Sunday, December 13, 2009

My Day of MEAT FUN- How to Empower yourself at the Butcher Shop

Today is going to be one of those very busy cooking days. We are hosting the neighborhood cookie exchange tonight, as well as feeding all the fun neighbors. So I have 6 dozen cookies to make, and I am making Beer/Cheese soup to go with a dozen Cherry/Chipotle pork sausages! You all will of course be hearing about all of that soon...

But today, I want to tell you about an hour I spent with my new best friends... The owner and staff at A CUT ABOVE "NATURAL MEATS". A few days back, I posted about a new business that moved in just a few blocks from my home!!! Some would say a butcher shop, some would call it a meat cutting specialty store... I'm just going to call it my neighborhood CANDY STORE!!! A little slice of heaven right here in Kansas.

I will try to be more generic about the time I spent talking to JOHN SUMAN (Owner and chief butcher and chief sausage stuffer), but if you live anywhere close to Kansas City, click HERE to get to their website which features a map of the area so that you can find the place. The rest of this post will be more of a talk about what to look for in a candy... er I mean butcher shop. With a little work, maybe you can find your own slice of heaven in your area...

They are very proud of their product. When you name a place, "A CUT ABOVE", and you charge a premium price (John estimated his meat was 20% to 30% higher than chain supermarket prices), you should have a way to sample. And they do. The grill they have in the front of the store was not in use the day I visited (20 degrees F), but they did have a pan of short ribs cooking inside. I was in the store for over an hour, half dozen customers came through, and all were offered a generous sized portion to sample. Very lightly seasoned (just a bit of salt and pepper), and it was indeed tender and juicy. I spend hours cooking low and slow to cheat a cheaper cut of meat (brisket or beef ribs) into becoming fork tender. They simply fried a bit of their product in a little oil and let the meat speak for itself.

And here is why their meat is "A Cut Above"... Their motto is, "Never Ever". No antibiotics, no steroids or growth hormones from birth to plate. No color additives, no preservatives, no sodium brine injections (salt water to increase the weight).

All of these things and more are common practice in the meat industry. But they pride themselves on being able to trace the origin of their meat. Using local farms, they can assure that their organic source animals eat only organic foods. You are what you eat. Eat a junk food diet, and you will be in poor health. Eat an all natural organic diet and you will be in better health. A quality butcher shop should be able to offer verified meat from well feed animals. Factory farms, and your neighborhood grocery store meats can not make the same claim. Empower yourself. Ask where your meat comes from. If the answer is vague or sounds institutional, your animals are coming from large factory farms. The life the pig led does make a difference in how it tastes.

Another question you should ask your meat provider, shelf life. Isn't it fascinating that you can find pre-packaged meats with an expiration date up to two weeks from when you buy it. Freezing will preserve your food til it is convenient to cook. You will lose a little quality in a frozen cut, but injected preservatives (only way to offer a two week shelf life) adds. Preservatives add a taste you do not want, chemicals you can not pronounce (does much good come form chemicals introduced to an animal that can not be pronounced), and it alters the quality of the meat. Plan ahead, buy fresh and natural and then use within 3 days or freeze. This particular store sells fresh never frozen beef and pork. Empower yourself. Ask how long the meat has been on their shelf, and how long it can be stored before eating. If the answer is in double digits, their meat is chemically enhanced to allow that "advantage".

A quality butcher shop rotates their inventory so that it only sits on THEIR shelf for 2 days. If it does not sell, a Boston Butt (pork shoulder) can be ground into fresh sausage. It is a bit frightening to consider just what parts of a pig go into sausage. While I admire the concept of "rooter to tooter" (nose to tail) no waste use of an animal. In fact, when I buy sausage, I am happier knowing the source cuts of meat. Empower yourself. Ask what cuts the sausage is made from. If you hear "mostly" or "byproducts", or even "grains and cereals added", well... knowledge is power.

I LOVE sausage. Sausage can be bought in links, or in bulk. It can be used to flavor (stuff) vegetables (bell peppers), other cuts of meat (Raspberry Chipotle Spiral Cut Pork Loin with a Chorizo Sausage stuffing wrapped in a Bacon Lattice). But the real beauty of sausage is it's versatility when adding fresh spices and herbs. A Pork Shoulder can be converted to Bratwurst, choriso, andouille, hot or mild Italian and many many more. Those additives should be all natural spices and herbs.Some shops may use grains and cereals (fillers), preservatives, "interesting" cuts from the pig or even non-pig "interesting" cuts of meat. Empower yourself. Ask what is in your sausage. Words mean things... All natural, 100% pork are good words.

Customer service at a high end specialty shop should be a given. But, just as important, knowledge and an enthusiasm to make whatever you are planning the best it can be is an aspect of customer service that goes well beyond, "May I help you?". Let me give you an example. While I was talking to the owner, a potential customer came in. She started with a simple question, "How many pounds of rib roast do I need to feed a party of 8?" John spent a few minutes with the customer, found out the date, and suggested a special order (same price) so that her roast would be delivered farm fresh and would not have to be frozen or cooked near the end of its freshness life. He suggested some spice rub to enhance the flavor. When the term "rub" got a bit of a blank expression, he took the time to explain rubs and what they did. He then offered to have the special order available on the morning of the party, pre-rubbed so that it would leave his butcher shop roaster ready. It would have been simple for him to respond, "4-5 pounds," sell her the package and ring up the sale. Instead, he went out of his way to find her needs and meet (meat) this customer's needs. Empower yourself. Use the knowledge of the experts. If you do not get the answers you like, find another expert. John has three employees. One has years of experience as a meat cutter. One is a culinary school student, and he has a part timer who is in fact an instructor at a local culinary school. John himself has 30 years of experience as a meat cutter, and spent 5 years running the meat counter for WHOLE FOODS grocery store.

Burger King made a whole ad campaign about special orders not upsetting them. Well, this shop has so much variety that I am not sure what you could ask for that they do not carry. Bison/buffalo is making a big comeback as an alternative to meat. Duck and game hens are in stock. but he also carries elk, alligator, rabbit and even KOBE beef and AKUSHI hot dogs and hamburger patties. Empower yourself. Specialty meats are fun. As I learned with my TURDUCKEN, friends and families love a specialty event.

And here's a hint to my plans... I already have a neighborhood Mardi Gras party in the planning stages. I make a mean jambalaya as it is. Flavored with ANDOUILLE sausage and my secret roux recipe, it has proven to be a long term hit with family and friends. Now I can enhance my recipe with alligator, or even add an alligator etouffee' as an appetizer. Empower yourself. Have fun with exotic ingredients.

So, I am lucky. I have found my specialty store. I am not saying I will not be buying from my local underpriced grocery store. I love a sale, and I can't pass up a bargain. But, as often as possible, and certainly for special occasions, I will journey to my new candy store. If you don't know of a shop like this in your area... get out the phone book, make a visit, ask a few questions, and Empower yourself. The quality of your ingredients matter. You now have some questions to ask... ASK EM!

I feel empowered.
Thanks to Juan, JOHN and Chris for your time, and knowledge.

I wish you all the luck in the world as you start this new chapter in your life.

And now, I am off to start baking, and I am very excited to be serving those sausages (Cherry/Chipotle, can you imagine) I bought from A CUT ABOVE!


  1. Okay I am jealous! We do not have a butcher shop in my area, only chain markets, but I have connections in a commercial meat place being a chef...I love that pig shaped meat hunk! I might have to do that next time I make a meat loaf!

  2. Having access to a real butcher is becoming more and more rare. You gave some good questions for folks to ask. I knew I was done with store "meat departments" when the employee working there did not know what a boston butt was.

  3. We have a deli like this near where my parents live in Queens, and they buy all of their meat there. It's so nice to go into a store like this where you know all of the butchers by name and can trust that they are not going to steer you wrong when you ask them about their meat. So different from going to the supermarket where you never know what you are getting. Great post! I hope it raises awareness about issues like this and spurs people to go to the small butcher store instead of to the chain supermarkets!

  4. There are still butcher shops out there? I haven't seen one since I was a kid. Man oh man, I miss bakeries, butchers', independent book sellers...sigh.

    Hey, did you get my email re: oven baked ribs?

  5. You are really fortunate to have a real butcher shop nearby. I finally found the Fisher & Wieser Raspberry sauce at Kroger - look forward to trying it.

  6. I am so jealous, I would be at that store all the time!

  7. Definitely a candy shop, what an awesome store! We have a little butcher shop by us that we can walk to and find all sorts of goodies. It's seriously one of my favorite places to stroll over to on the weekends :)

  8. Very cool. LOGS here has a butcher and they are actually pretty good and have been very helpful to me in the past.

  9. Your secret roux recipe? How I'd love to see that! And Alligator Sauce Piquante, for an appetizer! Wow, sounds like a great Mardi Gras bash! I just might have to make that party, cher! Great looking specialty meats store! Count yourself lucky!

  10. You are indeed fortunate. We have a small meat market, nothing nearly as well stock and diversified as yours. Considering their limitations, the product, as you say, is worth the price. The meat at our super-chainstore comes frozen and thawed. yumm...not.

  11. Love this post. I am not coming to Kansas City and I'm trying to figure out what I said to indicate that. BUT, if I were headed to Kansas City you bet, I'd take you up on the offers. Same goes if you're headed to Denver. Whole Foods tells me their meet is good for three days. They have the same standards. It doesn't usually matter to me, as I shop for meet the day of the meal. Wish I could visit the new shop, I'd be like you, a kid in a candy store.

  12. We don't have a real butcher shop here either. Your post was very enlightening.

  13. Fantastic post Dave! Can't wait to see how you serve up those sausages! I would have chosen those too! Have a great party!
    Merry Merry!
    ~Really Rainey~

  14. I don't buy meat other than chicken or turkey very often because we are on a very tight food budget right now. This place looks wonderful though! I used to work at a (mostly) organic grocery that carried only local organic meats. I loved it. The hamburger was the best I've had in my life, completely different than the stuff in the regular stores that's for darn sure.

  15. Super informative post! I grind my own meats (love that kitchen aid attachment) and have for many years for that very reason!

    LOL I used to be a patron of A Cut Above except it was where I got my hair cut in that city!

  16. My husband and I were just talking about the very things you hit on here. Know where your food comes from. There is a local butcher that we have been meaning to check out and you offered up some great questions to ask when purchasing or choosing a cut of meat. Jamie Oliver does a good job of promoting the same thing.