By Oliver Strand, GQ
The first time I went to a butcher was in college. I wish I could say it was my idea, but the inspiration belonged to my roommate, Robert, a sophomore from Burbank, California, who was trying to transform himself into a sophisticate who knew the best vintages of the past ten Bordeaux and Napa harvests. (He memorized the cheat sheet in Wine Spectator.) Robert decided that we would invite friends over for a steak dinner and that we would, in his words, serve the finest beef known to mankind.
Now, this was fifteen years ago, long before the current fascination with meatmen-butchers weren't photogenic dudes with tattoos, they were middle-aged guys with missing fingers. Our neighborhood butcher shop was busy and reassuringly spotless; the tile floor sprinkled with sawdust. It was only when our number was called that I realized Robert didn't have a plan. The butcher asked what we wanted, and Robert calmly stepped behind me and gave me a little push.
I didn't know what to say. Of course I'd eaten steak, many times, but I had never bought any, and when I scanned the glass case I was intimidated by the abundance of beautifully marbled beef. Only one cut came to mind, a miserable steak I recently had that was gray and chewy.
"I don't want London broil," I said.
"Then don't get it," the butcher said.
Luckily, butchers live to elucidate.
After some basic questions (budget, ambitions, skills), the butcher gave us a short tutorial, steering us away from bland tenderloins to more flavorful New York strips. Then he explained how to sear the meat, how to let it rest. He gave us a bag of coarse salt mixed with cracked pepper. As he spoke, he jotted the instructions down on a piece of paper, and when he handed us our steaks, he told us to come back and tell him how it went. He was sincere.
It was a seminal afternoon for me. But I've since learned that for the man behind the counter, it was just another workday. A butcher shop is one of those institutions, like a good barber or a tailor, that are as much clubhouses as commercial enterprises, except you're granted membership simply by stepping through the door. And lately, more doors than ever are opening. A new generation of butchers are setting up shops from Brooklyn to San Francisco. Whether you choose a new-school spot or a joint that dates from before you had canines, know this: It doesn't matter if you're advanced (you special-order game), intermediate (you know the cut you want), or beginner (porkchops? chicken breasts?)-cutting meat is the butcher's trade, but his art is making shopping for it the best part of your day.
View our slideshow to learn what to keep in mind before stepping up to the counter.
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