How an Upstart Upstate Butcher Begat the Modern Meat-Cutting Movement

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“It was an act of craziness and stupidity,” says Jessica Applestone, recalling when she and her husband opened Fleishers Grass-fed and Organic Meats in 2004.

The shop was on an out-of-the-way side street in Kingston, New York, whose Hudson Valley location belies its mainstream American culture. Here miles of shopping malls and supermarkets offered that national staple, grain-fed meat–cheap, lean and neatly packaged. To the people of Kingston, grass was not something you hoped your steak to have eaten. It was something you mowed on Saturday morning and maybe smoked in the evening.

Josh and Jessica had met in 2002 while working at New World Home Cooking, one of the first Hudson Valley restaurants to source ingredients from the area’s family farmers. Josh was a cook and Jessica, working to support herself while writing a book, a server. Soon the two were a couple, and hatching plans to make a living together serving real food.

At first they thought of opening a café, but Jessica had another idea, born of her frustration that she couldn’t get a steak she felt OK about eating unless she bought half a steer. Yes, a few local farmers markets were starting to carry meat, but they offered a very limited selection that was often badly butchered. So even though neither of them knew the first thing about how to cut meat, and Josh was a vegetarian, they leapt into the act of craziness and stupidity and established a novel butcher shop. Despite its many (pastured) pork products, they named it for Josh’s grandfather Wolf Fleisher, who had opened a kosher butcher shop in Windsor Terrace almost exactly a century earlier.

Seven years and a locavore revolution later, it remains one of a handful in the nation to offer only sustainable meats from small local farms.

Determination and a whole lot of chutzpah somehow kept the store open. The location was bad. The public was baffled. Sourcing was difficult. And, for philosophical and economic reasons, they were committed to using every last scrap of flesh, which meant figuring out how to sell all the parts modern consumers weren’t in the habit of buying.

There was the dilemma of display. “We immediately learned that people need to see a munificent, bountiful case that is filled to the brim with chops, steaks and mountains and rivers of ground meat,” says Jessica. “But we didn’t realize how time-consuming and difficult it is do a case. Making skirt steak look like a rose was not something we had thought about.”

But forget shaping it into a flower. The ultimate unanticipated challenge was that Josh and Jessica had to learn to cut a steak from a side of beef in the first place–which had never been part of the plan. Farmers took their live animals to a slaughterhouse up in Columbia County, where an on-staff butcher cut the carcasses into cuts; the Applestones’ role was simply to source and sell. But after only a few months, the couple realized they needed to learn butchery themselves. They paid someone from Smokehouse of the Catskills to show them the very basics, but ultimately the Applestones became skilled butchers the only way anyone really can. They say it’s simply about doing it and doing it and doing it again, until it becomes muscle memory.

While the two were slowly mastering the art of turning carcasses into cuts, they were courting Kingston customers and picking up city chef clients as well, delivering meat to eco-gastro restaurants including Diner, Marlow & Sons and, in Manhattan, Savoy, Il Buco and Blue Hill–and cutting everything to order. “I met Jessica and Josh when they were just starting out,” recalls Gramercy Tavern‘s executive chef Michael Anthony, who was then at Blue Hill. “They are the pioneers who laid the groundwork for today’s butcher revival.”

“It’s pretty safe to say that without Josh and Jessica the whole meat aspect of the local sustainable food movement would be not nearly what it is today,” says Tom Mylan, the co-owner of the Meat Hook and one of Josh’s earliest disciples. “They were so instrumental in getting local and sustainable meat into New York City. They kind of rammed it down everybody’s throat.”

But first Josh–you might have seen this coming–started eating meat. He had been a bean-and-rice-eating vegan for 18 years, only recently allowing eggs and dairy to cross his lips. Finally, at dinner at the then-new Blue Hill at Stone Barns, he tasted the flesh he’d gotten neck-deep in.

The food world was taking notice, and feedback was phenomenal, but financially they were getting, well, butchered. “We just kept getting our asses pounded,” says Josh.

The turnaround came in 2007, when the couple went to Vancouver to learn charcuterie from the Oyama Sausage Company‘s Jan van der Lieck, a fifth-generation sausage maker who, the New York Times wrote, “may be the most gifted, and certainly most diversely talented meat man in North America.” Based on the Applestones’ experience, he may also be the most generous. “He offered to teach Josh,” says Jessica, “which is the kind of offer that never happens.”

But it wasn’t van der Lieck’s charcuterie secrets that saved their bottom line, it was his business advice. Recalls Josh: “He was appalled that we were cutting meat for restaurant clients.”

So the couple made a decision that would save their business–and spur city chefs to take butchering into their own hands. They resolved that they would continue to source superior meat from sustainable farms–but they would deliver whole carcasses, not cuts.

“I realized,” says Josh, “that I would have to begin teaching other people to do what we do.” Paradoxically, by vowing to do less butchering, they ignited an urban butchery renaissance.

And so, less than five years after they first cut meat themselves, they began teaching the art of whole animal butchery to the city’s most sustainable kitchens.

Josh has taught butchery to more people than he can count, but his most famous pupil was his very first. Back when the Applestones first introduced the idea of restaurants cutting whole animals in-house, their guinea pig trainee was Tom Mylan. Today he’s both a superstar of the New York City food world (known by sight by most chefs; his name alone enough to draw hordes to local potlucks or panels in Brooklyn and beyond) and the American butchery movement, having been featured on the Travel Channel’s No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain, the Cooking Channel’s Food Crafters and NPR’s All Things Considered. But back then he was the manager of Marlow & Sons, the groundbreaking restaurant, wine bar and grocery.

They had met at the very first New Amsterdam Market, where Mylan was looking for a reliably great source of ground beef to grace the housemade burger buns at Diner. After a trip upstate he placed a standing order. He wrote a profile of Fleisher’s for Diner Journal, taught the Applestones’ staff about cheese, and by the time Josh announced he’d no longer butcher for wholesale clients, they’d become friends.

“The whole problem,” recalls Mylan of ultimatum, “was that he was trying to get chefs and restaurant owners to commit to something that was WAY outside everybody’s comfort zone. Everybody was like ‘Oh, all right, never mind, we’ll go back to getting industrial crap.'”

But Tom, bored of running the café, volunteered for butchery boot camp. He persuaded his employers to create a new position of staff butcher, hired a replacement to take on his old role managing Marlow & Sons, and in late 2007 spent six weeks sleeping on the Applestones’ couch and learning how to cut meat from Josh and a guy named Aaron Lenz whom Josh had trained.

“It’s one of the happiest accidents in my life,” he recalls today–but he doesn’t sugarcoat the memory either. “I hated it. Going from running a café to butchering whole animals 10 to 12 hours a day is pretty brutal. It sucked. My hands were covered in cuts and my back was all cramped. It’s not that hard once you have the technique, but anybody who went from some sort of normal job to butchering full time, if they say they love it, they’re lying.”

Back in Brooklyn, Mylan honed his skills in a new cut room behind Diner; it was only a matter of time before the trainee became the trainer. “I took a significant pay cut to become a butcher,” recalls Mylan. “I was like, ‘I have this newfound skill set, and I have to pay for a wedding.’ And Josh was like, ‘why don’t you pimp some meat for me?'”

George Weld, owner of Egg in Williamsburg, was one of the first chefs Mylan persuaded to take whole sides of Fleisher’s meat. Josh had once sent him pork belly, in the “first one’s free” style of people who deal other addictive substances. Recalls Weld: “When it showed up, I think it was Ossabaw, and I think they gave it to me for free. And I was like, ‘holy shit, who are these people?'”

Back then Egg was still a morning-only breakfast joint and Weld couldn’t use up a whole pork belly in an entire week–it ended up going home with the staff, he wistfully recalls–but once Egg started serving all day, Mylan urged him to go whole hog. “The whole mentality was pretty infectious,” Weld recalls, noting that without Mylan there to show him how to break down a side of a pig in the back of Marlow & Sons, he likely wouldn’t have taken the porky plunge. Today he buys a half pig each week, breaking it down on a tiny prep table and turning out sausages, charcuterie, roasts, chops and on and on. “It’s like getting a box of paints every week,” says Weld, who notes that on butchery day the refrigerator is wall-to-wall pork.

Still, success came in fits and starts–it took Mylan three or four months to convince the kitchen staff at Roebling Tea Room to get whole carcasses–and the cleaver work was less of a hurdle than the complete menu reconfigurations. “They’re gonna be like, ‘how many pounds of this cut am I going to get?'” says Mylan of chefs considering the conversion. “You have to reeducate them soup to nuts, how to run their kitchen. The butchering part is easy, it’s finding clever ways to cook, say, shanks. That wasn’t the case five years ago. A lot has changed. People have really evolved.”

Over time, thanks to the DIY zeitgeist sweeping the city, more and more of Manhattan and Brooklyn’s best restaurants came to worship at the altar of whole animal–whether they ordered their whole pig or lamb from Fleisher’s, other similar-minded sources, or directly from farmers. Home cooks, too, saw the light, thanks in part to Mylan, who helped launch Marlow & Daughters–the butcher shop on Broadway where he could be found in a bloodstained apron disassembling carcasses before shoppers very eyes, holding court and transforming trimmings into pricey chorizo–right about the time the Applestones’ little upstate shop was honored in Saveur‘s 2008 annual “100” issue.

He himself got major media attention and soon outgrew his job there; in late 2009 he opened the Meat Hook, housed in the wonderful cook’s destination the Brooklyn Kitchen, still selling meat from Fleisher’s, and from small farms Mylan works with directly; Mylan has trained half a dozen professional Brooklyn butchers and offers a regular series of sold-out butchery demonstrations at the Kitchen (which the majority of Edible readers have likely already taken).

“It was kind of the first thing that I really wanted to do,” says Mylan of spreading the cleaver gospel. “As soon as I had any sort of know-how to speak of, I wanted to share it with others. I’d been trying to learn about butchering before I went up to stay with Josh and Jessica, and there was nothing out there, all the books were old and out of date. There were a couple videos you could buy, but they weren’t useful.”

Josh, the teacher’s teacher, remains one of the only hands-on butchery trainers in the nation: “The ways in which we teach are very different,” says Mylan. “He basically has a butchering academy set up inside his shop. We just have a two-and-a-half-hour class: Dipping their toe in, not really teaching them how to cut.”

But outside of his sold-out demonstrations, Mylan has shown countless chefs how to do just that.

In addition to George Weld at Egg, there’s Italian native Edouardo Mantelli, a co-owner and executive chef at Saraghina, the wonderfully quirky brick-oven pizzeria and Italian restaurant on Halsey Street in Bed-Stuy. Mantelli, who is also the creative director at Tocca, a fashion design company, had been a customer at Fleisher’s upstate store, visiting from his weekend house nearby and getting to know the Applestones in person. “I went there every weekend for years,” says Mantelli, who ordered from them the second he opened Saraghina in 2009. “When it comes to meat,” says Mantelli, “Fleisher’s is the best.”

Mantelli’s menu rotates through fillet steak with rosemary, or maybe steak tartare, or maybe scallopini or brisket, all cut down from the weekly half-steer he gets from Fleisher’s. (The mainly Muslim neighborhood doesn’t have much appetite for pork.) As he cooks his way through the animal, he changes the menu daily in the style of trattorias he knew in Italy, noting that those thrifty cooks used up every piece of the animal they had. Mantelli’s steer arrives in primal cuts, though the chef is learning how to cut thanks to lessons from Mylan, whom Mantelli has known since his days at Marlow.

Meat is arguably now secondary to the main product the Applestones sell and distribute: knowledge. Their courses–all hands-on–range from one-day workshops called “Steer to Steak” or “Pig to Pork” (which follow a single animal all the way from a farm to the dinner table) to an eight-week, $10,000 intensive–which is similar to what Mylan first experienced, albeit without the sofa sleeping quarters.

“I had never worked in a kitchen before,” says Jake Levi, an artist and recent Fleisher’s alum currently looking for part-time butchery work in the city. “And the first day, they had me cutting lamb necks all day.”

Banker Ryan Fibiger took the one-day steer class and then quit his job at J. P. Morgan to study with Josh; he continues to work at Fleisher’s three days a week while developing plans to open a similar butcher shop in Connecticut. “Josh is a generous teacher,” he says. “And he’s clear that it’s not all about cutting. He is adamant about the business side of this and even took us on a trip to Walmart so we could see what marketing and display are all about.”

Mimi Zora, a Brooklyn-based freelance writer, enrolled in another steer workshop and found herself alongside an elevator repairman, a “hardcore foodie” lawyer, a high school science teacher, a PhD sustainability student at the New School, a grocery store owner and a father who wanted to be able to talk to his daughters about where their food comes from. “I’d gone thinking it would be a quirky adventure,” she says, “but it ended up being much more than that. It was a pretty powerful and eye-opening experience.”

Other students who found the Applestone apprenticeship eyeopening include author Julie Powell of Julie and Julia fame, who documented the experience in her second book Cleaving, and Derek Ellis, a former biology technician and backcountry ski guide who runs a processing plant in Idaho, breaking down deer, elk, pigs, beef and buffalo. Then there’s Erika Nakamura and Amelia Posada, a tweeting team of cleaver-wielding butcherettes, as they call themselves, whose Los Angeles-based Fleisher’s clone, Lindy & Grundy, is slated to open this year.

And thankfully, sales are strong, too, despite demands on professional kitchens. Jessica says business is now about 50 percent retail and 50 percent wholesale, including weekly deliveries to Manhattan restaurants like Bubby’s, Casa Mono and Northern Spy. Meanwhile more than 60 New Yorkers get fresh meat delivered each Thursday through home delivery (yes, home delivery), and that number is steadily increasing. Last year, Josh butchered a pig on the Martha Stewart Show and twice judged episodes of Iron Chef America. This spring, the Applestones’ book The Butcher’s Guide to Well-Raised Meat is being published, and, in a realization of their original scrapped plan from way back when, they’re opening Grass, a farm-sourced diner in a recently shuttered luncheonette next door to their shop.

But despite the successes–and the recent glamorization of butchers as macho, testosterone-fueled rock stars–Josh remains realistic. “You cannot romanticize what we do,” he says flatly. “It’s one reason we do these classes. I can explain why we do what we do and how we do it until I am blue in the face, but until someone sees it, they really just won’t get it. I show people how to kill. We take a life. When the carcass comes in, it is rotting. Everything is going downhill fast. I teach my students how to control that.”

On a recent snowy Thursday morning, the streets are deserted but Fleisher’s is all action. The cases need to be filled; freezers replenished with stocks, marrow bones and prepared foods; and orders readied for pickup at the store and for delivery to the city. Behind the counter, staff butcher Brian Mayer is at the cut table, preparing lamb offal–heart, tongue and kidneys–to be frozen still encased in their protective layer of fat. An apprentice is bagging trim from a steer to be used for grind.

Off to one side, a large killed-and-chilled lamb is the subject of a spontaneous quiz by Hans Siebold, a retired Culinary Institute of America instructor who is a steady presence at the shop. “Is the neck good to eat all year round? Which is the most expensive part of the lamb?” he tests two apprentices as he draws a diagram showing a breakdown of the lamb primals on a large sheet of butcher paper.

Josh, for whom the word “fuck” is multipurpose, serving as a noun, verb, adjective and adverb, is sitting in his cubicle of an office off to the side. He is wearing a Jessica-designed T-shirt that channels both the shop’s ancestral Brooklyn accent and the current butchery aesthetic: “Live and Loin.” (Others read “You Can’t Beat Our Meat” and “Juicy Loins, Tender Rumps.”) He’s trying to figure out the whereabouts of his car keys while fielding questions from the cutters. “How lean does she want that brisket?” yells in Brian, referring to an order about to be picked up.

After a monosyllabic phone call, Josh calls out, “Get the fucking steaks into the case!” then suddenly leaps from his chair and heads over to the cut table where one of the apprentices is tying up a chuck-eye roll. “Here,” he says gently, “tie it this way.” He demonstrates a knot: “This will work better.”

“You know,” he says, “this rock star thing is fucking bullshit. Just because you can make bacon doesn’t make you a butcher. I am not a master butcher. I am on a journeyman quest. This is a lifetime journey and in this business if you say you are buying it whole, that’s what you have to do. There is no margin of error here.”

It may be just a personal journey for Josh, but it’s one that has changed the way countless New Yorkers–if not countless Americans–will eat for years to come.

“I don’t think he changed it,” says Mylan of Josh’s impact on the butchery scene, “he made it. He willed it to happen. We would not be where we’re at without Josh. There would be no Meat Hook, there would no Marlow & Daughters. He created the market for something people didn’t even know they wanted. Well before anybody read some Michael Pollan essay and decided they wanted to change something. Anybody can read a book, but there has to be an infrastructure for people to be able to eat differently. Without Josh, that wouldn’t have happened.”

Food Revolutionaries: Josh Applestone (page 49 and on ladder above) founded a ground-breaking locavore butcher shop in the Hudson Valley with his wife, Jessica in 2004. Despite their many (pastured) pork products, they named the business for his grandfather, Wolf Fleisher, who had opened a kosher butcher shop in Windsor Terrace a century earlier. Their first apprentice, Tom Mylan, in apron above, says if it weren’t for them, he never would have opened The Meat Hook.

Unique Case: After training for six weeks at Fleisher’s, Mylan went whole hog: in 2009 he opened the Meat Hook, housed in the wonderful cook’s destination the Brooklyn Kitchen, where he transforms trimmings into justifiably pricey chorizo and offers a regular series of sold-out butchery demonstrations.

Protein-Pupil Prototype: “It’s one of the happiest accidents in my life,” recalls Mylan of his 2007 apprenticeship with the Applestones. “Without Josh and Jessica the whole meat aspect of the sustainable food movement would be not nearly what it is today. They kind of rammed it down everybody’s throat.”

Clever with a Cleaver: Jessica Applestone had not planned on learning to turn carcasses into cuts. But she and Josh taught themselves—and eventually many others—igniting an urban butcher renaissance.

Photo credit:  Jennifer May and Carolyn Fong.

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