Looking Back at the Best Butcher Contest

Posted on September 13th, 2012


There’s a lot that I will remember about Meatopia, presented by Whole Foods Market, on a stormy Saturday in 2012. There was the sun, followed by a tornado threat, followed by a glancing rainstorm that barely dampened the spirits of the assembled crowd; a brief sunburst afterward, and a second wind for sated appetites; and then, darkness and rain.


But some of my most vivid memories were of MCing the Best Butcher Contest. The three Whole Foods butcher up there on the stage were working so hard, with such intent concentration, that it was as if they didn’t even feel the looming clouds and accelerating winds. Their forearms flexed and knotted and sweat rolled down their faces as they first attempted to stuff a duck inside a chicken inside a turkey, an unnatural act only a Dr. Moreau could be expected to perform; then showing off their creative butcher cuts, contributions to the way we’ll eat, and cook, in the 21st century; and finally, in the last round, taking on the most elemental of all butcher tasks, breaking down an entire small animal, with hacksaw and knife.


At the end, Armand ‘The Arm’ Ferrante from Middletown, NJ, emerged victorious in the 2012 Best Butcher contest. His Jersey Boneless Short Rib steak will be on sale at Whole Foods Market stores for a year, and goes exceedingly well with Chef Tim Byre’s remarkable dry rub, which will be found on the store site. The Arm brought his own cheering section with him, and as the event wound down, they stayed steadfast to the very last, cheering him on and then, triumphantly, celebrating his win. It was the best kind of way to end the father of all meat events. Our congratulations go out to Armand, and our thanks to Whole Foods Market, without whom Meatopia would be impossible.

Mike Toscano of Perla and His Amazing Glazed Quail

Posted on September 5th, 2012

Mike Toscano is, in my professional opinion, the best meat chef of his generation. Of course, he’s so young that his generation is mostly still in cooking school. Still, the guy is an enormous talent, and I will go on record as saying that he will be one of the great American cooks, if he’s not brought down by a woman! In any case, I would urge you to watch this video, of Mike cooking his Meatopia dish, quail alla diavola. It’s a little dim at times. But that’s just because I feel so romantic about game birds.

OzerskyTV-Perla 720pHD-Final from Ozersky.TV on Vimeo.

Consider the Chicken

Posted on August 27th, 2012


Consider the chicken. Unlike the lobster, a wild animal whom we all like to kill in person, the chicken arrives to use ready to cook. We all know what a chicken looks like, if only from TV; it walks around and says “buck buck buck.” And we all know what it looks like, featherless and decapitated, in the meat aisle. We are even intimate with its deconstructed form, having eaten all its constituent parts a thousand times, breaded and spiced and fried up, or slathered in hot sauce and butter, or cooked in a delicious tomato sauce as chicken cacciatore.


It’s the connection that is the problem. Chickens are treated about as badly as any animal we eat – at least the cheap chicken that we get at the supermarket for $2 a pound, or at Bojangles for considerably more. Even with my abiding interest in eating animals, I tended not to think too much about chicken. But I have tried to go visit each of Meatopia’s sponsors, and that meant going to visit Bell & Evans in Fredericksburg, Pennsylvania.


I had been told that Bell & Evans was the most advanced and humane of all the major chicken producers, the Creekstone of poultry. But to honest, I expected to find an avian Potemkin Village, where a few chickens were caressed by bearded Mennonites while the machinery of destruction thundered behind the scenes. What I found instead was both heartening and depressing. Bell & Evans is as humane as advertised. But the standard chicken operation, which supplies my favorite quick-service restaurants, is, in contrast, far worse than I could have imagined. Aside from the standard PETA snuff videos, the dead chickens in commodity operations are cooled down by washing them in icy chlorinated water, a bloody broth that, in addition to everything else, melts away much of its subcutaneous fat. Bell & Evans, on the other hand, rates a 3 on the Global Animal Partnership’s 5-step Animal Welfare Rating standards used by Whole Foods Market. That means no cages or crates, enhanced environments, and outdoor access. The chickens are air-chilled, which keeps them clean and juicy. It’s weird to see thousands of them hanging on moving hooks, but chickens are going to come from somewhere; that place is bound to have a lot of dead ones. I was also impressed to see the chickens gently put to sleep in a kind of gas chamber filled with carbon dioxide. They get sleepier and sleepier, and the next thing they know they’re dead.


I even got to meet them as chicks.


bell and evans chicken from Ozersky.TV on Vimeo.


The experience did the same thing to me as Creekstone’s. I felt great about eating that chicken (I buy it every week at Whole Foods) and horrible about the alternative. Of course, it’s not like I’ll never eat at Bojangles again. But as Jules says at the end of Pulp Fiction, “I’m trying, Ringo. I’m trying real hard.”

Mind the GAP: Lessons From the Stun Line

Posted on August 20th, 2012


OzerskyTV @ Creekstone Farms from Ozersky.TV on Vimeo.


I’ve written about my visit to Kansas a lot, both here and on Rachael I probably will write more about it. The reason is that I was moved by meeting the steers I have enjoyed eating for so long, and seeing them slaughtered and “processed,” i.e. cut up into pieces, at the Creekstone plant. Maybe it was the fact that, immediately concluding the tour, I was taken to the boardroom and fed all the steak I can eat. And all the steak I can eat is a lot.


Below, you can see the video I made of the experience. It’s long, and NSFV (not safe for vegetarians.) This is a video for hardcore meatheads, but I think that anyone who, like me, loves to eat beef ought to watch it. I eat a lot of beef, probably more than some midwestern townships. But I try to eat only beef from producers whom I know are doing the right thing by the animals. Of course, you can’t always go to the plant, the way I did. So if you want to know how the animal lived, one option is to go by the GAP system that the most conscientious retailers, like Whole Foods, employ. Basically this is a five-step program. Even a producer with a GAP rating of 1 is approximately a thousand times better than the vast, unspeakable necropolises where the agribusiness giants do their evil work. Generally it’s smaller producers that get the higher ratings – but don’t make the mistake of thinking that because an animal is local, that it lived well. Jeffrey Dahmer had neighbors, too.


I realize that all this animal welfare stuff is kind of a buzzkill. I myself would rather watch Marc Forgione make a steak than worry about how cows I have never seen will meet their end. But the longer I do Meatopia, the more I have to think about these things. I’m not going to tell you that I would lose sleep if I ate a chuck roast from Publix, instead of a GAP rated steak from Whole Foods. I could tell you that, but you wouldn’t believe me. But once you start promoting yourself as a meat guru, and putting on the biggest meat-centric culinary event in the world, you have to think about how much blood you have on your hands. After going to Creekstone, I felt good about it, the same way I feel about Bell & Evans chicken (GAP rating: 2) and American Homestead pork (GAP rating: 1). The upshot is that if beef, pork, or chicken is on the GAP 5-step system, it’s OK to eat. That’s what I saw at Creekstone, and that was my takeaway.


Now sit back and watch what that trip was like.



Nobody Dast Blame This Man

Posted on August 8th, 2012




I am an ill-starred man. I always thought so; but occasionally small blessings like a wonderful marriage, success as an A-list food writer, and a healthy cholesterol count after a lifetime of wading in gravy kept me from seeing it. Here is a perfect example. I came up with a whole parody campaign for stopping vegetable abuse, and even produced the first of what were to be several posters for it. We also had plans for a video. “It will start with sad music and pictures of beat-up looking vegetables,” I said. “Then I’ll come on and say that we must stop vegetable abuse by all going to Meatopia. At the end will be a PETA parody logo. We’ll call it META.”


A clever enough idea it seemed at the time. We shot the poster Wednesday. Then Thursday night this aired.


The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Thought for Food – USDA Meatless Mondays & Plant Communication Research
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog Video Archive


Yet another of my plans in ruins. First it was my live-animal petting zoo at Meatopia; then my plan to reunite Manowar as the house band; and now this. And yet, the vegetable abuse gag was a good one, because, aside from being comical, it allowed us to underscore just how devoted Meatopia is to progressive meat practices and the humane treatment of livestock animals. I’ll be writing in the weeks to come about some of our suppliers for the event, and how I visited their farms and slaughter facilities, and what I saw there. Whole Foods grades all their suppliers on a five-step animal welfare system, and all our meats are at least a 3.


I guess I can find other ways to communicate all that, but they won’t be as a elaborately comical. But I tried! As Uncle Charley says at Willie Loman’s grave, “A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory.”

The Secret Life of Knives

Posted on August 2nd, 2012

The best part about having a lot of meat around is that you get to cut it. Which means you have an excuse to buy, and use, very sharp knives. But sharp isn’t good enough. Any plastic-handled fish knife, of the kind they sell in bait stores, can be sharp if you sharpen it enough. The obsidian hand tools chipped off by proto-humans at the Olduvai gorge two million years ago are plenty sharp, if it comes to that. But of course, once you become enraptured by knives – their curves and cutting edges, the tempering lines running daintily up their steel, their damascus patters and lethal points – sharpness just isn’t enough any more. I found myself thinking about this when in Korin Trading Co. the other day, our knife sponsor, making this hilarious video with owner Saori Kawano. I looked at the knives, and wanted one and bought one. I still don’t know why.


Interestingly, there is almost no overlap between the Knife Cult and the Butcher’s Mystique. Butchers use the crappiest knives they can find – knives provided by a company that takes them away and sharpens them every day or so. They don’t project their souls into them, like sushi masters. If you think about it, the sushi master has reason to make a big deal of his knives. He’s coming from a tradition that made the world’s greatest knives for seven hundred years, using the same methods as those that made the one he holds every day. He holds his history in his hand; not only that, but the knifesmith is a craftsman of similarly high-minded integrity. For him, the knife is a sacred tool; he keeps it with him for his whole career, and sharpens it twice a day, despite the fact that all it did was cut up some fish. (The really good ones never come near bone at all.)


All that said, I can’t seem to find a way to justify, or even really enjoy these magnificent knives. Maybe it’s from an unquenchable sense of unworthiness that pierces my pleasure like a car alarm. What am I doing with a knife like this? What if I break it? Do I use it often enough to justify its existence in my drawer? For years my go-knife was a ten-dollar Chinese cleaver that I never sharpened and barely cleaned. It did everything I needed, felt great in my hand, and I knew that if I left it somewhere I could get another one just like it for the price of a pizza. Now I am responsible for this magic sword that I am afraid to use. And yet I keep buying them.


My father was like this too. He couldn’t help himself. He used to say, “I beat three major addictions in my life, but I can’t stop buying cheap shoes.” I understand what he meant. It’s just too pleasureable to see these knives. Korin is a sponsor; check out the knife that we are awarding to the Grand Champion this year. How can you not want to buy things like this? They make you want to buy whole beef shoulders, just so you can slice them up.

The Butcher Mystique

Posted on July 23rd, 2012


Butchering a large animal, or even a part of a large animal, is an arduous and intimidating task. That is one reason I never do it. Another is that I don’t know how. A third reason, stronger still than the first two, is that learning to butcher involves hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds of meat that will be ripped and ruined while you try to learn. A dedicated meathead with a broad wood table and access to a farm can try to find his way with the aid of a book, or a four-hour lesson from some tattooed he-man nearby; but he’ll never be a real butcher.


This was my takeaway from judging the Central Region semi-final of Whole Foods Market’s Best Butcher contest. As you know, the finals are at Meatopia on September 8, so when Whole Foods meat boss Theo Weening asked me to come out, I jumped. The fact that I had nothing to offer to the judging process didn’t even occur to me. I wanted to see meat cut, big pieces, with the skill that I could only aspire to. “We are going to have them do a whole steamship and a half a pig,” Theo told me when he picked me up at the airport. Weening, an expatriated Dutchman, has shoulder length blonde hair and was playing some of Scandinavian death metal in the SUV. “We are gonna give them nine minutes, about.” Outside the arid vastness of Colorado rolled by. A steamship round, really? That’s a whole leg of a beef animal! It’s the size of a toddler and has dozens of different muscles, to say nothing of the enormous shiny white knee and hip joints. I knew then that I would be out of my depth. But that was OK. I wouldn’t really be judging the butchering, in any technical sense. I was satisfied to be overawed by the skill of the butchers.


You should have seen them. It’s one thing to see a butcher patiently cutting up some steaks, or carving a chicken into its constituent parts. That’s a small matter, neatly done, and at a leisurely pace so his viewers can understand it. We’ve all seen that. But to see these men heavy massive sides of pork, or giant, unwieldy legs of beef onto foldering tables and to saw and cut and pull at them in the heat? That’s something else entirely. The butchers had nine minutes to cut up the steamship round. A hook and a few curved knives, throbbing tendons, bushy eyebrows to keep the sweat out their eyes – and the chance to come cut at Meatopia, at the finals. It wasn’t something you would ordinarily see: butchers are under strict orders to be careful, to make clean and deliberate cuts, and to work only as quickly as a total commitment to methodic work will allow them. Otherwise it would be a bloodbath. The Best Butcher contest changes the culture: there’s a whiff of danger and glory about it. Theo took a picture with the sole protestor at the event, a pretty girl in a PETA shirt; the pure manlitude emanating from him (not to mention his “Butcher” shirt and knife-and-cleaver necklaces) just about sums it up for me.


The crowd felt it too. They moved right up to the tables, close enough to get hit by flying bits of fat and gristle. They didn’t care. And neither did I. I just wanted a part of that butchering magic.



Short Ribs For Breakfast, and Hold the Broth

Posted on July 18th, 2012

I woke up this morning thinking about short ribs. That’s not unusual for me; consciousness typically breaks with some blurry object of desire floating about six inches in front of my filmy eyes. And unlike yesterday, when it was Christina Hendricks, I had an object today that was actually within my grasp. I shot some video for Morgan Spurlock’s Mansome video series at the Whole Foods Bowery store, and the boneless short ribs looked so appealing that I grabbed them as a kind of impulse purchase. They were sitting in the refrigerator this morning, awaiting their fate. I just ate them. They were fabulous.


Short ribs have an undeserved reputation as being tough. Everyone assumes you have to cook them in winey broths for hours to make them edible, and maybe you did, in 1940. But it’s summer; I’m hungry; and the last thing I want is to start boiling broths. Anyway, I like the taste of meat; I want it to yield its blood and juice and sizzling fat into my mouth as a semi-living thing; I’m not looking for an insensate blob of brown braised protein. I salted the beef, and I peppered it, and I dropped it into some hot olive oil at the bottom of a big Le Creuset braiser. I managed, in my groggy state (coffee was still a vague plan) to remember to bash a garlic clove and throw it in the oil to flavor it. I let the beef brown and sizzle and smoke; and then I put the lid on it so that it wouldn’t smoke up my house. After a while I turned it, and then closed it again. Five minutes later I had a beautifully rosy, intensely flavored, richly juicy short rib sitting on my cutting board. The only problem was that the steam had ruined its crusty edge.


To eat it? Or re-brown it? It would cause a lot of smoke. But a rare short rib is a little chewy even for me, so rebrowning it in the open pan would do it good on the inside and the outside both, like a high-class spa treatment. Up went the pan heat, up went the air conditioning, on went the coffee, and minutes later the meat was perfectly a point, salty, pink, and crusty on the outside. The oil smoked like hell but I closed the lid and the smoke then ceased to exist for my purposes. I sliced and ate the short ribs, bite by bite, piece by piece, with little black bits of garlic stuck to them, right off the cutting board.


And then I fried an egg in the pan fat.



Why I Went to Birmingham to Chase Pigs and Talk to Nick Pihakis

Posted on July 9th, 2012

Birmingham-based barbecue chain Jim N’ Nick’s is a sponsor of Meatopia, a fact I’m especially proud of, given how high-minded they are — and not just for a barbecue chain. Barbecue, it will be remembered, was invented to make the best of crappy meat, and to this day you can generally expect to get the worst commodity meat available on the market when you eat in one.  Owner Nick Pihakis didn’t want to serve it, though, any more than I want to, so he and his partners are trying to develop their own pork farming operation. It’s a somewhat quixotic pursuit, because they serve a lot of barbecue, and right now they have only a few Mangalitsa hogs. But you have to start somewhere. I went down to Birmingham to meet Nick and his pigs, and I made this Ozersky TV video about it.


Meatopia Presents: Jim ‘N Nick’s Pork Pioneers from Ozersky.TV on Vimeo.


Jim and Nick’s will be serving one of these Mangalitsa hogs (possibly even one of the ones in the video) at Meatopia, cooked under the watchful care of Rodney Scott, Sean Brock, Drew Robinson, and Nick himself. Come eat it!

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