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“The question isn’t necessarily whether it’s a heritage breed but how it has been raised.” – A conversation with Rob Levitt

Monday, 16 November, 2015 By Lee Greene
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This installment of our “Warriors of Flavors” features Rob Levitt, owner, with wife Allison, of The Butcher & Larder, “Chicago’s first sustainable whole-animal butcher shop” now located at Local Foods. Prior to opening up the butcher shop the couple owned Mado, whose motto was: “Midwestern farmers, Mediterranean flavors.” There they took their training at esteemed restaurants in Chicago and New York and focused on whole animal preparation, garnering many accolades and beloved customers in the process. Rob Levitt also speaks widely on issues surrounding butchery and sustainable meat production and recently participated on a panel called “Waste Not: Whole Animal Butchery” that featured Fergus Henderson (St. John, London) and other esteemed chefs and butchers at the Chicago iteration of Taste Talks. I brought home a wonderful piece of pork shoulder, as you can see from the photo below. This is the recipe I cooked with it!

Make sure to read our conversations with other “Warriors of Flavors” and their work with heirlooms in our previous blogposts!

LEE: With Thanksgiving coming up, there is a lot of talk of heritage turkeys, meaning old breeds of turkey, which are not largely commercialized. Over the last years, the term “heritage meat” seems to be getting more love on restaurant menus and in the media, and hence more interest from consumers. I am curious, as a Culinary Institute of America-trained chef who learned butchering through your own initiative in kitchens in New York and Chicago, how has your perspective on heritage meat changed over the years? Was it on your radar in culinary school at all?

ROB: When I was in culinary school the discussion centered on the basic fundamentals of butchery and then we worked on production for the whole school. We didn’t butcher whole animals, we took cuts and boned them out. I had an amazing teacher named Thomas Schneller who in my world is considered a legend. A lot of what I’m doing now has to do with his class. At that time, though, heritage meat certainly wasn’t on anyone’s radar in the culinary world with the exception of chefs like Rick Bayless or Dan Barber, people who have been doing this long before it was popular.

LEE: Do you think the growing interest in heritage breeds and in butchery is positive?

ROB: On the one hand it is a wonderful thing because it gets people excited about the work that I do but I think it has become a diluted buzzword. For me the question isn’t necessarily whether it’s a heritage breed but how the animal has been raised. The question is complex. Is it better to purchase a 100% Berkshire hog slaughtered then frozen and flown across the country or a regional common cross-breed that is raised on pasture and humanely slaughtered? Do you get the heirloom breed just on principle? It begs a much deeper conversation.

LEE: I agree, in my mind heritage meat should stand for integrity, just like heirloom produce. In terms of livestock it means raising a breed in a region and an environment that is natural for it to be in, and that it can roam on pasture. The traits that define its differences must be tangible through the characteristics of the product, like its flavor. In the vegetable world, an heirloom tomato that’s mass-produced in California, picked green and then trucked to New York is most probably just as tasteless as a modern greenhouse variety grown on the East Coast. And the better flavors and unique textures are why we love heirloom varieties of produce.

ROB: Janie Crawford, now sadly deceased, had a farm in Wisconsin where she raised mostly lamb that she sold to prominent Midwestern chefs. She decided to raise pigs and did a great amount of research to find the breed that would be best suited to her environment. While no one breed stood out there were attributes of several that would work well together on her land. It took her years to develop this cross-breed. I think that she named them “Crawford’s Sweets.” She sold them to some heavy hitters in the culinary community who spent money on quality product – Rick Bayless, Charlie Trotter, Matthias Merges. They were wonderful for cooking, great for curing. But, by definition the hogs were not heritage. If her work would have been continued, maybe in fifty years the Crawford Sweets would have been designated heritage?

I am not taking a stance that one is better than the other. I highly respect those people who raise heritage breeds in the right way on their natural diets, given the history of that breed. In a perfect world I would be selling grass-fed beef 100% of the time. But as a businessman that doesn’t always work because not all of my customers want that and sometimes it can be difficult to find that year-round in the Midwest. So I source beef that isn’t always grass-fed but that has been raised the right way, is clean and tastes good. It is a product that I believe in and that my customers will love.

If we shift to think about using only heritage breeds then ideally, we would start with a breed list and determine which did best in each region of the country and that is how we would start raising animals and where our cooking would begin.

LEE: There is a strong movement in Appalachia to bring back the American Mulefoot hog, a breed that had historically been developed for that region. Is there a quintessential regional breed that we should root for here in the Midwest?

ROB: Off the top of my head I would say because we have wide open plains here in the Midwest both bison and beef do well. In terms of pigs, Berkshires do well anywhere that they can eat. They are a good blend of lean-to-fat ratio with dark meat and good marbling. Red Wattles do really well here too. In parts of Michigan where it is really cold people have had success raising Mangalitsas [a breed cultivated in Hungary and the Balkans]. With produce farming I think we see more people researching what climates we share with other countries and then planting those types of produce that grow well here. An example of that would be the Beaver Dam Pepper which, similar to the Mangalitsa, came to the U.S. from Hungary and adapted well to our Midwest climate.

 

American Bison at Cook's Bison Ranch (Wolcottville, IN)
American Bison at Cook’s Bison Ranch (Wolcottville, IN)

Seasonality is also an important aspect to think about in this whole discussion. Meat production used to be a seasonal process. Pigs used to be raised in the spring and slaughtered in the fall. The meat would then last all winter. Also, the same way we make jams, hot sauces, and pickles today, people then had larders—that is where the name The Butcher & Larder comes from—and would preserve food year-round. The world doesn’t work that way anymore and we now have the means to raise animals year-round. As long as we are conscientious in how we do this, then why not?

LEE: Seasonality is a keyword when it comes to Thanksgiving. I always wonder what attention this bird gets the rest of the year? I just know from my experience working with cranberries, that the modern hybrids were developed to mature just-in-time, because consumers seem to only want cranberries in November. Are people coming in to The Butcher & Larder looking for turkey year-round?

ROB: It’s definitely not a high-demand item but it has become more popular with diets such as Paleo since turkey is very lean. At The Butcher & Larder we do not order heritage varieties of turkey for our consumers. It takes a lot of research and due diligence to prepare a heritage turkey in order to make it delicious. They are a challenge to cook though it is a good challenge if you feel up to it. But it is out of the comfort zone of most of our customers. Instead, we offer a Broad Breasted White – raised on pasture on a small family farm, a far cry from the factory farmed commercial birds.

LEE: That sounds like a marketing nightmare for heritage meat. An heirloom tomato cooks pretty much the same as a hybrid tomato, and that is probably valid for all produce. What makes heritage turkeys challenging to prepare? Do they not cook the same way because their meat ratio is different?

ROB: Because they are pastured animals they have long stringy legs and smaller breasts. Cooking them evenly is difficult. If you are committed to cooking a heritage turkey then you need to reconsider how it is prepared. My suggestion is to cook the legs separately, first by searing them to get the skin crispy and then braising them in something flavorful. Brine the breast and roast it separately. Heritage breeds cook quicker and will rest up more than a standard turkey. It won’t look like Norman Rockwell’s rendition of the traditional Thanksgiving meal but this is how to make it more flavorful and evenly cooked.

LEE: Do you ever think about sustainability in terms of the financial viability of working in the good food movement? The public thinks a lot about it in terms of food production but I think what we need to ask more is how can the people who are producing sustainable food have a sustainable life, financially.

ROB: I agree. The people who are doing the work need to be able to sustain themselves. We use whole animals here, I’ve used them at Mado too. Yet, there is no sense in butchering a whole animal if the farmer that I’m working with has a whole freezer of cuts from the round or chuck that no one is buying. Instead, especially with beef, I often ask the farmer what parts they are not selling—hearts, tongues, livers—and buy them. When the supply is gone, it’s gone. That approach makes you more of a whole animal chef or butcher than just working with the animal alone.

LEE: Does this idea of financial sustainability extend to your customers? Is it important to you to have affordable cuts to get customers in the door and then once in awhile they can splurge on the more expensive cuts?

ROB: Yes. The Butcher & Larder can accommodate people’s budget and we want them to find this process of buying and cooking meat interesting and fun. Local Foods’ mission is to get people comfortable with the idea of shopping here by sending them home with something that they know. We don’t frown on comfort food. We invite them in and hope that they are willing to spend a little bit more for quality ingredients and get them interested in our [good food] philosophy. They may come in and order a fillet but eventually we want to get them to a place where they are knowledgeable and comfortable with expanding their interests to less popular cuts. Ultimately, the goal is for them to come in and say to our staff, “What looks good today?” and to trust us to send them home with something they will enjoy.

A piece of pork shoulder from Butcher & Larder
A piece of pork shoulder from Butcher & Larder

LEE: So now for the last question, it’s Sunday night and you are cooking dinner and you can cook one dish for your family. What are you cooking?

ROB: The other night my folks came over as it was my dad’s birthday. I made a nice pot roast. My wife, Allison, is an amazing pastry chef and a wonderful cook too. After dinner there was a bit of roast left over and a lot of the cooking juices. While we were doing dishes, Allison added barley to the pan, along with some chopped vegetables and that simmered while we cleaned up. Now we have four quarts of beef and barley soup in the freezer. To make a wonderful meal and then to turn the leftovers into something else delicious embodies everything Local Foods is about. If you cook or if you are willing to talk to us about how to use the store to your advantage then what you bring home becomes way more food than you anticipated.

Next up: Josiah Lockhart, co-owner of Lockhart Family Farm and Executive Director of Slow Food Scotland on raising rare breeds at his farm in Woodford, Virginia. On the blog,

At Scrumptious Pantry we preserve the exciting flavors of rare heirloom fruit and vegetables and precious heirloom seeds. Delicious varieties put up in gourmet condiments and artisan preserves for you to enjoy at home! Because Heirloom is much bigger than just Heirloom tomatoes.

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