they are to prepare.

TBC: Favorite ingredient?

JF: Stock, I use it in everything. We sell every kind at Fleisher’s—from lamb to duck.

TBC: Meal that you would make for your boyfriend after a fight?

JF: Lamb anything, potato anything—he’s Irish.

TBC: Favorite side dish?

JF: Roasted Brussels sprouts with Fleisher’s bacon, made crispy in a cast-iron skillet. We are even growing Brussels sprouts in our garden, I love them so much.

TBC: Favorite type of customer?

JF: Little old ladies. They always know exactly what they want!

TBC: Favorite technique that you have learned at Fleisher’s?

JF: I didn’t know anything about the Jaccard meat tenderizer. It really does the trick for notoriously chewy steaks like London broils and flatirons. It has 48 flat blades, like little needles, that puncture the flesh and shorten the muscle fibers. It’s really eye-opening.

TBC: Anything to add?

JF: Just that I’m really excited about the new shop. We’re going to have a really good time. We love what we do, and the mood in the shop will be very happy, very positive. I think people will notice it right away.

The Brooklyn branch of Fleisher’s is scheduled to open on Sept. 22, at 192 Fifth Avenue, between Sackett and Union Streets.

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