To the visiting Wall Street stroller, the sight of a clean and gutted pig sawed right in half down the middle hanging on hooks on a rolling rack might be startling, bewildering or nauseating. To those around Uptown on a day-in, day-out basis, it’s business as usual.
Every week, six tons of neatly trimmed animal carcasses roll into Fleisher’s Grass Fed & Organic Meats to be professionally butchered and prepared for retail sale at the deli counter, to restaurants far and near and at their shop down in Brooklyn’s posh Park Slope neighborhood.
Six tons of Hudson Valley-raised steer, lambs, pigs and chickens — free from antibiotics and hormones, pesticide-laden grass and feed made from GMOs and God-knows-what-else — and a giant carbon footprint from being shipped half way across the planet make their way through Fleisher’s doors every week. Former vegetarian and Fleisher’s chief executive of operations, Emily Bonilla, said Fleisher’s focus on offering a healthier protein to its customers, as well as ethical slaughtering and butchering practices and a “nose to tail” cutting program are each intrinsic block supporting Fleisher’s as a nationally recognized name.
We are working really hard to be more accessible to the local population,” said Bonilla of the Kingston location. “We don’t want to be perceived as a niche market. We don’t exist for weekenders; we’re working hard to change that image. We have changed our store hours and are now open Tuesday through Saturday 11-7 p.m.”
Fleisher’s opened another storefront in Park Slope two years ago and are working on opening a central operating center in Manhattan as well. Their reputation has traveled the globe, appearing in The New York Times, Martha Stewart Living, Gourmet, Saveur, Food and Wine, USA Today, Forbes, GQ, Newsweek, Time and New York, among others.
Its elite butcher apprentice program beckons folks from around the country, largely those who read the book, The Butcher’s Guide to Well-Raised Meat, by owners Jessica and Joshua Applestone. The training promises a career in the foodie niche of fine butchery with a conscience.
Fleisher’s “protein manager” Trevor Bundi teaches the intense three-month course in which a group of 10 spends morning to evening learning the ancient art, trade and skill of cutting up animals for human consumption. Bundi, who grew up around the factory farms and slaughterhouses in the Midwest, said he chose not to eat meat for over a decade because of a lack of clean and healthful or ethical options. His son developed a slew of food allergies, leaving Bundi and his wife to pursue different options, which delivered Bundi straight to Fleisher’s doors. Bundi went from vegetarian to protein manager within two years.
Walking behind the counter and into the cutting room of the butcher shop, I wondered how I, a vegetarian for over a decade, would handle this. First and foremost, the place is filled with young, rugged good-looking men all in aprons and good moods. This certainly distracted from my initial discomfort. “Watch the floor. It’s slippery from fat,” I was warned. I grimaced. Back to my discomfort. There’s animal knuckles, blood and stripped body parts all over a bright, horizontal stainless steel and wooden block environment, all in the midst of the men busily cutting, cutting, cutting. A hacksaw, just sitting there. Never needed one of those to cut my cauliflower, I mused. However, as much as I first feared these handsome young men would be mopping up my hurl, after a few minutes, my super powers of disassociation kicked in, and I became comfortably accustomed to the sight. Personal Issue No. 4862 resolved.
The butchering program is mostly 30-something men, though some women and older gents don the apron as well. Bundi said the program is often comprised of those in pursuit of a second career, who have no butchering experience in their backgrounds whatsoever. Many are foodies drawn by Fleisher’s farm-to-table allure. Others, he says, are frustrated line cooks. One student is a former six-figure earner who left his career as an investment banker and its plump paycheck to learn butchery, to further his new endeavor of running a family farm and raising livestock. He had no butchery experience whatsoever.
The men in this session’s apprentice program hail from all over the country, including California and Michigan, and one former French citizen. The hopefuls learn every aspect of responsible butchery, including how to slaughter the animal in the first place.
To address the least savory aspect upfront, I wanted to know how Fleisher’s justifiably pairs the words “humane slaughter.” Fleisher’s policy is for their animals to be respectfully handled and transported, and spend less than one hour in travel to slaughter. Their slaughterhouses are small and committed to ethical slaughter practices. Bundi said the animals are stunned-gunned into unconsciousness, and then hung and stuck in the throat to bleed out, which is as painless as possible. The butcher apprentices were all responsible for slaughtering an animal; Bundi said the butchers who had hunting experience were not as affected. Bundi said the slaughter experience is “intense,” and described it as the moment in which he was “truly looking my food in the eye.”
As carving up a carcass for consumption was one of the first practices of early humans, the protective wear Fleisher’s butchers sport hearkens back to an earlier time. The butchers wear chainmail aprons which to protect them from an errant slip of the blade. They use standard five-inch boning knives and eight-inch breaking knives, Victorinox being one popular brand, said Bundi. They also wear aluminum scabbards on steel chains so their knives are always close at hand. And yes, a knife set is a highly personal thing, belonging to its owner only.