October 1, 2008

Take Half a Ton of Beef...


"LATE mornings during the week, the Williamsburg restaurant Marlow & Sons
feels almost like the Old World establishment it's meant to simulate. Up
front customers drink coffee amid the cheeses and produce of a quaint
miniature grocery.

And every Tuesday morning in the rear dining room, a scene plays out that's
not just Old World old, but positively primeval. Sitting around a weathered
wooden table, the heads of a tribe are dividing up the meat of large
animals - on paper, at least.

All of the meat served at Marlow & Sons and the three other Brooklyn
restaurants Mark Firth and Andrew Tarlow own - Diner, next door, and two
branches of the upscale taquería Bonita - comes from small farms in New York
and Pennsylvania. Since last fall, rather than picking and choosing the cuts
they need, the restaurants have ordered entire carcasses, butchering them at
Marlow & Sons, in a cramped back room.

It's a unique and almost perversely ambitious arrangement, one that fits
with the do-it-yourself aesthetic Mr. Firth and Mr. Tarlow have cultivated.
(After talking about writing a cookbook, they decided instead to begin a
quarterly magazine, one that they and their staff write, edit, design and
publish themselves.) But their practice also reflects a widespread interest
in what might be called, for lack of an official term, "alternative meat."
It's meat that is everything industrial products are not: sustainable,
humanely raised and, ideally, local.

For chefs and restaurant owners, getting hold of the good stuff can mean
buying particular cuts directly from farmers who do their own processing,
and whose supply can be irregular because they must navigate a web of United
States Department of Agriculture regulations. Or it can mean dealing with a
national distributor like Heritage Foods, originally the sales and marketing
arm of Slow Food USA. If, like Dan Barber of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, you
happen to have a Rockefeller estate at your disposal, it means raising your
own sheep, pigs and chickens, then slaughtering and butchering them on the

For a growing number of young chefs, even those without as much real estate,
reviving the craft of butchery is a noble end in itself. Nate Appleman of
A16 and SPQR in San Francisco, Tamara Murphy at Brasa in Seattle and Mark
Cutrara at Toronto's Cowbell are as adept with a meat cleaver as they are
with a chef's knife. Much of the inspiration for this butcher pride clearly
comes from Fergus Henderson's London offal emporium, St. John, and, closer
to home, from Thomas Keller's restaurants.

Jonathan Benno, chef de cuisine at Mr. Keller's Per Se, is an earnest
disciple of his boss's philosophy. For him, the main advantage of in-house
butchering is the flexibility it provides. When you get the whole animal, he
said: "You can do anything you want with it. You're not bound by the way an
outside butcher breaks down the pig."

Mr. Benno butchers his own pigs throughout the year, and spring lamb and
venison in season, building degustation menus that proceed through various
bits of anatomy. In the Per Se kitchen, pork shanks are braised, pig tails
are fried and pork trimmings turned into classic French charcuterie. The
tricky part of whole-animal cooking, he pointed out, is finding an outlet
for every part.

"It's easy for us as cooks to use the more popular cuts," he said. "But when
you start talking about the head, the feet, the knuckle, you need to get

This need is exactly why Mr. Tarlow and Caroline Fidanza, executive chef for
Diner and Marlow & Sons, convene a meeting every week, with somebody from
Bonita. Because those two restaurants are farther afield (one is a few
blocks away, the other on DeKalb Avenue in Fort Greene), negotiating their
weekly meat requirements is a logistical challenge.

The moderators for these summits are Sean Rembold and Dave Gould, tag-team
chefs de cuisine for Diner and Marlow & Sons.

On a recent Tuesday, the group sat down a few hours after the main weekly
delivery arrived - "a Volkswagen's weight in meat," in the words of Tom
Mylan, who butchers for all four restaurants.

There were two split pigs, up to 250 pounds each. And there was an entire
grass-fed steer, which might come in at almost half a ton. Each of its two
sides comes in cut into eighths, a size few restaurants ever see. The beef
is accompanied by what the staff calls the offal party pack: a tongue,
liver, heart and oxtail. (By law, more esoteric innards like tripe,
sweetbreads and the like cannot leave the slaughterhouse unless they have
been specially processed.)

While Mr. Mylan was struggling to divide the order into workable segments,
the group inside started on the pigs.

"I don't need the trotters," said Juventino Avila, then the chef at Bonita.
"You sent me trotters on Friday."

Mr. Gould, filling in a flow chart he was composing on brown butcher paper,
confirmed: "Keeping the trotters. You want the heads?"

"Oh, I'd like the heads," Mr. Avila said. "Can you send the heads to

Bonita has been serving quesadillas de cabeza, bits of pork head meat in
fried corn masa turnovers, and they have been selling well. The headcheese
at Marlow & Sons has not been such a hit.

As an anthropologist might tell you, the operative concept here was economy.
There was a lot of meat, and all of it had to be used somehow in a week. But
it had to be shared. This plan can be financially viable only if everything
is used wisely. Everyone from chefs planning menus to prep cooks making
stock to waiters talking up headcheese needs to take responsibility.

"It's about juggling, training your staff to switch gears at a moment's
notice," said Chris Cosentino, a high-profile partisan of head-to-tail
eating. The chef and a co-owner of Incanto in San Francisco, Mr. Cosentino
spreads the word at his organ-meat-centric Web site,, and
recently started Boccalone, a salumi business based in Oakland.

When you take on whole animals, he said, "you never stop working. There have
been times when I've had to stay till 3 in the morning to butcher pigs so my
walk-in wouldn't be cluttered."

Mr. Cosentino draws the line at breaking down steers in his kitchen (he has
a network of small-scale ranchers and processors who supply his beef), but
he is a believer in avoiding packaged meat, no matter how impressive its
provenance. The advantages, he believes, are not just culinary and
ecological but also ethical: his cooks "see what's coming in the door."

To drive home the point, he has taken his staff to witness animal
slaughters. After that, he said: "I don't have mistakes anymore. They don't
burn meat. They don't miscount. There are no screw-ups."

While other restaurant kitchens might occasionally see whole animals - say,
a pig or lamb ordered to add some excitement to the specials menu -
comparing that to what goes on at Incanto or Diner and its siblings is like
comparing a roller coaster to a car without brakes. Certainly it's the most
fuss anyone has ever made to get a good burger.

For years, Diner has tried to get grass-fed meat with sufficient regularity
to keep customers in burgers seven days a week. Their needs were met for a
while by Josh Applestone, a butcher who supplied top-notch ground beef.

But last year, Mr. Applestone, who, with his wife, Jessica, runs Fleisher's
Meats, retail shops in Kingston and Rhinebeck, decided to rejigger his
business model so that his wholesale customers would have to buy whole or
half animals. He gave them two options: he'd either carve the carcasses
himself when he made his delivery, or train restaurant staff to do it

Mr. Applestone currently carves sides of beef for Flatbush Farm, a Brooklyn
restaurant; he has taught the sous-chef at Casa Mono to break down a pig. No
one else, though, chose to go as far as the Diner crowd: they decided a
full-time butcher was precisely what they needed. "It's like we cracked the
code," Mr. Tarlow said.

Crucial to this bit of meat cryptography is Mr. Mylan, who had been the
manager of Marlow's grocery store. Last October, he moved in with the
Applestone family, and while the restaurant paid his salary, he learned to
handle band saws and meat hooks. After a month, he returned to Williamsburg
with new skills, a knife belt and a certain swagger.

"He came back with muscles," said Mr. Firth.

Mr. Mylan, 32, an inveterate culinary hobbyist, has long cured and concocted
things in his apartment. Since his reinvention as a meatcutter, he's become
a local culinary celebrity, teaching sold-out classes in butchering at
Brooklyn Kitchen, a Williamsburg housewares shop.

Ms. Fidanza hopes that Diner's practices might serve as a model for other
restaurants. "It's easier than people think," she said.

As Mr. Mylan pointed out, this is not a novel concept. "When I was growing
up in Reno," he said, "every good-sized hotel-casino had their own ranch and
their own slaughterhouse. It's not that weird an idea. It just seems weird
to us because our cultural memory is so short."

That level of vertical integration is probably out of reach for Mr. Firth
and Mr. Tarlow, but they are moving ahead with the next phase of their plan:
a butcher shop. They have just leased a space a block over from Diner, at 95
Broadway. Called Marlow & Daughters, it could open as soon as the end of the

The store will be the first retailer in the city offering nothing but local
meat from small farms, cut to order, seven days a week. It will also supply
Marlow & Sons, Diner and both Bonita locations, allowing them more leeway in
menu planning.

But almost certainly there will still be that sense of economy - a
consciousness of waste, the need to use everything. Or almost everything.

"We really want to use beef suet in the deep fryer," Ms. Fidanza said, "but
everybody has a different opinion on that. I'm not interested in offending
people. It's kind of heartbreaking, because it's just so delicious. And it
makes so much sense."

Mr. Rembold said, "We need to hire a candlemaker."

They just might..."