How an upstart upstate butcher shop sparked the modern meatcutting movement.
“It was an act of craziness and stupidity,” says Jessica Applestone, recalling when she and her husband opened Fleisher’s 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 belied 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 many 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 was willing to buy half a steer from a local farm. 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.
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. And despite its many (pastured) pork products, they named it for Josh’s grandfather Wolf Fleisher, who had opened a kosher butcher shop in Brooklyn almost exactly a century earlier.
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 both 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 learned almost immediately 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 Hilltown Pork, 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 in Saugerties to show them the very basics, but their session with him was so short they literally don’t know his name. Then they tried to convince a Kingston butcher who’d gone out of business to come on board. He wasn’t interested, but his son, Tom Schneller, now teaching meat fabrication at the Culinary Institute of America, helped out. (He still comes in at crunch times like Christmas.)
But ultimately the Applestones became skilled butchers the old-fashioned way—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 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 at Stone Barns. “They are the pioneers who laid the groundwork for today’s butcher revival.”
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.
“It is genuinely apparent,” says Blue Hill’s chef Adam Kaye, “that these are people who love what they do and are wholly committed to it.”
That commitment kept them going, even as the business barely limped along; they even finagled a loan so that they could move to a better storefront on Kingston’s main thoroughfare. The food world was taking notice, and foodie feedback was phenomenal, but financially they were getting, well, butchered. The couple hoped a second store across the river in Rhinebeck would build the bottom line, but it was a bust. “We just kept getting our asses pounded,” says Josh.
The turnaround came in 2007, when the couple decided that in order to be better “nose-to-tail” butchers they would have to make great sausage. So they went to Vancouver to learn charcuterie from the Oyama Sausage Company’s Jan van der Lieck, a fifth-generation sausage maker whom 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. “I learned that to stay in business, you have to know how to run a business,” says Josh. “Anytime you pick up a knife, it costs you money. You must learn how to shorten the time you spend on everything without compromising anything. We were spending all of our time cutting to specification.”
Bottom line, says Josh: “He was appalled that we were cutting meat for our restaurant clients.”
Post that epiphany, Josh and Jessica made a decision that wouldn’t just save their business, but would also spur city chefs to take butchering into their own hands. They resolved that they would continue to cut for retail—but restaurants and other stores would have to buy whole animals. Instead of their butcher, Fleisher’s would continue to source and deliver 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.
“When we first started buying whole carcasses, it was kind of daunting,” admits Back 40 chef Shanna Pacifico. “And when Josh came to help, I thought, ‘Here comes this guy with his chain-link apron!’ But he was great and still remains always available.” Now she gets two steers a month, which she butchers in-house herself.
At Northern Spy, chef-owner Nathan Foot gets a delivery of half a pig plus a leg each Wednesday. In a kitchen no bigger than a walk-in closet, the staff lays it out on the wooden butcherblock counter and gets to work breaking it down. “We’ve sometimes had to supplement with pigs from other purveyors,” he says, acknowledging the public’s insatiable demand for pork entrées. “But the quality of Fleisher’s meat is always better. It just tastes fresher.”
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 an employee at Diner and Marlow & Sons, two sister Brooklyn restaurants who were among Fleisher’s wholesale clients, and his name was Tom Mylan. Today he’s the superstar of the butchery movement—featured on the Travel Channel’s No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain, the Cooking Channel’s Food Crafters and NPR’s All Things Considered—but then he was the manager of Marlow & Sons. He spent a month upstate working alongside Josh and sleeping on the Applestones’ couch.
Back in Brooklyn he got better with practice, and eventually launched a retail butchery business for Marlow, right about the time the Applestones’ little upstate shop was honored in Saveur’s 2008 annual “100” issue. Mylan himself got major media attention and soon outgrew his role at Marlow; last year he opened the Meat Hook, which sources meat from Fleisher’s, among other sources, and is housed in the wonderful cook’s destination the Brooklyn Kitchen. Mylan has trained half a dozen professional Brooklyn butchers and offers a regular series of sold-out butchery demonstrations. But Josh, the teacher’s teacher, remains one of the only hands-on butchery trainers in the nation.
Indeed meat is arguably now secondary to the main product the Applestones sell: knowledge. Their courses 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.
“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 eyeopening experience.”
Other students who found the Applestone apprenticeship eye-opening 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 Manhattanites 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 will be published, and, in a realization of their original scrapped plan from way back when, they’ll open 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 Manhattan. 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 chuckeye 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 seriously affected the way countless New Yorkers—if not countless Americans—will be able to eat and buy meat for years to come. “They not only connect our community with reliable sources for well-raised meats but are committed to teaching,” says Gramercy Tavern chef Michael Anthony. “They remain wonderful role models for the future of good eating.”