Back in November, Melissa Khoury walked away from her job as executive chef of Washington Place Bistro to open Saucisson, a boutique butchery offering fresh and cured meats, sausages and specialty products. Then in February, Adam Lambert left his post as executive chef at Bar Cento to launch the Meat & Curing Co., a retail butcher shop focusing on fresh cuts of meat, house-roasted deli meats and charcuterie. In the coming months, Butcher & the Brewer will open its doors on East Fourth Street, bringing the artisan butcher shop experience smack dab to the center of town.
What's up with all the butcher shops?
"I think we're seeing more butcher shops opening up now because the whole farm-to-table restaurant movement has been doing such a good job educating diners on why a particular piece of meat is better than what's at the grocery store," explains Khoury, whose Saucisson is doing so well, she's got bricks-and-mortar on her mind. "People not only have come to expect it, they have come to demand it."
Cleveland isn't wanting for butchers. Walk into the West Side Market and there's a herd of folks cutting and selling meat. But today's generation of young butchers is different. For starters, they're restaurant chefs, who in a quest for the best local product would have to source whole animals from area farms. What they did with them is what sets them apart from your everyday meat cutter.
"A good butcher will use sustainable meats, and will utilize the whole animal," says Rex Workman, the "butcher" in Butcher & the Brewer, who currently works in New York City. "Being able to utilize everything is a much different skill set than getting boxed meat in and selling it. When you commit to a whole animal, you really have to have a knowledge and passion for what you're doing."
That means being creative, resourceful and wise. The modern artisan butcher shop is more of a hybrid between a great corner deli and an old-fashioned meat market. In addition to the popular steaks, chops and ground meats, cooler shelves are stocked with fresh and cured sausage, pates and terrines, high-quality deli meats and even sandwiches.
Kris Kreiger is a man ahead of his time. Fed up with the state of commercial meat purveyors, Kreiger opened the high-quality butcher shop Chef's Choice Meats in Berea 10 years ago. He shuttered it four years ago.
"I was fucking 10 years too early," he says. "I was doing sustainable and local butchery while it was still in its infancy."
Kreiger blames his company's fate on timing, location and cost — all factors that Cleveland's young butchers appear to have him beat on. "If I had a chance to do it all over again, I would," he admits. "But I'd pick my location better. You have to go where your customers can afford and get what you're trying to do. Pork and beef prices are through the roof in general, but using strictly these heritage breeds... It gets very, very expensive."
Sticker shock is a common reaction for shoppers at area farmers markets and CSAs, where sustainable, humanly raised meats are sold. But it's becoming less and less so as consumers continue to become educated on the real costs of clean food and supply rises to meet increasing demand.
"I think more and more people are saying, 'Yes, it's a higher-quality product and I'm willing to pay for it,'" explains Trevor Clatterbuck of Fresh Fork Market, who works with 100 farmers within 75 miles to keep folks like Lambert, Khoury and Workman knee-deep in meat. "Second, the production is coming around and we're getting to the point that prices can be lowered because of efficiencies."
Increasingly, consumers are willing to spend more for high-quality food that comes from local suppliers they know and trust. Having a knowledgeable chef across the counter to offer cooking tips is an added bonus that even the farmer can't top.
"There's local and then there's local," says Khoury, referring to the fact that meat hailed as local often is coming from a factory farm in Sandusky. "Shops like ours supports local two times over. We're trying to support ourselves, of course, but also the small farmer who is supplying that beautifully raised animal."
Put more bluntly, Workman says, "I believe that the prices reflect the true cost of food. When you buy a cheap steak at $3.99 per pound, you're paying for it one way or another."
When Butcher & the Brewer opens its retail butcher shop, likely a few months after the rest of the ambitious operation, it will offer dry-aged meats, grass-fed ground beef and burgers, cured and fresh sausages, and all matter charcuterie. But the signature item will be hot dogs, says Workman, who learned the craft from his days at Dickson's Farmstand Meats in New York's Chelsea Market.
"I love working with my hands and creating something from my own movements," Workman says. "I broke down a half steer by myself this past Friday and it was just beautiful."