Chatting With Tom Mylan: Date-Night Butchery, the Word ‘Hipster,’ and Why Butchering Is Not as Cool As You Think It Is


Today, Tom Mylan and his partners Brent Young and Ben Turley opened The Meat Hook, their new butcher shop in the Brooklyn Kitchen Labs. Mylan, formerly of Diner and Marlow and Daughters, has also just started to write about meat for the Atlantic’s Food Channel.

Read on to find out how Mylan feels about being called a “rock star butcher,” the secrets of good grass-fed beef, and what question your butcher should be able to answer. Check back here tomorrow for the second half of our interview.

So is the Meat Hook open as of today?

Yes, we’re open right now

How’s it going?

It’s great. It’s a little problematic, because we got to the point that you never want to get to, where the space is still under construction, but, well, we’re mostly built, and we really needed to open, so we can pay for construction. Someone is screwing in doors into the back kitchen right now. Anyway, it’s great.

What’s your inventory right now

We have beef, pork, lamb, chicken, turkey…we have pretty much everything except veal.

Are there any farms that you’re working with a lot in particular?

The farm that I’m most proud of right now is Kinderhook, that’s where we’re getting our grass-finished beef from. They really know what they’re doing. A lot of people out there are doing grass-finished stuff that’s deserving of the negative connotation that some people have about it, but it’s actually hard to tell our grass-finished stuff from our grain-finished, it’s so fatty. Kinderhook just has great pasture management.

I recently had a rib steak from Kinderhook, and the flavor was so intense, almost as strong as lamb is, but different, obviously. It was great. How do they do that?

Well, it depends. Grass-finished does have a more prominent flavor because of what they’re eating–if you take a mouthful of grass, it has a stronger flavor than a mouthful of grain. But that actually isn’t the major reason. It’s more the maturity of the animal–the beef you get at the grocery store is killed when it’s between 16 and 20 months old, and at Kinderhook, they slaughter between 26 and 30 months. So there’s a much more intense flavor. Thirty or forty years ago, most of the beef we eat would have fallen under the classification of baby beef or rose veal because they’re so young.

So Meat Hook’s butchering classes for November are sold out, but what are those classes going to be like?

We’ll have a full spectrum of regular butchering, pig butchering, and lamb butchering, date butchering on Saturday nights.

What makes it date butchering?

Well it’s Saturday night, you can have a couple drinks–we always have some beer around–hang out, watch some butchering, and go out to eat afterwards.

Do students get to try butchering themselves?

No, but in the New Year we’re going to be offering by-application-only classes on a professional development track. Not just butchering, but in all aspects of the cooking classes that we’re offering. And those will be hands-on. But no, none of the [recreational] butchering classes are hands-on, mostly for liability reasons.

And our non-butchering classes span the width and breadth of food. We’re in negotiations with Salvatore Brooklyn to do a ricotta class. One of the guys from Roberta’s is going to do a class on making pizza, we’re going to get one of the brewers from Brooklyn Brewery to teach brewing. We’re doing pickling by McClure, a kimchi class, pie and biscuit making…

How do you feel about being called a rock star butcher?

It’s pretty weird. When I first started butchering a few years ago, it was pretty unglamorous. I mean, in the sense of 14-hour days in the basement of Diner, butchering animals, plus doing fish, plus doing prep. It really sucked. And then they finally built a cut room, so I was cutting in this little tiny cooler room without windows. It was really, really cold in the wintertime.

And then all of a sudden, everybody is going nuts for the whole thing, and of course, with anything trendy you get people who are haters. I guess I don’t understand the spectrum. I don’t understand the superfan. I mean, I’m glad they exist — I’m glad people are interested in how we do things, how we source things, but I don’t really understand. And I also don’t understand the people who are like, “Oh, another stupid rock star bullshit article.”

There are people who come to butchering classes, and they say, “You totally changed my life.” And I’m thinking, “Really?” I mean, that’s cool. I just don’t really get it. I don’t understand how we got here. It’s not like we were saying to each other, “You know what’s going to be the next big thing…” We all [he and fellow Meat Hook butchers Brent Young and Ben Turley] fell into it in one way or another, and everything just evolved from there.

As for the phenomenon itself, the only thing I can think of is that, in the ’90s, everyone was a vegetarian. I was a vegetarian. The ’90s were like: vegetarian, indie rock, beautiful genius. And then we had the Bush years, and I don’t even know what to say about that. We had an end-of-history moment. And now it’s snapping back in the other direction. People do want to eat meat, but they want to take ownership of that, and find out where it comes from.

The interest in nouvelle butchering centers around local, sustainable meat. And that’s the aspect of the butchering trend that really matters to me. That’s the silver lining. The trend itself is a little tiny bit irritating, because it’s just a job. It’s not as cool as you think it is. It’s definitely not a bad job, but it’s a job.

Every article that’s been written in the name-brand press, these sort of lifestyle pieces, they talk about butchering, but they don’t actually talk about it. They say things like “rock star butchers,” but there’s nothing about the nuts and bolts. They don’t explain what questions you should be asking your butcher. It’s just: “Butchers are sexy!” And they throw around words like “hipstervore.” If you’re paid to be a journalist and you’re throwing around words like “hipster,” you’re lazy. It’s more complicated than that. None of us are walking around in skinny jeans and Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirts and ironic trucker hats. We’re just dudes that cook and butcher.

Well, what questions should you be asking your butcher?

I mean the biggest one is: What is this? Where is this from? Where do you get your chickens? Ultimately, if someone is a butcher, they should know where it’s from. “Oh, I get it from IBP [formerly Iowa Beef Processors now Tyson Fresh Meats],” that doesn’t really answer the question. Do you know geographically where it came from, what breed it is. I think everything’s going to change, and more butchers will be able to answer those questions.

We go out of our way to buy local meat from small farms, animals raised sustainably, and it’s not just because of PC bullshit, all that Alice Waters bullshit. It tastes better.

Tomorrow: Mylan on what to drink with offal, listening to Kelly Clarkson while butchering, what he loves about Miami Vice, and why he worries about Rachel Ray.