When April Bloomfield recalls visiting the local butcher shop as a young girl, it’s with a nostalgia most people reserve for ice cream parlors.
“I can instinctively remember that meaty smell, that kind of raw meat, and it always felt so wholesome,” says Bloomfield in an accent that betrays her origins in Birmingham, England. “I never felt like it was a carcass because it was part of the process, it was part of my life. I just remember big burly men [with] big, strong, brawny accents talking to my grandfather, and the smell. And there was lots of sawdust on the floor, and I particularly remember that if anything fell on the floor it would sort of get soaked up in the sawdust, and they could just sweep it away.”
In October, Bloomfield, along with her business partner Ken Friedman, opened White Gold Butchers, a restaurant in a butcher shop, on Amsterdam Avenue. The whole-animal butchery, which carries only pasture-raised, grass-fed meats, also supplies the pair’s renowned restaurants, the Breslin and the Spotted Pig. A counter up front sells cold brew, kimchi hot dogs, and copies of Bloomfield’s cookbook A Girl and Her Pig, whose cover showcases the chef in a shining white apron, hoisting a skinned pig over her shoulders.
It’s a far cry from the butcher shop of Bloomfield’s past. But Bloomfield says that White Gold Butchers, at its core, intends to evoke the same feelings. “It has the level of service that I remember,” she says. “I remember my granddad asking a lot of questions, and just the familiarity of being in that kind of local place. [White Gold] has got all of those qualities to it.”
For a generation accustomed to FreshDirect and plastic-wrapped sirloin from the supermarket, ordering a ribeye from a bloodstained butcher may feel unfamiliar. And with the steady rise of locally sourced, snout-to-tail butcheries over the last decade, that trepidation can come layered with a new set of anxieties, not unlike the feeling of entering a hip record shop.
“There is still a little bit of that hipster vibe of butchers, so people are less willing to engage,” says Josh Meehan, the head butcher at the Park Slope location of Fleishers Craft Butchery, one of the pioneers of the artisanal butchery movement. “But if there’s one mistake [customers make], it’s the feeling that they have to know what they’re talking about.”
When customers push through these discomforts, they can come to develop relationships that feel distinctly intimate. “This is totally unique,” says Tim Schreier, a business developer and longtime regular at Pino’s Prime Meat Market, in Soho. (“I’m an irregular,” he quips.) “I mean, yeah, the coffee shop is nice. But this is family. They know my diet. I’ll come in, and they’ll say, ‘You’re eating too much red meat.’ Because they’re friends. And they’ll suggest a pork chop or chicken.”
Forming a relationship with a butcher, once a quotidian experience, can now feel rarefied in our impersonal, big-box food system. But butchers today stress that the tenets of these relationships — conversations, trust, a sense of culinary adventure — are built on old-fashioned principles that are worth maintaining.
“I don’t think I can stress it enough: It’s just not being afraid to ask questions,” says Meehan. “If you’re working with a butcher who is either unwilling to [answer] that question or is particularly conceited for some reason, then you’re working with the wrong butcher.”
For Josh Peil, head butcher at Marlow & Daughters, a whole-animal butchery in Williamsburg, the question he often asks customers is “What are you making?” Peil spent four years as a translator for government officials in Japan, and he draws on that experience to navigate conversations across the butcher counter. “It’s trying to find what the customer wants, trying to read what they need,” he says. “If someone comes in, they have an idea. It’s just a matter of finding out what that idea is and matching it up exactly with what they want.”
Rather than using esoteric meat lingo — which is often hyper-regional, susceptible to trends, or even just made up by individual butchers — Peil recommends you tell your butcher your desired goals: what you’re making, how many people you’re feeding, your time frame, and your budget. Today’s butchers see their role as not just breaking down animals and advocating for sustainable food systems, but also helping to educate home cooks in how to transform their culinary visions into reality.
Increasingly, the internet inspires home cooks to tackle more ambitious projects. Peil often interacts with customers who are clutching recipe-laden iPhones. “A lot of times they’re newer cooks, and they’re really afraid of deviating from their recipe — but I know that the cut called for in the recipe is not the right cut for what they’re trying to make,” he says. One common faux pas: attempting a slow-cooked stew using cuts of bottom round, which, he explains, “becomes dry and chewy.”
“We think about this stuff all day, every day,” says Marlow & Daughters general manager Michael Kale. “We’ve cooked everything that’s in the case. You don’t necessarily need to follow this recipe word for word. You don’t need to trust it more than us. If your goal is to make something really delicious for dinner, we can help you get there.”
To that end, Kale says that butcher shops reward customers who are willing to experiment. While Costco happily provides the illusion of an infinite meat supply, whole-animal butcheries confront a different, more sustainable, reality. During busy meat seasons like Easter, when a leg of lamb might be harder to obtain, Peil will suggest cuts like lamb shoulder as an alternative. Kale says it’s “a little more unctuous, it’s a little more flavorful, it’s a little bit fattier so it’s richer, and it’s also less expensive.” Of course, if there’s a cut of meat you’re set on cooking, call ahead. Because Marlow & Daughters supplies meat to restaurants like Diner and Marlow & Sons, Kale says asking a week in advance is ideal, but three days is usually enough time.
Butchers’ suggestions don’t always stick. Sitting on a bench outside of White Gold, head butchers Jocelyn Guest and Erika Nakamura (who are also co-owners along with Bloomfield and Friedman) recall a guy who came in wanting to make beef Bolognese. In an effort to gently steer him away from the misstep of braising filet mignon, Guest suggested beef cheeks, telling him how beautifully they braised. But to no avail. “I think the biggest mistake people make is not being adventurous,” Guest sighs, a piece of raw brisket dangling from the heel of her boot.
“To a degree this becomes about trust that we develop with our customers,” Nakamura says, her right hand’s grip on a green juice revealing the word LARD tattooed across her fingers. (The fingers on her left hand read MEAT.) “If our customers don’t trust us, then that relationship doesn’t move forward.”
“Best ham!” she says. “I just bought some and I’m not going to serve it for dinner — I bought a pork chop — because it’s so intense. But it’s the best ham I’ve ever had, including living in France.”
“Well, I’m from Virginia, so there’s a lot of pressure,” Guest says.
Nakamura asks the customer how the ground lamb she previously bought went, and she responds by going through her entire recipe. Nakamura and Guest let out oohs and aahs that get more animated as the description progresses. “I’ll bring some in!” the woman says before shaking their hands and then leaving.
“It’s like that all day,” says Guest.
“And the thing is, it’s the best part — and possibly the worst part,” says Nakamura. “Because we want to know, and everyone’s really excited to tell you about it. But sometimes you’re just like ‘All right, let’s hear it. I’ve heard this a thousand times, come on, let’s go.’”
“I love it though,” Guest says. “It’s the best part of the whole gig.”