Ah, there’s nothing quite like a dribble of juice from a côte de boeuf running down your chin. And as the retail scene will show, butchery is as fashionable as ever, with the rise of quote-unquote rockstar butchers. However, we can’t look to the future without looking to the past. Historically, butchery is categorized into three distinct periods: primitive, medieval, and modern. The first butcher was actually not even of our genus, Homo, but of the more primitive Australopithecine. 3.4 million years ago, our predecessor, Lucy, and her local meatman, left evidence behind of “butchered” animal bones in Dikka, Ethiopia. About 2,000 years ago, in ancient Rome, butcher shops were one of the more lucrative ventures one could go into, and a marble relief from one of these shops shows a butcher separating a rack of ribs with a cleaver. The modern period began around 1272 in London, when butchers formed guilds to discuss and improve their craft and techniques. The modern period continues now, where the craft is honed for years as an apprentice, or handed from father to son, or expanded to encourage the sustainability and localization of meat and farming as a whole.
When did you know that you wanted to be a butcher and take over the family business? Harvey Gussman: Actually, I got drafted during the Korean War and they stationed me in Hawaii. I was having such a wonderful time in Hawaii and didn’t want to come home. It was pretty nice duty back in the ‘50s! But my dad said, ‘You come home when your enlistment is up or your brother is going to get the whole business.’ So then my brother and I were partners for years; then we split up. Then he retired, and I was alone, and it was great.
You’ve worked with many chefs. Who was your favorite to work with?
It would be Wolfgang [Puck]. I have a picture on my wall of fame out there. We went to Cannes in 1976 and did a dinner party for MGM. I flew over my prime steaks and cut 450 steaks for all of the stars. They put my wife and me up in a hotel there right on the coast, and we attended the party and we were dancing with the movie stars. My wife says, ‘Isn’t that Cary Grant?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ She said, ‘But he’s so old!’ I said, ‘Sweetheart, you’ve been watching him in movies since the ‘30s! He’s not a kid anymore.’
What’s your favorite cut of meat?
My favorite cut of meat is what we call a côte de boeuf, which is a prime rib steak on the bone. I love that grilled, then take it off the bone and slice it, and serve it for two people.
Is there any advice you would give to a young butcher starting out?
You have to know how to cook, so you know how to cut meat, and you have to be able to help your customers cook. Anyone can learn how to bone beef, you just follow the line of the bones. It’s choosing your supplier and getting a steady supply of the same quality. A lot of times suppliers want to substitute on you. Five percent of the beef in America is graded prime, and you need your share of that, and it’s very difficult to get. It’s my drug of choice, prime beef.
I’m sure you make it sound much easier than it is. I’m sure that most people can’t just cut along the bones.
Well, I’ve been doing this for over 50 years! And I wasn’t a trained butcher. My dad had four butchers working here all the time to break beef, before the boxed beef business started up. I used to watch them gut, and we had one guy who didn’t mind showing me how to do it. He taught me how to cut, how to bone, where and how to choose, no matter what the grade is, whether it’s choice or prime—he showed me the difference. So I learned from the ground up. I drove the truck delivering, meeting the customers, talking to them, and they would show me what they wanted. You get that feedback; it’s very important.
How did you and Karen meet? Nathan McCall: Actually, we met at [the Los Angeles restaurant] Sona. We met in 2006. I was there as a cook, training to open up Comme Ça and got redirected into being the Sous Chef at Sona. Karen progressed from Pastry Cook to Sous Chef and then to Pastry Chef. To a certain degree, we were running that kitchen together. We were obviously attracted to one another, and we worked really well together, and it was a kind of natural progression. A very lucky thing.
Where did you both train?
NM: Actually, we don’t have any kind of formal butchery training. All of the butchery skills I’ve learned are from working in high-end restaurants where we’d bring in suckling pigs or a middle section of a lamb and break them down.
Karen Yoo: My background is actually pastry. So all of my training came from [Nathan] teaching me what to do and working with the meat. You just have to do it. The pastry items that you work with, especially the items that you use a knife with, are very stable objects. When I first started working with meat, [I realized that] it’s very organic. It moves in your hand. You actually have to move it and work with it.
Some people might have a bit of a prejudice towards female butchers; have you encountered any negativity?
KY: No. If anything, I think people think it’s kind of cool. At least our customer base is very open-minded. Two guys came in the other day and were like, ‘The last time we watched you clean legs, it was magic.’
As far as the actual meat, how do you choose the farms that you get your meats from?
NM: That’s an interesting concept. When we first opened this place, it was all about quality. In a fine dining background, what’s driven in is prime beef is the best. That was kind of our situation in the beginning, was to bring in this nice prime beef. And then we opened and everyone was like, ‘Oh, is this organic? Is it sustainable? What farm is it from?’ We work with the National Certified Organic Beef Program. They’re pasture-raised, but they do have a mixed-grain diet. So it’s kind of like a good middle point.
What do you hope to be in the next five years or 10 years?
NM: I would love to, at one point, have a rotisserie and throw whatever I want on that thing and you could just come on by and I’ll carve you off some rotisserie, pig ribs, or whatever. That would really be awesome. That would be something that in five years, if we found the right space, could definitely be a possibility.
What was the inspiration for Marin Sun Farms and how has it grown in the last few years?
David Evans: The inspiration was multi-layered. One: my desire to continue my family’s legacy in Marin County and to contribute to the cultural heritage of the area and especially to the Point Reyes National Seashore. Two: to contribute to the development of a more local and sustainable food system in the San Francisco Bay Area that positively benefited and enhanced the environment, the community, [and] myself for generations to come. MSF has become one of many pioneers in livestock agriculture.
What is your favorite part of your work with Marin Sun Farms?
I like most of my responsibilities. I love managing, healing, and stimulating the land; maximizing the harvest of solar energy through bio-mass growth and soil and biological community building; creating an environment that is good and getting better. I love developing opportunities in agriculture that otherwise may not exist in my community.
Why is grass-fed important for you?
Grass is the natural diet of ruminant livestock and an evolutionarily necessary part of the diet of most omnivorous livestock, and is a sustainable food source for these animals and for our shared environment. Surplus grain being fed to ruminant livestock is a manifestation of human ignorance, arrogance, wastefulness, greed, and is, in my opinion, our modern-day plight.
Where do you see Marin Sun Farms in 10 years?
I see MSF as a leader in local and sustainable food models, continuing to refine a more sustainable path in food production. I see MSF continuing as a fully-integrated model/entity from field to fork, demonstrating the possibility of better land/resource/energy management, humans’ important role in that process, and in a position to offer others hope and inspiration to continue thinking and creating the future that will sustain our life, liberty, and happiness through agriculture.
Describe the selection and approach that sets you apart from standard American butcher shops?
Yamamoto Eiike: We select the beef as fresh as we do in Japan. We’re doing some special cuts, which is different from the American style.
Kobe beef is so trendy in the States. Is that your specialty?
Our brand is the washugyu—the washu beef—which is Japanese beef crossbred with the Black Angus within a Japanese style feeding program.
How about life as a butcher in Japan versus New York?
New York City is really tough to live here, but we thought it could be a good business. People come here, I told you before, from France, from everywhere. And we work with super premium beef. They have a farm in the Oregon state. So, we raise these cows in Oregon, and prepare the cuts, and they send the meat to our place, and then I cut the meat down for the customer. That is the system of the company.
Are you having fun?
Very fun. Every day is new, and I’ve been a Japanese butcher for 15 years. Some of the things are the same as Japan. Some of the things that are really interesting is the quality of the beef. So, I’m really happy that the customer buys our beef. I didn’t expect that. It’s exciting. People from magazines and TV come in and do interviews. I’m really happy with that, happy with the customers eating our beef.
How do you sustain the tradition of a place like this?
Otto Demke: Pretty much in today’s world if you don’t have service and you’re a small shop, you’re out of business. That’s the way it is. You’ve been into a store, and you go up and buy something, and they don’t hardly even say, ‘Hi,’ to you. Give me your money and sign your credit card slip and get out. It’s just real impersonal, and I think there’s no reason to shop somewhere where you don’t have a, ‘Hello, how are you? And how are the kids?’
What do you feel is unique about Gepperth’s?
One of the things that make us different is that we’re still a small market. I can still make sausages for someone who comes in and says, ‘Hey, I wanna have 10 pounds of Italian sausage that doesn’t have fennel,’ or, ‘I wanna have a brat that is more spicy,’ or whatever.
What would you describe your typical customer as?
I would say mid-40s to mid-50s is about the range. Professional in some capacity—doctors, lawyers, and stockbrokers. We’re in one of the more affluent areas: Lincoln Park. There are some astronomically expensive homes here.
Within these historic walls, what do you still find inspiring?
What’s inspiring to me is when I have a woman come in and bring her baby, and some years later, I’ll have that baby come in and bring her baby—that’s inspiring. I started in this business in 1962, delivering groceries and cleaning butcher blocks. I still see customers that I’ve known for 35 years. It’s better than family. Sure, they’re buying product and you’re doing the best to give them the best product you can, but there are other places they could possibly go, so for you to say, ‘I’ve known these people for 35 years and they still come in and shop,’ it’s pretty cool.