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“Meet the Butcher: Hanging out with Diner's Tom Mylan”
I was having lunch a few weeks ago at Diner, the decade-old Williamsburg joint owned by Andy Tarlow and Mark Firth, when the question about the Ossabaw was posed. I can’t say I didn’t ask for it, but still, I was a bit shocked. “I’m about to butcher an Ossabaw. You wanna watch?”
“Yes” was my immediate and final answer.
Lemme give you some background. You see, I’ve been toying with the idea of learning more about the art of butchery for some time now (Julie Powell is writing a book on the very topic), and when my friend Sasha told me that Diner had their own in-house butcher, I was pretty psyched to meet him. My hope was that he’d ask me that very question.
And he did. The “he” in question is Tom Mylan. Known to many as the Grocery Guy, Mylan is a self-confessed “born-again meat cutter,” who traded his job as grocer at Williamsburg’s Marlow & Sons for the chance to become the restaurant group’s in-house butcher. (Marlow & Sons, Diner and Bonita restaurants are all owned by Andy and Mark).
Mylan is tall and broad, a brick-solid lumberjack type whose standard work uniform includes a trucker hat, a blood-stained apron, a red rubber bracelet (like those yellow LIVE STRONG ones) that’s engraved with the word CARNIVORE, and what appears to be a gun holster filled with a selection of large swords, er, knives. But Mylan’s a friendly guy with knives (I think), so I followed him through the back door and into his butcher stall. There, on a cold damp March afternoon, I watched him work his way through half an Ossabaw pig that had arrived that morning from Virginia. (The hogs of Ossabaw Island, off the coast of Georgia, are descendants of Spanish pigs brought to the New World over 400 years ago.)
He pulled it out of the freezer carried it over his shoulder, like he might burp the pig before butchering it. And then he went to work, sawing, slicing, and trimming, moving his knives through the marbled ruby-red flesh in smooth motions, like a skilled surgeon, creating the familiar cuts—pork butt (shoulder), ham, bacon, loin. For me, it felt like I was finally getting it. This is the way to eat. This is what it’s about. Getting the meat straight from the farm, butchering it yourself. It just felt right.
Tom in his butcher stall, before showing me how to butcher an Ossabaw
After watching Tom take apart the pig, I had a chance to learn more about his decision to become a butcher, his very own Mr. Miyagi, and why he eats pork rare.
The Strong Buzz: How did decide to leave your job as a grocer/cheese monger and become a butcher?
Tom Mylan: It happened by a series of events. I was working as the grocer at Marlow & Sons, where we’re always trying to showcase local products and small local purveyors. We were trying to find a place to source good local grass fed beef for the restaurant. I met Josh and Jessica Applestone (of Fleischer’s Grass-Fed Meats in Kingston) at a Slow Food New York Event, and we started getting all our ground beef from them. But when they opened a retail shop in Rhinebeck, rather than hire more butchers, they decided that they were only going to sell hanging weight, which basically means selling half and whole animals. An old school butcher would call it fresh meat. So Josh gave a lot of restaurants an ultimatum, and said take my meat hanging weight and hire your own in house butcher, or don’t take it at all.
We knew we wanted to continue to get our meat from Fleisher’s so we needed to get a butcher on site who knew how to handle these large animals. While Andy and Mark and Cheffy (Diner Chef Caroline Fidanza) were having this conversation about who that person might be, I walked by. They said, “You wanna be our butcher?” I thought about it for about 15 seconds and then I said, “Yes.”
SB: What is your day like?
TM: Every day is different. It depends on what the restaurant went through the night before. But there are a couple of constants. Every day starts with grinding ground beef for Diner for the burgers. Every Wednesday or Thursday I cut steaks on the band saw for the weekend. Tuesday morning is a big morning. I get here around 7:30am for meat delivery, and we unload it and put it in the cooler. It’s like 1100-1200 pounds of meat. All these whole big pieces. Every time we change the specials I have to butcher stuff a different way, so I am always in communication with the chefs about what we have and what we want. It’s a lot of fun.
SB: What meats to you butcher at the restaurant?
TM: We get in an entire steer once a week from Fleisher’s. We also go through 2-3 whole pigs, two whole lambs, and sometimes also get some rabbits—45 this week—and hundreds of chickens, all of which are cut up by me. We’ve gotten goats, too. All kinds of stuff, anything you can think of. Ducks, too.
SB: Do you have an animal that you don’t like to butcher?
TM: My least favorite animal to butcher is a rabbit. It’s like butchering a cat. It is very tiny and delicate so it’s hard. Bigger things are easier to butcher. There are two schools of butchering. There’s the small village western European style, which is more the way chefs cut stuff up and then there’s a brutal fast style out of the Chicago meatpacking, which is the style that I practice. It’s really brut force. You have a few powerful cuts and it’s done.
SB: Do you have a favorite cut of meat to eat? Or is that like asking you to pick your favorite child?
TM: My favorite thing to eat honestly in the whole world is a rare Diner burger. The flavor and the texture of the burger is so awesome. Honestly my favorite cut, aside from that, is properly raised Berkshire pig pork chop which I like rare. That’s a testament to the quality of the meat that I believe in them to eat a rare pork chop. If you know who’s raising them you don’t have to worry about trichinosis.
SB: Any recommendations for a good butcher?
TM: My feeling is that you want to go to the one in your neighborhood. They’re all over the place in Queens, in the City, in Brooklyn in Carroll Gardens and in Williamsburg. But what you want to do is develop a relationship with your local butcher. If you want to see more local meats, you can ask him to get it for you. If you want Long Island ducks or local pigs or local lamb, ask for it. If he doesn’t have it he can figure out how to get it for you. You want and use your dollar to get what you want.
SB: I guess the obvious question that I haven’t gotten to yet is who taught you how to become a butcher?
TM: The Fleishers taught me. I moved up to Kingston for a month and lived with Jessica and Josh and their Bull Mastif named Boo-Boo and their African tortoise named Mo.
SB: An African tortoise?
TM: Yeah, no joke. They had a tortoise.
SB: Wow. Okay, well, what was your training like?
TM: This guy Aaron Lenz taught me. He had been a pre-med major and had worked in slaughterhouse and was a graduate of CIA and he taught me. He was like my Mr. Miyagi. He was very wax on, wax off. He’d tell me how to do something once, and then he’d say, “Okay, now you do it.” And it would take me 20 times longer than him. I’d ask him questions and he’d be like, Just do it! And then he’d say, “Name all those muscles,” and then he’d make me put the leg back together. Then he’d throw all the muscles into a pile and mix them around and have me name them all again and put it back together. I’d work on beef legs, then pigs, then all I did was arm chucks (the front shoulder and arm of the cow). You learn by repetition. It’s not an intellectual pursuit. It’s doing so much cutting that you get a blister and then that turns into a huge ugly callus.
SB: Was it what you expected? Was it harder than you thought?
TM: I definitely didn’t think it would be as hard as it was. I grew up in a construction family with sheetrock and a hammer in my hand. I’ve done a lot of shitty jobs like demolition and hauling around bags of mud, but it doesn’t really hold a candle to whole animal butchery. Some of the pieces weight 165-170 pounds each and they’re dead weight. Beef cows weigh a couple of thousand pounds, and all their muscles are put together pretty well. It’s a lot of heavy lifting. There’s not a light moment and I don’t think I expected that.
SB: Was it dangerous getting used to the knives and to all that cutting?
TM: I probably cut myself three or four times a day usually one fairly seriously time on average. I still cut myself now, but it’s about getting out of your own way. Every once in a while I space out listening to NPR or to music and rocking out and next thing you stabbed yourself in the wrist down the bone. Josh (Fleisher) was almost killed by a beef leg. He lost his grip on it and it was on this stainless steel “S” hook and it slid down his body and the hook tore into this collarbone. If it had his Carotid artery he’d be dead.
SB: So with all this labor and physical danger, why do you like butchery? What is it that attracts you?
TM: Ultimately I do like the gruesome stuff. It’s macho and fun in that way, but learning to butcher is a little like learning to be a computer hacker. It’s enjoying what most people take for granted and have no concept about. I have this whole quiver of informational arrows. I can tell how an animal was raised, I can tell good meat from bad meat by smelling it, and I can recognize different breeds of pigs by the amount of back fat, all sorts of things like that. There’s this whole secret world of information that not many people know about and the fact that its universal and everyone takes it for granted.
And butchery is like going back to the beginning. Meat moved from being in a butcher shop to these very abstract foam trays with plastic covers and a price tag on them. And that’s what the food movement is about, especially here in New York, trying to get back to the farm and remove all these barriers and abstractions and things that are hiding the truth from you about what you eat. That’s the attraction for me. And it’s cool. People ask you what you do it’s cool to say. I’m a butcher.
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