Editor's note: On Serious Eats and elsewhere, we read all sorts of interviews with major figures of the restaurant scene. But for every Alton or Bourdain, there are 10,000 other people in the food industry working every day, out of sight, to run the restaurants that bring so much to this city. In Heart of the House, Helen Zhang will introduce us to one of these folks each week.
There's no denying that knowing where your food comes from has inserted itself into today's culinary zeitgeist. But according to Ben Turley, one of the trio that opened The Meat Hook in Williamsburg, it's not just trendy to source meat locally; it's economically beneficial for farmers as well.
Ben partnered with friends Tom Mylan and Brent Young after working with them at Marlow & Daughters. They wanted to come up with a butcher concept where customers knew exactly what they were getting—without the pretension that many local/organic/sustainable butchers provide as an unrequested add-on to their products. We spoke with Ben over the butcher's block about their unique shop, the sudden popularity of his profession, and the ideal way to cook a sausage.
How did you get started butchering? I worked in restaurants for years and years and I started butchering about six years ago. I was working for this very old school Italian chef in Richmond, VA, who was over 60 years old and had been cooking in a professional kitchen since he was 12. I saw him do a really weird trick with an entire beef loin and it blew my mind. And that was it. I started interning at a butcher shop for free and working at the restaurant at night. Eventually I ended up working at the butcher full time and left restaurants entirely—it was nice to see the sun sometimes.
When did you make the move to New York? My best friend Brent, who's my partner here, was working with our other partner Tom at Marlow & Daughters. I had come up and hung out a few times, and did a shift or two at Diner's butcher shop. I would just come up and work for free there. In May of 2009 they needed a butcher so they asked if I wanted to come up, and then I came up, and then about six months later we decided to open up our own place. We wanted to do something else and work for ourselves.
Where do you get your meat? We get beef from two different farms upstate. One is in Ghent, NY, called Kinder Hook Farm, and another one we just call Uncle Ron's farm because they don't have a name for it yet. It's run by some ex-Wall Street dude who after the crash was just like, "this sucks, I'm buying a farm and I'm out of here," and bought a farm with 400 cows already on it. He has some of the most gorgeous land I've ever seen in the middle of the Catskills.
Then we have two pork farms, and we're doing some stuff with a guy named Dustin Gibson who's also in Ghent. We're working with him on kind of a genetic level, trying to find different breeds that will work well together to create a pig that's got really nice fat with amazing flavor. We're also working with this guy Bruce who runs a farm called Sir William Berkshire.
How did you decide to work with these specific farmers? It's weird, there's no way in New York to figure this stuff out. There's now a service where you can go to a website and find all the meat producers in a region and talk to them. So it's really farmers calling us, or talking to farmers we already trust and asking them if they know anybody. So we spend a good amount of time upstate trying to find places. The one tried and true was Kinder Hook Farm, which we knew about from Marlow & Daughters.
What's the philosophy behind the Meat Hook? We wanted transparency about where things are coming from, but not in a soapbox kind of way. It's good for us as a business, for our customers to know exactly where everything is coming from. So when someone has a question, not only do we have an answer, but we have a picture of us hanging out with these cows.
This approach is also great for the farmer, because as far as dollars and cents go, they get nine cents for every dollar when they sell to grocery chains. When they go through a more localized system like ours they get 31 cents on the dollar. It's so much better for them. We like all of our farmers, they're all good people—we go there and get trashed with them pretty often. We want them to succeed and they want us to succeed.
It's hard to find local stuff to begin with. The Northeast is not great for raising animals on grass-fed farms because the seasons are too harsh. We didn't want to be a boutique or anything high end. With so many butchers making really nice pâtés, we were just like, "Man, everyone loves a hot dog. Let's make a really amazing hot dog and have fun." And that's what we're doing: having fun and being really accommodating.
What's the response from customers been like? It's awesome that they care where their food is coming from. Fifty percent of the time it's vegetarians asking us that stuff. Sometimes I'll take them upstairs and show them our Flickr page and say, "Here's all of our farm pictures." Showing a picture with the farmer, the cow, and the butcher all there just means so much more.
What kinds of things do you produce in house? We make everything, everyday. One of the first things that got us media attention was that we make about 35 to 40 different kinds of sausage. I started geeking out really hard: looking at the science of protein and everything like that. Everyone comes up with recipes but I'm the one who hones them and who messes with the details.
We have our main wheelhouse of what everyone expects to see, so we stick to that stuff, which is probably 15 to 18 sausages. Like the Italian kind, with toasted fennel and garlic—we always have that around. Another bestseller is the Long Dong Bud, which Brent's dad named after himself. It's pork with roasted jalapenos, pepper jack cheese, and Texas Pete hot sauce.
How does one come up with a recipe for sausage? Lots of whiskey and not a lot of sleep. There may still be a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos in the back because my partner Brent wanted to make sausages with crushed Doritos, which sounds pretty good and possibly really disgusting.
In the two months before we opened, we ate sausage from literally every place in Manhattan, including Whole Foods and Trader Joe's just to see what was out there. It was a horrible experience. There's a saturation point when you eat so many sausages that you just feel emotionally unwell. Probably because you're eating like a fat kid with no mom around. And there were probably 6 sausages out of 40 that we could actually tolerate.
What's the best way to cook sausage? Over very low heat, which takes longer, so you have to be patient. But high temperatures will expand the pork fat and make the sausage explode. Or, if it's something with cheese in it like our Long Dong Bud sausage, I'd recommend putting them in the oven so the temperature is very consistent, then finishing them in a pan just to crisp the skin.
What are some things people should know about buying meat? Especially with pork, the deeper its color, the more flavorful it will be. On a micro level, any animal that's moving around a lot creates myoglobin, which is essentially iron ions they carry with them. The more they move around, the more they build up those muscles and retain those iron molecules, so deeper color means the flavor's going to be richer. You also want your fats to be white and not yellow. And the meat should never be slimy, sticky to the touch, or have an off color.
How do you feel about the whole rock star butcher phenomenon? It's not macho. We sit around and talk about Game of Thrones and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The shop was part of the hype, but none of us were eager to be rock stars. We had all been doing it for a while. We were like, "Damn it! Are we really opening a shop in the middle of this storm? Where everyone has a giant tattoo of a pig description or a cleaver on their arm?" I don't think they realize that all those dudes are sinking our battleship so hard.