I often accompanied my grandmother on her daily trips to the market as a child; it was an experience of which I wasn’t very fond. It was hot and humid, replete with strong odors of raw meat mingled with the briny notes of dried, salted fish and shrimp paste. Trying my best to play the filial granddaughter while carefully avoiding the disaster of stepping into a questionable puddle of water meant that I hardly paid attention to the nuances of shopping at the market: what questions to ask the butcher, what the different cuts of meat were for, why patronize this vendor and not the others.
The side effects of neglecting these childhood lessons became apparent once I lived on my own. When faced with a baffling variety of beef and pork cuts, I was lost. This resulted in a regular rotation of familiar cuts on our dinner menu: ground beef, pork chops, beef filets and pork ribs. It was too daunting (and expensive) to try something new. Adding to the challenge was the absence of a trusted resource I could turn to for advice that also offered meat products that were sustainably and humanely raised.
This is the type of problem that husband-and-wife team Aaron and Monica Rocchino are looking to solve with their new venture, The Local Butcher Shop.
“We worked demanding jobs in the food industry and didn’t see very much of each other, so we were looking for a solution to that which also fills a gap in the market,” Monica shared. “As home cooks, we found it difficult to source sustainably-raised meat at the retail level and figured that other people must be facing the same challenge.”
Tucked into a modest space along Berkeley’s Shattuck Avenue, this is not just any butcher shop: it’s a local butcher shop, committed to sourcing sustainably-raised, pastured meat and eggs from farms located within a 150-mile radius of the city. Just five months old, the shop, which practices whole animal butchery, goes through about 120 dozen eggs, five to six pigs and two cows a week.
“It’s the only way to track the real provenance of the meat, as opposed to just getting parts in a box,” said Monica. “It’s also more financially viable to buy a whole animal than one that’s already been portioned; it allows us to work around the challenges of working with slaughterhouses that may not always deliver the types of cuts we request.”
With Aaron’s training at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and his experience working at restaurants such as Berkeley’s Chez Panisse and New York’s Le Bernadin, practicing whole animal butchery opens up a world of cooking that a restaurant kitchen could never offer. No part of the animal is wasted: livers are transformed into pâtes, tongues are pickled, fat is rendered, caul is turned into sausage casings, and less popular cuts of meat, like the shank or chuck roast, are braised, smoked or roasted for one of their daily sandwiches.
The shop’s pricing system is based on dividing the animal into thirds, with accompanying charts delineating which cuts fall into each category. Said Monica, “Part of our goal in this business is to show our customers that the whole animal is valuable, and what you derive from a piece of meat depends on how you cook it. Ultimately, our goal is to have the same price for everything, from the filet and loin to the tail and shanks.”
That’s a bold vision, and one that the Rocchinos and their team of 11 butchers work toward by engaging with disappointed customers unable to purchase their tenderloin/ribeye/chops for dinner.
“That’s the most challenging and rewarding part of the job,” said Monica. “It’s tough to have to tell a customer that we don’t have what they’re looking for, but it’s also a great opportunity to introduce them to cuts of meat they might not be familiar with, but would be a good substitute for the dish they’re planning to prepare, or introducing them to a new recipe entirely. That’s when the kitchen experience among our butchers comes in handy.”
It would be too easy to dismiss The Local Butcher Shop as a trendy offshoot of the farm-to-table movement that’s driving the opening of butcher shops all over New York and around the country. But if you give it some thought, you’ll realize that they’re more than just a “trendy” way of selling meat. They’re bringing people closer to their food and reinstating the trust in a food chain displaced by years of focusing on large-scale systems of production and distribution. Not every household can afford (financially or otherwise) to participate in animal shares, even if they wanted to. Butcher shops help address that gap, and their re-emergence on America’s food landscape is a logical progression along the path towards greater transparency and sustainability for the sources of our food. It’s great to know your farmer, and soon, it will be just as important to know your butcher too.
Who do you turn to for advice on cooking and grocery shopping?
Danielle Tsi grew up in Singapore, a tiny, food-obsessed island on the tip of the Malaysian Peninsula, where every waking minute was spent thinking about what her next meal was going to be. Landing in the United States with her well-traveled Nikon, she turned her lifelong love affair with food into images and words on her blog, Beyond the Plate. When not behind the lens or at the stove, Danielle can be found on her yoga mat perfecting the headstand.