Excerpted from The Meat Hook Meat Book by Tom Mylan (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2014. Photographs by Michael Harlan Turkell. Illustrations by Kate Bonner.
With summer just around the corner, we asked New York butcher Tom Mylan, co-owner of The Meat Hook in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to let us in on the tricks of the trade to help the average cook become a butchering enthusiast.
Playboy.com: So butchering… how did that come about?
Mylan: I sort of got drafted into being a butcher. In New York it was harder to get local stuff seven to eight years ago. At that time I was sourcing for a restaurant group and tracking down local stuff to serve. I realized if they really wanted to prepare local meat that is financially sustainable for the whole restaurant, we were going to have to bring in whole animals—butchered pieces weren’t really an option. That meant there had to be a butcher, and the only person who was willing to do the butchering was me. At that point in 2007, it wasn’t glamorous or cool, it just came down to the fact that I was the only person that was really willing to step up and do it. In the beginning it was really challenging. Honestly, I didn’t start off being passionate about it—I started out thinking, “Fuck, this is so much work.” I was clocking 14 hours a day, six days a week, not making as much money as I had been before. But I enjoyed that it was really hard work that was mentally and physically demanding. Not many realize this, but butchering is a lot like cooking. The more you learn, the more you realize that there is to learn. My fascination with butchering finally came when I realized no matter how long you’ve been doing this, there’s always more and more and more stuff to learn; a lot of vocations are not like that.
Playboy.com:Eventually this led to The Meat Hook, a local, viable butcher shop housed in Brooklyn. How do you keep it sustainable?
Mylan:That definition really varies depending on who you talk to. For us, it means a few things. At The Meat Hook we have a lot of employees that we pay really well and give health insurance to. So being good bosses is cool, but to be able to afford that we have to sustain our business. Being able to work exclusively and directly with farmers is another factor. We are helping farmers be financially stable as well, so we try to pay them a fair amount for really good quality locally produced product that’s raised without hormones or antibiotics. Basically, everything that should be outside is outside. We don’t have a rule book where we can govern if the animals are happy or whatever, but in a nutshell it’s financially sustainable but also environmentally sustainable. Anytime you raise animals other than how nature intended, that’s unsustainable. Working directly with farmers and not buying from a middleman means that more of the dollar you spend at Meat Hook goes to the farmer’s pocket. There’s a bit in the book about this, but basically when you spend a dollar at the grocery store it’s something like 11 to 14 cents of that actually makes it to the farmer, whereas when you spend a dollar at The Meat Hook it’s over 30 cents. The rest of that is going to a locally owned shipping company, the family-owned slaughterhouse, our employees…so it’s all staying in the ecosystem of that community, in our case New York City.
Playboy.com: Your new book, The Meat Hook Meat Book, really stands out amongst a sea of other meat-centric books out there. What are you hoping people get out of it?
Mylan: I don’t want for people to think that these are just cuts on the shelf at the supermarket with no real knowledge of how the cuts can interact with each other. We want them to start thinking about their meat more like a butcher does. So that’s job one: educating the average home cook on how meat works. The second thing is to educate people about good meat in particular, in a way that eating this good meat seems delicious and fun, not just like the thing you need to do because if you don’t you’re a bad liberal or something. The last part of it is equipping people with the techniques to succeed at cooking meat. The recipes are more of a teaching tool but are all very fun. It’s really my hope that if you read and cook your way through this book you will come away with all of the techniques you will need for the rest of your life and all the understanding you’ll need to shop at the butcher. It’s a fun education—it’s kind of a trick I guess. It’s all of this wild stuff along the way, but it’s really just everything that I know about meat education masquerading as a party food book.
Playboy.com: For beginner butchers, what’s the best meat to start with?
Mylan: Learning to not only butcher a chicken but the different ways you can butcher a chicken is the gateway meat. Pasture-raised chickens are pretty reasonably priced compared to a whole pork shoulder, so really anything and everything you would need to know to move up in size—you’re not going to be successful butchering beef unless you learn how to butcher a chicken. Since chicken is inexpensive and it’s also not a ton of meat, you can do it over and over. Repetition is what builds the muscle memory. That’s what is key to becoming successful as a home butcher.
Playboy.com: What signature dish do you find yourself constantly stuck making at parties?
Mylan: Bone-in beef sirloin chops, which I like to call The Man Steak. You cut them two or three inches thick and they’re around five and ten pounds. They’re enormous! They’re the size of a medium-size dog. That for me is my favorite thing to whip up because it’s people-pleasing and it never gets old. What’s funny is that a lot of people are afraid to cook larger pieces of meat, but it’s actually much easier to grill a brick of one big steak than a little one. If you’re grilling a New York strip that’s a few inches, the margin of error to cook it perfectly can be measured in seconds, whereas with something like The Man Steak you can be drinking beer and talking to people at your party and forget about it and then be like, “Oh shit, I forgot!” and guess what? It’s fine. There’s a much larger margin of error, it’s minutes wide. Overcooking it is very challenging. You’d have to literally forget about it for 10 minutes to fuck it up since it takes 30, 40 minutes to grill, making it perfect for parties.