From Vegan to Whole-Animal Butcher: Back Forty's Chef Michael Laarhoven Breaks Down (His Interest in) Cows
Early on what's already shaping up to be a hot, sticky morning, chef Michael Laarhoven descends into the low-ceilinged basement at Back Forty where his kitchen team passes around a thermos of coffee and studies the two carcasses--one pig, one cow (from Clawhammer Farm)--draped over the tables. "We break down a whole cow every week," he explains, "and a whole pig every other week. We also do about a dozen rabbits and 100 to 200 chickens."
The guys trade jokes and ready their knives and saws; Mariano Daniel--the resident butcher who picked up his trade on the job here and "was immediately better than everyone," says Laarhoven--and sous chef Dreith Sommer post up behind the side of beef while Laarhoven examines the porcine anatomy. And then they get to work, digging into seams that separate the muscles, pulling apart ribs, and gradually turning each creature into recognizable cuts while preserving the offal, which might make the beef tasting, a changing line-up of different parts of the cow. Usable scraps go into burgers and sausages, though Laarhoven laments the still considerable amount of waste that comes out of the endeavor, not least because lost meat means lost profit. "We sell every piece we can, and it's just starting to make sense," he says. "We're working on brokering a deal for dog food."
The chef was eager to make the numbers work out--his passion for butchery stems from a return to omnivorism after years of veganism. "I was a vegan from age 15 until 24," he explains. "It was a natural reaction to factory farming in the '90s. Food is politics." When he started working with Caroline Fidanza at Diner and Marlowe & Sons, though, he learned that it was possible to find meat from well-raised animals. "Because I'm not good at moderation, it became a full-on career," he says.
He began experimenting with butchery, and he soon headed out to Portland to link up with notable meat man Greg Higgins, who helped him hone his skills and showed him the ropes of charcuterie. Back in NYC and on board as the the chef at Back Forty, Laarhoven began pushing the idea of whole-animal butchery, eventually winning the rights to hack apart the cuts for both Back Forty and Back Forty West, so long as he could make it work for the bottom line, an undertaking that took some creativity.
The chef gets into just how much creativity later when he shows me to the dry-aging room where bits of animal are organized by cut in neatly labeled bins. It's not unlike a high school dissection lab, except that Laarhoven is giddily explaining how he makes various pieces into dishes. "We use the tongue and tail for appetizers," he says. Shanks are braised, and traditional cuts go on the list as traditional steaks. Bones are halved for their marrow or used for stock (though in the summer, the chef notes, there's not a lot of soup on the menu). But odder morsels, like the heart, take some thinking. He's been helped along by NYC diners' willingness to try new things, and some cuts, he notes, have picked up in popularity. The heart, in particular, has become a good seller. "It eats like a muscle," he explains. "But a tender muscle because it's working all the time." He has more trouble with the liver. "No one seems to like it," he notes.
As I leave an hour or so after the work began, the guys are still at it, and will be until at least late morning. They'll cart cuts over to their sibling, including a hefty supply of burger, which is ground here for both addresses. And the team will get to work on the night's menu, using the fruits of this labor as well as cuts of past cows that have reached their peak age.
You're sampling the results of Laarhoven's endeavor every time you order beef, pork, rabbit, or chicken at Back Forty. But if you want a taste of the breadth this type of butchery affords cooking, opt for the beef tasting next time you're in.
Hit the next page for a few more photos.