“There are very few real butcher shops, period, these days. It’s a dying art. Most butcher shops and supermarkets get what we call ‘boxed meat.’” –Jessica Applestone
The legendary Kingston-based Fleisher’s Grass-Fed & Organic Meats opens its much-anticipated Park Slope outpost today.
Fleisher’s owners Josh and Jessica Applestone pioneered the newly resurgent old-school approach to butchery that’s been embraced by local favorites like The Meat Hook and Marlow & Daughters. They work exclusively with local, sustainably-raised meats, and put a premium on developing personal relationships with the farmers and the slaughterhouses raising and processing their meats. They’ve also trained a veritable new generation of butchers in the once-fading art of cutting meat, working with whole animals and sourcing strictly locally.
We sat down over coffee with Jessica to find out more about how a former vegan and vegetarian ended up leading a revolution in the art of butchering, and what to expect at the new shop.
So Jessica, tell us about Fleisher’s.
We’re a nose-to-tail butcher. We deal only with local, sustainably-raised meat – beef, pork, lamb, veal…local organic chicken. We do our own eggs too. We have farmers who produce eggs for us and we actually raise our own eggs on our property upstate.
Chickens in your backyard?
We do. We had 130 chickens in our yard until a few days ago. We realized that when we took on the Brooklyn project, we wouldn’t be able to care for 130 chickens, so we sold most of them. Now we’ve got thirty – a little more manageable!
They’re raised beautifully – totally organic fed, and they eat every bug and worm in our yard, and they like to harass the dogs and jump in our car to peck for my son’s scraps!
We raised them to the point that they were laying and now someone else will get the benefit of that. Hopefully, we’ll be able to buy some of those eggs back. But the thirty we still have will produce a good number of eggs for us.
But back to nose-to-tail – what that means is that we get whole animals and butcher them ourselves. When you come into the shop you’ll see us cutting the same meat you’ll see in the case, ready for you to take home. We make our own sausages too – everything’s done with organic spices. We make our own stocks, our own soap – because we don’t believe in waste. We use every single part of the animal that we can.
How does your approach differ from the typical practice?
Well, there are very few real butcher shops, period, these days. It’s a dying art. Most butcher shops and supermarkets where most people typically shop for meat, get what we call boxed meat. It’s generally slaughtered and processed at huge factory operations in the Midwest.
The way we’re different is that our meat only comes from local, sustainable farms where the animals are raised beautifully and are slaughtered humanely…although that’s obviously complicated…and then they come right to our shop. Everything comes from within a 150-mile radius of the shop in Kingston. Actually, everything right now comes from within a fifty-mile radius of the shop, but we’re giving ourselves room to expand. In the past we’ve worked with farms a little bit farther afield, but for now we’ve been lucky enough to have farms close by that are able to supply us.
The other way that we differ from most retail meat locations is that we actually have the skill to cut. In supermarkets and those sorts of places, they’re generally not actually butchers – they’re clerks who open the boxes, do portion control, and stock the case.
With the nose-to-tail approach, there’s very little waste. In traditional butchery, meaning the way it was done a hundred years ago, this is just the way things were done. People used animal fat and lard in their baking and cooking. There was the idea that you used every part of the animal because you had to.
Now supermarkets and butcher shops just buy the cuts that consumers have been conditioned to want most. But to us there’s a lot of waste in that approach. We want to buy whole animals. We don’t just take prime cuts and dispose of the rest or make it into dog food. We’re selling every part of the animal, which is what we believe should be done. This animal died for your dinner and for my business. We need to honor that.
Another reason we take the approach we do is that we get to see the whole animal. That’s really the most important thing for us. There are three sets of hands that touch our animals – the farmer’s, the slaughterhouse’s, and our own. That allows us to literally see how the animals were raised and slaughtered. We can tell whether they were slaughtered humanely or if they were under stress. We can tell whether they were actually eating what they were supposed to be eating. And those things are really, really important to us.
We’re almost forensic in our approach. When we look at an animal, we might find something like an abcess. That might sound awful, and while it’s rare, when we do see something like that, it’s a good thing. It means the animals are not being given antibiotics. And that’s what we want. None of the animals we work with are given antibiotics or growth hormones at any point during their lifetime.
Tell me more about grass-fed versus pastured meat. What’s the difference?
What most people don’t realize is that 100% grass-fed beef is a seasonal product in this part of the world. The reality is that there’s no grass for more than half the year. So the season for 100% grass-fed beef around here is only from late August to maybe the beginning of December. You won’t see 100% grass-fed beef after December because farmers don’t slaughter their animals unless they’re gaining weight. As Americans, we look for fat in our meat. That’s how we grade it – ‘prime’ meat is well-marbled. When there’s less grass to eat on pasture, the animals start losing fat.
‘Pastured’ beef is not 100% grass-fed. Those animals are usually supplemented with grain feed. The animals are always out on the grass, on pasture, so in the winter when there’s no grass to eat, they’re eating silage and grain. A lot of pastured beef is supplemented with grain throughout their lives. And we think that’s ok. The grain that the animals we work with are eating is always grown on the farm itself, or on a neighboring farm, and it’s never sprayed with pesticides.
Since we’re a butcher shop and we always need to have meat in the case, we decided a long time ago that we’d have 100% grass-fed beef when we can – when it’s in season here in the Northeast, and that we’d have ‘pastured’ beef year-round.
Some of our meat is not certified organic, but we have very specific requirements regarding the farmers and animals we’ll work with. It has to be raised locally, it has to live on pasture, and it can only be fed organic feed. No hormones. If an animal gets sick, they can be given antibiotics – of course – but they have to be culled from the herd and not sold to us. They can be sold on the regular market, but we don’t buy them.
I think we all have an idea of what organic means as far as vegetables go. It’s either sprayed with pesticides or it’s not. It’s either grown with a genetically modified seed or it’s not. And you decide whether you trust your farmer or not.
It’s more complicated with animals. There are so many different variables. How are they raised? What are they fed? How are they slaughtered? The organic label doesn’t necessarily assure you that all those things are being done in the way we want them done. That’s why we think it’s important to have personal relationships with the farmers raising the animals we use, and with the slaughterhouses that process them – so we know exactly how they’re raising and slaughtering the animals we use.
It’s complex stuff. How do you convey all this to your customers?
We spend a lot of time with each customer. We explain to them what we do and why we do it, and how we think they should be eating! Unlikely as it may sound, we spend a lot of time telling people to eat less meat, but better meat. Portions are just too big. You don’t need to eat an eight-ounce burger. You don’t need to eat a whole ribeye by yourself. So we’re very proactive in that way. We try to educate as much as we can – about what you should be eating. It’s why we do what we do. We don’t care if people shop with us, we just want them to shop well.
You guys work with a lot of aspiring butchers as well. Tell me about that.
We do a lot of training in the shop. We have an apprenticeship program, and we do consulting. We do it because there’s a real need. More people want to know where their food comes from. There’s more and more of a demand for the kind of meat we work with, but nobody’s training butchers any more. The craft isn’t being disseminated into the world anymore.
But people really, really, want to learn how to butcher! We’re booked through (next) June with apprenticeships. We recently worked with two women who opened a butcher shop in LA called Lindy & Grundy. We’re working with a shop called Saugatuck Craft Butchers that’s opening in Westport, Connecticut. They wanted to take the same approach as we do to sourcing local, sustainable meats – that’s why we worked with them. Tom Mylan of The Meat Hook trained with us and he in turn has trained a whole bunch of other people. And that’s exactly what we want to see. The more, the better.
Butchery was this kind of essential craft that was basically disappearing. I think having a part in reviving that is really important to Josh.
This might sound strange, but when we train people, we always take them to Wal-Mart. The people who take our classes and who shop in our shop always say, “I would never shop at Wal-Mart.” They might not shop in Wal-Mart, but the majority of Americans do, and Wal-Mart is really not all that different than any other supermarket you might shop at. The amazing thing about Wal-Mart is the power they have. When they started carrying organic produce, they changed the landscape. They enabled more farmers to go organic, and more consumers to access organic food.
The same goes for McDonald’s. McDonald’s, because of consumer demand, hired Temple Grandin to ensure that their slaughterhouses were slaughtering ethically. That changed the whole face of the slaughter industry. These are the organizations with real power to drive change. It’s people like us who start the conversation, and it’s corporations like those that finish it.
My hope is that what we’re doing will trickle down, and that eventually people going to fast-food restaurants and shopping for at the supermarket will start asking about their meat, and that that will promote change. If places like McDonald’s are going to be a part of our food landscape, let’s make it a better place. Let’s use their power to make things better.
Consumers vote with their dollars. The more people realize that the choices they make in terms of the food they buy are actually votes for different approaches to food production, the more of a positive impact we can have.
So how did you come to have this approach? What inspired it?
When I met Josh he was a vegan. I was a vegetarian. I decided I wanted to start eating meat again, but if I was going to do it I wanted to find meat raised and slaughtered in a specific way. I started going around to the local supermarkets, and no one could give me clear answers about their meat. Is it local? Is it grass-fed? Organic? Nobody could explain it to me. I couldn’t get clear answers, and I just began to suspect that most of the time, people were telling me what they thought I wanted to hear, without actually knowing the real answers to my questions.
So I started going to farms. They could answer my questions, but they wanted to sell me half a steer. What was I going to do with that? I realized that what I was looking for was essentially a Fleisher’s. I wanted to be able to walk into a butcher shop, buy a small piece of meat, and have the butcher tell me how to cook it.
I talked to Josh about it. He had been a chef for a long time, and he was like, “You mean nothing like that exists!? Then we should do it.”
Being stupid and crazy, we did. We didn’t know what we didn’t know. His great-grandfather and his grandfather were butchers – they had a shop here in Brooklyn. The name ‘Fleisher’ means butcher. But Josh didn’t know anything about it. So we had to hire these old-time butchers to teach us how to do it. These guys had been holding knives in their hands since they were sixteen years old. Most of them grew up in butcher shops or on farms. And that’s how Josh learned. He’s a natural. I’m not sure whether it’s because he’s a third-generation butcher or not, but he’s a natural.
So the Brooklyn shop opens this week – tell us about it.
The shop is at 192 5th Avenue, between Union and Sackett. It’s across the street from Bierkraft. It’s an old-fashioned butcher shop. We’ll be cutting animals, and we’ll have our local, sustainably-raised and humanely-butchered beef, pork, lamb and veal when it’s in season. We’ll have our local organic chicken…hamburgers, sausages – we have over thirty varieties of sausage now.
We’ll have Ronnybrook Milk, local organic eggs, local cheese – Anne Saxelby is curating the cheese case, and we’ll be featuring cheese from New York, Connecticut, Massachussetts, Vermont and New Jersey.
We’re also going to have more prepared foods here than we’ve had in Kingston. It’s the city after all, and there are a lot of Park Slope parents who have no time. We’ll have all kinds of things like parent and kid-sized pot pies…
Brilliant. Something only a parent would come up with!
I know! I’m excited because I can use those at home!
Fleisher’s Grass-fed & Organic Meats is open in Park Slope. Stop by for a visit. They’re located at 192 5th Ave between Union and Sackett Streets.