Brother/sister chefs Evan and Marcie Turney learning the ins and outs of animals through Butchery 101

This hog started out at 138 pounds before being cut into pieces.
This hog started out at 138 pounds before being cut into pieces. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: January 19, 2012

ASK MOST siblings what they like to do together, and breaking down a 200-pound hog isn't usually at the top of the list.

Unless the siblings in question are brother/sister chefs Evan and Marcie Turney. The Turneys share a passion for food: Evan is executive chef at Mercato and Varga Bar, which he co-owns; Marcie, along with partner Val Safran, owns Barbuzzo, Lolita and the new Jamonera on 13th Street, among other businesses.

So it's not too surprising that the Turneys' idea of a fab brother-sister bonding experience was to enroll in Fleisher's Meats' Butchery 101, a knives-on, five-day artisanal butchering course offered at the well-regarded, family-owned Hudson Valley shop. Founded in 1901 by Wolf Fleisher as a kosher butcher, Fleisher's Meats now trades in only grass-fed and organic meats, selling to New York restaurants, online and from its second retail location in Brooklyn, N.Y. Run by Josh Applestone, a former vegan, and his wife, Jessica, Fleisher's sells only meat raised within a 100-mile radius of its main location in Kingston, N.Y.

"That was all really important to us," said Marcie, who while not intent on becoming a butcher, finds all things related to food preparation interesting. She and her brother were hoping to snag a spot on Top Chef (a goal they still have) and figured being able to do their own carving could only be an asset.

At a time when old-fashioned butcher shops are on the endangered-species list, growing interest in locally raised meat and more obscure cuts - driven first by chefs and then by consumers - is bringing butcher shops back in vogue.

Philadelphia has a tradition of family-owned, service-oriented shops, including Rieker's Prime Meats in the Northeast, a handful of meat emporiums in the Italian Market and G&M in South Jersey. Consumers committed to organic and pastured meats can buy from the Fair Food Farmstand and Giunta's Prime in the Reading Terminal, as well as area farmers markets. They can order their grass-fed beef in bulk from Philly CowShare.

But the art of cutting meat is another story. Unlike wholesale meat cutting, which employs a band saw to chop animals into salable quadrants, a master butcher does everything with a 5-inch boning knife, no matter how large the animal.

"I'd never seen an 800-pound half of a cow before," Evan said of the intensive Fleisher's course, during which he and Marcie learned basic anatomy and worked on beef, lamb and chicken. The latter they killed themselves.

"We had the option not to do that, but we all did," he said.

"That was a little out of my comfort zone," Marcie confessed. "Reaching in and picking out the one that was going to get it, that was kind of hard. But this is the reality of eating meat. It doesn't start out shrink-wrapped."

Marcie and Evan now regularly order farm-raised goats and pigs for their restaurants, which they and their staff will break down and use, snout to tail. "Knowing where the animal came from means everything," said Marcie.

Both chefs also make their own charcuterie, using every bit of fat and offal from the animals in the process.

When a customer responded with distaste to a photo of a 250-pound hog stretched over five tables at her 13th Street restaurant Barbuzzo (before hours), Marcie took it in stride. "Her comment was, 'You have to show respect for the animal,' " said the chef. "That's exactly what we are doing - honoring the animal by being sure it was humanely and sustainably raised and slaughtered, and then not wasting any of it."

A good butcher knows the animal inside and out, and can advise the consumer on how to best cook even the tougher cuts.

In The Whole Hog Cookbook (Rizzoli $30), Libbie Summers offers recipes that use every bit of a pasture-raised hog. "Take the Boston shoulder, for example," she writes. "Cuts from the upper portion of the front legs of a well-exercised pig tend to be tough. But that doesn't mean you should avoid those cuts. In fact, because they contain a good amount of fat, they are ideal for slow roasting or braising."

If you're down with the idea of eating meat, why not up your game and try grass-fed-and-pastured meat instead of mass-market cuts? Ask your butcher to carry meats free of antibiotics, growth hormones and animal by-products - animals raised on a strictly vegetarian diet.

"It's all about eating better-quality food, but less of it," said chef Derek Davis, who ran Main Line Prime in Ardmore for a few years. While you're likely to spend 35 to 50 percent more for organic, pastured meats over standard supermarket product, the idea is to eat less - 6- to 8-ounce instead of 12-ounce servings.

"We have been conditioned to expect food to be cheap. But there's always a hidden cost," Davis said. "So you eat food that's a little more expensive. Just eat less of it. You'll be healthier."

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