“I’m doing a little Frenching now, guys,” Stephen Alexander announces to an enthralled audience as he shows off his way with a blade. “Leave a little extra fat on it,” the charismatic 38-year-old butcher-farmer instructs as he addresses his pork loin, shearing the meat from the bone just so. “I’m anti-lean meat myself.” The mostly female crowd gathered at Bonnie Stern’s Cooking School in Toronto on this late October night murmurs appreciatively.
Provocative as the banter may sound, Alexander’s intent here is utterly virtuous. Since arriving in Canada from his native Australia in 1994, Alexander, who operates three Cumbrae’s meat shops and Cumbrae Farms, has become one of the country’s most zealous advocates for the humane, healthy farming and butchering of animals. “He wants people to eat better food,” cookbook author Bonnie Stern says. “It’s a passion.” In the process, he has cultivated a groupie following among people who clamour for his sustainably raised meat—quite literally.
Alexander and in-house chef Jerry Meneses appear regularly at cooking demos like this one to share recipes, tips (always buy “air-chilled” chicken) and a “farm to fork” narrative of a dinner’s backstory—that the lamb now shredded in a tender lamb confit was milk-fed from birth and fed alfalfa hay, corn and barley; that the cow whose tenderloin is swaddled in golden puff pastry in “Beef Wellington with Foie Gras and Mushroom Demi-Glace” once grazed on fresh grass and grains to enhance its flavour and marbling; that the “Roasted Niagara Gold Frenched Pork Loin” was part of a single-herd Guernsey pig fed whey from Niagara Gold cheese; and how the succulent “Roast Chicken with Glace de Poulet” ran freely with access to constant hydration and sunlight. Such pastoral tales offer comfort in an age of brutal industrialized factory farming and deadly E. coli and listeria eruptions. Yet Alexander never loses sight of why people are really here: fleshly pleasure. “The meat by the bone is always the best part,” he says as his audience nods approvingly.
The scene offers a nice glimpse into what the magazine Meatpaper has dubbed the “fleischgeist,” a clever coinage taken from the German “fleisch” or “meat” and “geist” or “spirit.” The San Francisco-based quarterly was formed in 2007 to showcase ideas and art about meat, timing that was bang on, given the cultural fetishization of and anxiety about eating animal flesh. Artists explore meat as a theme: Tamara Kostianovsky is celebrated for her dissected beef “carcasses” made out of discarded human clothes. The current Vogue Homme celebrates abattoir chic: 10 pages are devoted to a male model cavorting with bloody carcasses. Butcher iconography adorns everything from T-shirts and the cover of chef Thomas Keller’s new cookbook, Ad Hoc at Home, to Canadian chef Joel Roussell who has porcine tattoos on both arms—one inspired by the logo of the famed British chef Fergus Henderson, who popularized the notion of “nose-to-tail” eating, the other an image from the cover of Jane Grigson’s 1969 classic Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery. Debating the ethics of eating animals has spawned a publishing sub-genre at the same time the culinary scene is heritage hog wild: bacon is now an ice cream and martini flavour and gourmands shell out $25 for a plate of pig parts. The most happening chefs are as adept with a butcher cleaver as with a chef’s knife—namely Mark Cutrara of Toronto’s Cowbell, who buys animals whole and butchers, smokes and cures on the premises. In his spare time he teaches on-site butchery classes to the public. Martin Picard of Montreal’s Au Pied de Cochon gets extra points for hunting down and skinning dinner in the wild, an experience he shares on his Food Television program, The Wild Chef.
Against this landscape, artisanal butchers like Alexander have emerged the new culinary stars, complete with the hype that accompanies celebrity. As Meatpaper’s co-founder Sasha Wizansky puts it: “A generation of young butchers—and media coverage of them—has transformed butchery into something cool, bad-ass.”
This new breed is seen not merely as meat-dissector but as artiste in sync with the life force. At the forefront is Dario Cecchini, the Dante-quoting Italian described poetically in Bill Buford’s Heat as “an artist, whose subject was loss.” Cecchini’s shop outside Florence is a mecca for omnivores willing to line up for his Chianti “butter” (creamy lard seasoned with rosemary) and Chianti “tuna” (pork marinated like canned tuna). He’s featured in Douglas Gayeton’s new book Slow: Life in a Tuscan Town, whose fold-out sepia-toned photographs of chopped meat and pig entrails on wooden slabs qualify as butcher porn. Last month, the beloved master butcher broke down a complete steer and pig in front of a sold-out crowd in San Francisco at a Meatpaper-sponsored event.
Alexander, a third-generation butcher, jokes that when he was growing up, butchering wasn’t a way to impress women. He has witnessed what he calls butchering’s new “cool factor” as well as its slow move from being an exclusively male domain. (Cumbrae’s employs one female butcher; Avendano’s, a San Francisco butcher shop that sells locally pastured meat, is owned by three women.) Every day, he says, he gets calls from young chefs. Some want to learn exactly where a flat iron steak comes from on a steer. Some want to switch careers.
Former chef Josh Applestone and his wife, Jessica Applestone, are typical of the new butcher breed. He was a vegan, she was a one-time vegetarian when they founded Fleisher’s Grass-fed and Organic Meats in Kingston, N.Y., in 2004. Since then, Food & Wine has named it one of America’s best butcher shops and the couple has launched “The Butcher” blog on Saveur.com. (They’re not alone: famed Brooklyn butcher Tom Mylan writes the blog Tom the Butcher.) Jessica Applestone sees the migration of white-collar professionals into butchering as part of the emergence of an artisanal entrepreneur movement: “All of these very well-educated people have suddenly decided to go back to what’s essentially blue-collar work—chocolate makers, coffee roasters, bakers, fishmongers. It’s come to be seen as this enormous, very sexy, very viable thing to do,” she says.
There’s no better bellwether of butchery’s new status than the fact former masters of the universe are jumping on board. Mario Fiorucci was an investment banker before opening the Healthy Butcher in Toronto in 2005 with his wife, Tara Longo, a former lawyer. The two had been vegetarians due to the “disgusting” quality of most meat being sold, Fiorucci says. They now run three stores catering to an affluent, aware clientele willing to pay top dollar for dinner.
In a techno-Twittering age, butchers’ proximity to the raw truth of flesh and blood, muscle and bone has imbued them with romantic mystique. (It doesn’t hurt that they possess the muscular might to heave a carcass of beef, and survivalist skills to gut anything that moves.) In her upcoming memoir Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat and Obsession, Julie Powell writes of butchers’ “intimate knowledge”: “Romantically, I imagine it’s innate, that his nicked hands were born knowing how to slice those whisper-thin cutlets.” Cleaving is Powell’s follow-up to her bestseller Julie & Julia, in which she worked through every recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, cheered on by her devoted husband Eric. This time, she’s writing about her gruelling stint as an apprentice butcher at Fleisher’s. All the while, she’s cheating on her hapless hubby with a man who’s a non-butcher. This being the fleischgeist, it’s the meat, not the sex, that provides the book’s biggest thrills: no encounter with her lover matches the “food-related orgasm” Powell experiences swallowing a creamy cube of pig’s heart.
Her biggest turn-on by far, however, is the “authority” exuded by the butchers around her: “There’s an absolute sureness to a butcher, whether he is chining lamb chops with a band-saw or telling customers just how to prepare a crown roast,” she writes. Powell’s not the only one waxing rapturous over men in white smocks with cleavers. In another upcoming memoir, The Butcher and the Vegetarian: One Woman’s Romp Through a World of Men, Meat and Moral Crisis, former vegetarian Tara Austen Weaver tells the story of being ordered to eat meat by her doctor for her health. After much soul-searching, she finds herself attracted not only to pork chops but their purveyors: “a redheaded Irish butcher renders me mute,” she writes.
Butchers’ emergence as cultural heartthrobs follows a predictable trajectory. We saw it with heroic firefighters who captured the libidinous imagination amid the terror tremors following 9/11, and with fix-it guys like Mike Holmes who became pin-up boys in an overheated housing market. All of them offer the promise of skilled finesse and the assurance of safety—in the case of butchers, that the meat they’re providing isn’t riddled with drugs or disease or was treated cruelly. “People want to know where their meat comes from,” says Bonnie Stern. “It’s like going to your doctor, you depend on them. You want to make sure they are pure and good and honest.”
Wizansky agrees. “People are seeking a closer relationship with the food they eat,” she says. Artisanal butchers are viewed as reclaiming a long-lost art; they’re in sync with the beast they’re dissecting, unlike supermarket meat cutters who dispatch meat pieces shipped in boxes from factories.
Butchers are forced to confront primal truths, says Applestone. “People forget sometimes where their food comes from, but we never do,” she says. “We have built our business on the back of dead animals and we instill that in our employees—that nothing is to be taken for granted, nothing is to be taken lightly and waste is not an option.”
The knowledge that dinner has been thoughtfully raised and butchered, that’s the ultimate seduction: meat-lovers can bite into a pasture-raised cow who’s now a bistecca fiorentina without having the pleasure wrecked by guilt or fear.
Alexander understands the mindset and caters to it. He designed one Cumbrae’s location so that his well-heeled customers can see all the way to the back—to the dangling carcasses and the skilled butchers at work. The transparency is a metaphor for what he’s trying to achieve. The fact it’s literally a carnivore’s peep show, the ultimate in butcher porn, well, that’s just a titillating bonus.