Tom Mylan–The Meat Hook

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Editor’s Note: It seems the ‘meat scene’ has been expanding exponentially every year, and that’s good. Buying large, unbutchered pieces of meat from a local farm or butcher shop means knowing where and how your food was raised. We can all thank our local, sustainable butcher shops for leading the charge for fresh, healthy and humanely-raised meat.

Tom Mylan is one of a handful of butchers who have been instrumental in putting sustainability into practice every day. He has written The Meat Hook Meat Book (available May 20) and we were lucky enough to talk to Tom to get his views on the ‘meat scene’- and he has plenty to say!

What were the happenstances, the happy accidents and blind luck decisions that brought you where you are today? What started this whole ‘meat thing’ for you?

Tom Mylan: Well, my first happy accident was moving to New York at the end of the summer of 2003.

I had been living in San Francisco after college and not really having a great time (I moved there right after 9/11 and the dotcom bust) and my best friend came to visit me from Brooklyn and was like ‘Hey, why don’t you just move to New York? I’ll find us an apartment. It’s really awesome there.’ So, not having anything better to do, I boarded a train for Penn station with all my earthly belongings and moved to New York completely sight unseen.

When I arrived I was floored. Brooklyn and the LES was blowing up with creative, driven people and lots of energy. The music was great. The people were great. It was somewhat cheap and it had this air of fun-loving lawlessness that I was really attracted to. I had found my island of misfit toys. Now all I had to do was find a job, which ended up being at the Dean and Deluca cheese counter, where I met my wife to be.

The second happy accident was leaving my work in cheese in the city to go to work for Caroline Fidanza, Mark Firth and Andrew Tarlow at Marlow and Sons and Diner on the South Side of Williamsburg.

As far as our philosophy goes, I think it can be boiled down to ‘good food is fun’.

Early on I was tasked with finding a source for local beef for the burger at Diner which lead me to Josh Applestone who had recently started Fleisher’s Grass-Fed Meats in Kingston, New York, which, as far as I know, was the only ‘local/sustainable/etc.’ butcher shop in the country at the time.

We started taking 350 pounds of ground beef a week from them. Then some cuts for the case at Marlow and Sons. Josh and I became really good friends. My wife and I trained their staff on cheese and started visiting them upstate regularly. Then the moment that would change everything happened: Josh told us that he could no longer afford to sell us ground beef and cuts for the case.

He’d done the math and it was just too labor intensive and thus expensive for him to sell us what he’d been selling us.

When you start a business based on passion it’s pretty easy to do something that you like doing or seems like the right way to go only to wake up to realize that you’ve been losing money on it all along. That was that moment for Josh. Anyway, he told us we could take hanging weight (sides of beef, whole pigs, whole lambs) from him and, as a selling point, he said he’d even train a butcher at his place upstate.

It was pretty shocking but once we got over the initial shock and decided to do the hanging weight instead of going back to commercial meat the question really became: “who’s going to be the butcher?”

I don’t know if I was the first person they asked to do the job but, I was the only one that said ‘yes’. I mulled it over for 20 seconds and then thought ‘Fuck it! I’ll do that.’ And my life has never been the same (in a good way).

The last happy accident was meeting Brent and Ben my business partners to-be. Brent had been sent my way by George Weld from Egg. He was living in Richmond, Virginia and wanted to move to New York to cook and hopefully butcher. We had some drinks after I finished work and I was like ‘Hey! I think this whole meat thing is really going to take off up here!’ He moved up here, started working with me at Diner and then Ben (Brent’s best friend) moved up. We were running Marlow and Daughters butcher shop, having way too much fun, playing the music way too loud, drinking way too much and we decided that we really liked working with each other but, that if we were going to work this hard butchering, it should be for ourselves and in that tiny drunken moment the first kernel of The Meat Hook was born.

Tell us about The Meat Hook. What’s the philosophy, the mission? What’s a day in the life of The Meat Hook really like?

TM: The Meat Hook is a weird animal. It’s a local/sustainable butcher shop from three guys with restaurant backgrounds who were in terrible garage bands growing up. I think that’s important because it has set the tone of everything that has come after.

As far as our philosophy goes, I think it can be boiled down to ‘good food is fun’.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of bad stereotypes out there about food, cooking, local, sustainable and all of that stuff that makes people think that cooking is drudgery, that eating local is an act of middle class guilt and that working in food is throwing your life away–unless you become a celebrity chef who gets to yell at people.

That is all complete cultural excrement. Food is one of the most important things that make us who we are and cooking and eating good, locally grown food with the people you love is amazing! Every day this is the message that we try to get across to our customers.

Our mission is to: a) make good, local meat available to normal people and b) to encourage growth in local farms and food infrastructure by paying good money for good animals. I’d like to think of us as one of those first monkeys in space showing people what is possible–but, you know, not as important!

We’re just trying to get regular people to see the value in paying the real price for real food. Hopefully in 70 years no one will remember The Meat Hook and places like it and everyone will take it for granted that good local food is a birthright, not something that had to be struggled for and promoted.

There is no typical day at The Meat Hook. Every day is different. Some days we receive all our animals and cut them down to primals.

Other days, we’re making 300 pounds of sausage, curing bacon and making prepared foods out of stuff like lamb belly. Every day is a challenge, but a fun challenge to get done what needs to get done, to use every part of every animal for something and to create new ways of solving that problem. I think the variety of experiences from day-to-day is what keeps our shop vital and interesting.

If any of our staff had to open cryo bags of pre-butchered box meat and put them on foam trays all day they’d jump off a cliff.

How do you choose to work with a particular farmer? What do they have to show you for you to place an order? What’s it like to go out to find producers?

TM: All of our meat comes from places where we have a relationship. They’re recommended by one of our other farmers or we call them up because they have a good reputation in the upstate NY meat circle (a very small circle). We talk to them on the phone, ask questions and then take a trip up to spend a night on the farm. It’s not like we have some sort of check list or test or something.

We go up, check out the farm, talk to the farmer, and drink a beer with them. They’re either doing it right or they’re not.

Metrics don’t apply to animal husbandry unless by metric you mean ‘are these animals happy and living the way God intended? Are they good looking and have good conformation and breeding?’ The last thing is that they have to look right on the hook (at the slaughterhouse) and taste great.

Honestly, we don’t use very many farms. We find people we love and trust and try to grow with them rather than chasing the new shiny object. Our core is four farms and we fill in the gaps with meat from farmer co-ops that we have known for a long time. That’s it. Loyalty is a rare commodity in the meat game and we appreciate it from our farmers and our farmers appreciate it from us.

Can you explain how spending money at The Meat Hook is so very different than dropping money at a supermarket? Tell us about the difference. 

TM: The main difference between spending money at the supermarket vs The Meat Hook is that 100% of the money you spend at The Meat Hook stays in the local economy (except for federal taxes). That’s HUGE! When you buy anything from a supermarket how much of that money stays in the local economy? Not much. Most of that money is going to the corporation that owns the market (which is probably based in another state and to the meat packers and distributors in the mid-west).

We buy our animals directly from the farmer at a price that we have negotiated with them. The animals then go to the local slaughterhouse who we pay to process the animals and hang them and then they go on a truck owned by a local freight company that brings them to us. Everyone gets their check directly from us with no middle men.

The commodity system pays the farmer whatever the going price is for their commodity which then goes to a packing house that cuts them up and then out to a huge web of distributors throughout the country before getting to the local wholesalers and then to the supermarket. The meat you buy at the store may have been shipped and resold six times before you buy it. How much of the dollar that you spend at the grocery store goes into paying the farmer? Probably around 10 cents.

The rest of that money is going to middle men and corporations.

At The Meat Hook that number is more like 32 cents because there are no middle men. The rest of that dollar goes to our overhead and paying our staff a good wage.

In short, buying from a place like The Meat Hook makes where you live better. Shopping at the supermarket doesn’t.

Talk about how sustainability is practiced by you and your butchers every day.

TM: Well, we buy whole animals and that means that we’re paying for every part of them which means that to make money we have to always be thinking about how to use every single part. If we throw out anything it’s literally throwing away money. We don’t practice a nose-to-tail philosophy because it’s cool, we do it because we have to. We make sausage out of the cuts that people don’t really buy, create stock from the bones, cure and smoke hock, brine and braise the heads for headcheese and scrapple, make pate from the livers, jerky sticks from the hearts and tongues and dehydrate the ears, snouts and skin for dog treats. Nothing goes to waste, if we can help it.

It seems like your butchers are a dedicated bunch. Can you talk about the camaraderie at The Meat Hook?

TM: I can’t say enough good things about the butchers that work for us. Butchering is hard physical work and, if you’re doing whole animals like we are, hard mental work to figure out what to do this week with all of the various pieces and parts that people don’t buy. It attracts a very particular type of person and butchering also makes you into a very particular type of person which is why we’re so close to one another.

I mean, who else are you going to talk to about what you do? Most people in polite society aren’t excited  to hear about the new way you figured out how to debone pig heads.

To be a butcher you can’t be lazy or squeamish. You also can’t be stupid or closed-minded if you want to be a good butcher. You have to always be learning and reading and thinking about what you do, at least at this point, because there is no rule book when it comes to what a butcher shop can be.

It’s a very exciting time and a very exciting industry, at least the way we and people like us are doing it.

Your book, The Meat Hook Meat Book, drops in May. Tell us what you want your readers to come away with after they’ve read it. What was it like to wrestle a big project like that?

TM: I guess the first thing I’d like for a reader to come away with from The Meat Hook Meat Book is that it’s not a book that you skim through once or twice and come away with a few new recipe ideas.

A lot of cookbooks I own are like that: you read through them once or twice and come away thinking ‘Huh! This book really changed the way I think about cooking eggplant.’ or ‘So THAT’S what you do with fish sauce.’

This isn’t that book. It’s not one note.

Absolutely there are tons of great recipes to look at for inspiration on a Wednesday night, but what the book is really trying to do is help the reader think of not just that particular recipe or that particular cut, but to understand where the cut fits into the system of the whole of the animal. It’s funny but what most recipes about meat (or anything really) are like showing you a single cog, not the grand machine of which that cog is a part, if you can follow my logic.

Recipes can often be a sort of like giving a man a fish versus teaching a man to fish. Ultimately, and maybe this is a bad idea for the sales of future books but, I’m trying to help the reader learn how, for lack of a better term, meat works so they won’t need another cookbook on meat.

That sounds pretty boring, right? It’s NOT!

If there is anything we’ve learned from our customers it’s that if you can’t make information (no matter what kind or how important) fun and exciting, then you might as well be shouting into the void.

To make the 80,000 words in the book easy to understand for a regular person we’ve done a lot of visually crazy things like exploding cuts (of meat) against the background of NASA pictures of deep interstellar space with diagrams that shows how they go together on the animal. There’s also great essays about our friends’ restaurants like Roberta’s and a whole section about drinking booze with recipes for cocktails with names like The Scope Shot and The Bear Fight.

My aim was to make it as entertaining as it is educational.

As far as the making of this book goes, I don’t think I’ve ever felt as empty as I did after I finished the last revision of the book. It was like dumping the contents of my brain into a laptop and then emailing it away. After that it got really fun because, somehow, we convinced the publisher, Artisan Books, to let us almost completely design the book ourselves.

Together with our amazing designer, Mike Fusco, our photographer Michael Harlan Turkell and our illustrator Kate Bonner, I got to really shape the look of the book, how the information was represented and just got to do stuff that was fun and cool. I think this book really doesn’t look like anything else out there–in a good way.

You have a world-famous chef/author blurbing your book saying: “Just when you thought you had enough meat books, The Meat Hook produces this fantastic book, oozing with juicy, meaty moments and excellent photos.” How does that feel to have Fergus Henderson writing about your book?

TM: I was honored and blown away. Without Fergus we would be living in a very different world when it comes to food and the way that we think about meat. There’s just absolutely no one else out there that even touches him when it comes to original and game-changing ideas in restaurant food. He set the entire tone for the last ten years of food.

I was in Bogota, Colombia a couple years ago helping open the first American BBQ restaurant in South America and one of the first places our hosts took us to was a St. John style nose-to-tail restaurant. His influence in incalculable.

Well, just as a little appetizer of what readers can expect, in your book you talk about resting your (fresh off the grill) steaks  in a lake of warm fat? What’s up with that?

TM: Resting a steak in warm fat is deceptively simple.

Most people interested in cooking a steak know that resting a steak for 5 minutes before eating it makes it more tender and allows the steak time to relax and reabsorb their juices after grilling. The thing is that while it’s resting the steak still loses juice because the fibers of the muscles are tense and squeeze it out and also the steak starts to get cold.

Resting a steak in fat provides the mass of the fat to push against the juice to keep it in the steak and then the fat keeps the steak warm and nominally makes it more fatty tasting. When the steak is removed from the fat and cut into, the steak loses only a couple of small drops of blood. It’s an amazing technique and extremely easy to do.

The Meat Hook seems to put great store in education. Why is it important? Talk about that kind of outreach. 

TM: Education isn’t even optional for us, it’s basically a huge part of our business model. The reason education is so important is because we’re trying to help undo 70 years of bad ideas when it comes agriculture and food systems thinking.

The average consumer has been brainwashed into not thinking, questioning or engaging with the food they eat, where it comes from and what it should actually cost. If we don’t do a good job of clearly communicating why buying and eating real food is important, not just to our customers’ health and enjoyment, but to the world, then we will find ourselves out of a job.

Our most important educational thing we engage in is actually hosting classrooms of school children at the shop. We talk with them about how and why we do what do and to demonstrate how whole animals become cuts of meat by butchering a primal of beef or a half a pig. The best part is seeing how the kids react initially, getting grossed out and screaming, and then how their reaction changes once the sort of shock of the reality wears off and they start to understand–become curious and ask interesting questions. You know, you have to catch them young!

Any last words? What was I not clever enough to ask about?

TM: I guess I’d like to remind the people reading this that they are really important.

In a world that values celebrity and artifice it’s easy to fall into the way of thinking about yourself as inconsequential and without agency and that is just not true. Every choice you make all day long makes a huge difference in shaping the world you and I live in.

Choosing good things, like sustainable meat and local produce over bad things like GMO processed foods and flavorless vegetables from half way around the world will change the food system and fast if enough people do that.

Honestly it’s not only about food, though that’s what I’m primarily involved with, it’s about everything.

Don’t like shitty movies? Stop paying money to watch them. Hate bad whiskey? Don’t buy it. You got a beef with reality TV? Cancel your cable subscription.

It’s a powerful idea.

Well, Tom, thank you for talking with us today. We really appreciate your thoughtful answers.

TM: Thank you. I enjoyed it.

Tell us about your local, sustainable butcher shop. Is there one where you live?

Photo credit: Mike O’Dea