The Butcher’s Back

From Conneticut Magazine

by Elizabeth Keyser

Steven Ford calls himself “the last of the Mohicans,” but he’s actually looking more like a trailblazer. A year-and-a-half ago, Ford opened Butcher’s Best in Newtown, which chefs and gastronomes consider one of the finest meat markets in Connecticut.

Ford is a devout practitioner of a movement to return the butcher’s trade to its roots. He’s small-scale and specializes in hyper-local products. In an age when supermarkets receive large shipments of prepacked, ready-to-sell meat products, Ford buys whole, hanging animals—pasture-raised, antibiotic and hormone-free—from farms close by (Berkshire pigs from Rowlands Farm in Oxford and lamb from Sepe Farm in Sandy Hook) and uses every part.

“The idea behind Butcher’s Best is my passion for meat and customer service,” he says. “You see there aren’t signs in my meat case? That’s purposeful. I want the customer to talk to me. I want them to ask, ‘What’s that?’ and I can say, ‘That’s a prime beef short rib from certified black angus beef from Pennsylvania.’” And Ford will tell you how to cook it—that braising meat on the bone creates a richer sauce. Taste his house-made bacon, prosciutto and sausages, and you realize he knows flavor. “I’ve always had a passion for cooking,” he says.

Ford minimizes waste and limits his distribution area. “We control our cutting. Much of the business is made or lost ‘on the block,’” he says. His shop is in the Newtown Deli, which makes hamburgers from his ground meat, and he sells his products to several other delis and restaurants close by.

Butcher Bob Clark, owner of the Litchfield Locker, a USDA-certified wholesale butcher and retail shop in Litchfield, has seen many changes over the 42 years he’s been in business. But now, he says, he’s in the midst of a major movement. Today, he has 13 local farms producing pasture-raised animals as wholesale customers; four years ago, it was just two. Most farms sell their meat at farm stands or farmers’ markets, but Clark’s retail customers can order local Blue Moon Farm’s natural, pasture-raised beef at the shop. Blue Moon’s Farmer, Katie Murdock happens to also be a butcher at Litchfield Locker.

Albert Pizzirusso, a butcher and owner of A&S Fine Foods in Norwalk, is another old-school butcher who has adapted his business to current trends. Rather than stuffing its meat case with hundreds of pounds of meat, A&S concentrates on special orders. Why should customers settle for a supermarket’s scrawny frozen rabbit from China, when they can order a plump, fresh rabbit from upstate New York at A&S? “Our customers learn to call us,” he says. “We go to Hunts Point Market [in the Bronx] twice a week. We buy hanging meat. We walk in and see it. You see them pack it and Cryovac it.”

Pizzirusso’s customers want quality. “Instead of eating large amounts of low-quality meat, they eat less and better quality,” he says. Prepared food—braised beef braciole, for instance—is a big part of his business. People have less time to cook.

Entrepreneurs have taken notice of the trends. The Meat House is a franchise aiming to be “a modern revival of the neighborhood butcher,” says Matt Kormier, general manager of Avon’s Meat House. “We’re trying to get back to the genuine hospitality through butchery.” Their 75-foot refrigerated case is loaded with certified-humane, all-natural meat; the freezer offers frog’s legs, rattlesnake and alligator. Unlike butchers Ford, Clark and Pizzirusso, who apprenticed at young ages, the Meat House’s staff have backgrounds as restaurant cooks. They “break down” primal cuts into steaks and chops, but can also advise customers on cooking. “People are cooking more in the recession and trying to create elegant meals at home,” Kormier says. The Meat House also has a shop in Newtown, and will open in Branford in April. More are on the horizon.

The New York-based specialty food market Fairway recently opened a megastore in Stamford. A picture of third-generation butcher Ray Venezia’s grandfather hangs over the meat counter. A staff of 30, including 20 butchers, can be seen trimming, cutting and packaging the meat—whole, fresh chickens and boxes of vacuum-packed primal cuts—delivered fresh seven days a week. Customers are fascinated. “When I do demos, taking apart sides of beef, people gather around to watch,” Venezia says. Fairway’s large kosher department gets in primal cuts of humanely slaughtered meat that’s been salted and soaked. “We cut them under rabbinical supervision,” he says.

This fall, Connecticut will get a second small-scale, local, nose-to-tail butcher (after Butcher’s Best) when Ryan Fibiger opens shop in Westport or Fairfield. Every part of the animal will be used, he says—scraps will go to dog food, for example, tallow for candles. Currently Fibiger is apprenticing at Fleisher’s Grass-Fed & Organic Meats of Kingston, N.Y., whose owner, Joshua Applegate, is a leader in the movement to reinvent traditional butchery (and likes to remind people that each cow has just one—one!—hanger steak). Fibiger will source his meat from a 150-mile radius. “It’s very important that everything is local,” he says, “but what it comes down to is that grass-fed organic meat is the best product I’ve ever seen or tasted. It speaks for itself.”