Obsessed: An Interview With White Gold Butchers
Welcome back to Obsessed, the interview series in which we talk to uniquely driven amateurs and professionals from all across the food world. We hope to shed light on the passions that inspire enthusiastic food nerds, from home cooks to chefs on the line to veteran butchers, fishmongers, and farmers. Hopefully we'll also pick up some of their favorite tips, tricks, and food wisdom along the way. Know somebody who you think would be perfect for this interview series? Email us!
White Gold, the latest in April Bloomfield and Ken Friedman's stable of establishments, is a chimera. While its owners like to call the Upper West Side space a butcher shop and an eatery, it is more than either of those two terms can sufficiently describe. In the morning, it's a butcher shop that sells a few excellent egg sandwiches and coffee; in the afternoon, it's a butcher shop that sells sandwiches and the savory English pastries known as pasties (as well as a single salad); in the evening, it's a butcher shop and a well-reviewed full-service restaurant. The room it occupies could easily be bisected by a dividing wall, creating a butcher shop on one side and a café on the other, with very little need for any architectural adjustment at all.
And yet, separating the two sides of the business completely would ruin the curious space that exists at its center, where shoppers stand to check out the meat in the display case and make their orders, and customers sit on high stools and sip coffee at a tall, narrow communal table. Often, the people crowded in this area are doing neither. Instead, they survey the open kitchen, or look on (and ask questions) as one of the two head butchers prepares meat for the case. It makes for an odd scene, but one with a certain hectic charm, and it is clear, particularly during White Gold's busiest moments, that the sense of bustle the space evokes is less a matter of chance than one of design.
Those butchers, Jocelyn Guest and Erika Nakamura, are also co-owners, and they played a pivotal role in creating the shop's layout. The butcher's block that sits right behind the meat counters, in plain view of the clientele, was installed specifically so that the butchers could be present for any customer inquiries. On the one hand, this is merely good business practice: Their success depends on selling cuts of meat that customers may not be familiar with. But over the course of a conversation we had in February, it became evident that their goal wasn't solely to move meat or turn tables, but also to advance the idea of a butcher shop as a place to foster a sense of community.
Guest and Nakamura seemed ideal candidates for one of Obsessed's first forays into the world of professional food work, in no small part because of their pedigrees in meat nerdery. Nakamura was one of the first students in the apprentice program run by Fleishers Craft Butchery in Kingston, New York, and she went on to open Lindy & Grundy in West Hollywood, California, where Guest eventually ended up as an apprentice. Later, Guest would become the head butcher at Dickson's Farmstand Meats in NYC's Chelsea Market, and she and Nakamura were tapped by April Bloomfield to run the beef program at Salvation Burger and the lamb program at The Breslin restaurant, respectively.
Can you describe in your own words what exactly it is that you do?
Jocelyn Guest: Our joke is that we take the big pieces and we make them smaller, because that's pretty much what we do all day.
Erika Nakamura: It is what we do all day. But essentially, what we do is whole-animal butchery. It's still very new American, in terms of the kind of cuts that we produce. In terms of style, I learned how to butcher on the counter initially, but, as I learned and traveled through the world of butchery, I realized that there's a reason why a lot of people cut hanging, vertically. Gravity has a lot to do with that.
JG: It's faster.
EN: It is faster, and we're a little smaller, so that makes it a little easier.
[to Guest] Did you learn to butcher on the counter?
JG: First on the bench, but then I moved back to New York, and I worked at Dickson's Farmstand Meats, and that's all hanging breakdown. I think New York is going more toward hanging right now, because of space and speed. That's the name of the game. This is not a cheap endeavor, so you want to make it clean, utilization-wise, and as time-efficient as possible.
How integral is sourcing in whole-animal butchery?
EN: I think it's the backbone of what we really do. We try to source as locally as possible, as ethically as possible. We visit every single farm, and we have a wonderful relationship with all our farmers.
JG: I talk to the beef farmer twice a week. You talk to the chicken farmer every day, maybe.
What do you talk to them about?
JG: What they feed them, how they raise them. Also, our beef farmer sends us pictures of his kids in their Halloween costumes. It's pretty intimate, because I feel like, when you know someone as a person, you know that they're going to be doing the right thing, because there's a lot of trust involved. We have to trust that the farmers are doing what they say. That's why we go to visit, to see and verify it. But also, when you know someone beyond "This is the dude that raises my beef," you trust what they're doing is right.
EN: Right. Also, that's really because you, as the customer, need to trust us. So, it's a chain of trust. We have to be able to stand in front of you and say, "We've been to the farm. We know our farmers. We know what these animals have eaten. We know where they were slaughtered, how they were slaughtered, that it was efficient, it was sound, it was as humane as possible." I think that's what people are growing toward wanting more and more. It's why businesses like ours exist now.
Are there specific challenges associated with whole-animal butchery?
JG: The logistics can be a nightmare. Because we're very committed to the whole animal, we have to get a lot more creative in terms of what we put in the case, and what we put on our menu. We ran out of beef this morning, so I had to call the slaughterhouse and be like, "Can we pick up early?" I had to call the trucker and be like, "Are you around to drive an extra four hours today?" It's a multistep process. The way that we know these people, I don't want to screw anyone over. It's not, like, "Hey, take all this extra time out of your day and do something for me."
Basically, you're at the mercy of whatever demand is on a given day?
JG: Right. When you're getting whole animals, you can't bring in 10 [sides of] beef, which is about what we do per week on a busy week. Where are you going to store it? Also, here, we have little to no waste. If there's any trimming from case cuts, that all goes into stock. If there's fat, we render that, and we put it in the fryer. If you bring in too much, then you know it's just going to go bad, and that's just super disrespectful.
You render the fat for deep-frying for the restaurant?
JG: We started doing it out of need because we didn't want anything to hit the trash. Then, it also turns out it's a really terrific product. Way back in the day, McDonald's used to have beef fat in their fryers, but for whatever corporate reasons, they stopped. But our potatoes are insane because they're confited in beef fat, and then fried in beef fat.
Do you supply the other April Bloomfield restaurants with meat?
And you have specific cuts that you pull out for those grinds?
JG: Yeah, which was really important for us because, at this point, the tax structure for farmers and for everything else doesn't make this an affordable way to eat. It really pisses me off that it's a privilege and not a right. By grinding for other restaurants, we can keep our price point a little bit lower. We're a couple bucks lower than other whole-animal shops because we do all this other grinding, which, honestly, is the most sustainable way.
Because it's easier to sell ground beef?
JG: Well, see, like this trim that I took off the steak, that will go into hamburger. There's a bunch of weird little muscles all over the cow that aren't really marketable, so we put all those to hamburger, which helps us be able to still bring in whole animals and not...
EN: And minimize waste.
JG: Yeah, I think that's probably the hardest part of doing what we do, because it's like, with every pig, you get in a head. You're bringing in more pigs because you need the pork chops, and you need to make sausage, and then you have five heads, and you're like, "Okay, we can only make so much headcheese." Our chef de cuisine, Robert, is putting a pig-head snack on the menu. We're talking about maybe doing some ramen broth—that sort of thing. You just have to get creative, which is really fun, too, because it's not just doing the same thing every day.
EN: Right, and it's not a chore. It keeps us on our toes. And it also gives more and more variety for our customers to enjoy.
If your goal is 100% no-waste, how often do you hit that goal?
JG: You're never going to have 100%. You've seen dry-aged meat, how it gets that crust on the outside? That, essentially, is good mold that gives you the flavor and protects the meat, but you can't put mold into food. Pigs and lamb and cows all have the same glands that we have, and that's not something you can use. Basically, anything that is edible and isn't going to poison someone, we use. It's always exciting when you find the customers that are like, "I want beef tendon." We have this Austrian lady who comes in who always wants pork kidneys. We're like, "You're the best. Come every day, and please buy all of them."
EN: But we are now doing a kidney special on the dinner menu. Ultimately, the best thing that we do, I think, to accommodate this attempt to minimize waste, is making bone broth. We sell about 66 quarts of bone broth a day. A lot of this stuff can actually go in that. Maybe not the fat, but we render the fat. What they're doing over there, making the chopped cheese—they're picking up the chopped cheese with rendered beef fat. We're trying really hard to have a home for everything. The unfortunate thing that has happened is that we're having trouble getting rid of the beef fat. Beef fat at room temperature congeals. It's completely solid. Usually, you get companies that do biodiesel fuel to come and pick up fryer oil, and they'll pick it up for free because they can render it and they'll turn it into something else. They will not pick up our stuff because it's animal product, first of all, and second of all, they can't move it physically if it's not liquid. That's the current headache we're facing.
Before, you were saying that you guys do "new American" cuts. Would that include cuts like bavette?
EN: I don't know. It certainly does, but I would say the bavette is more of a traditional French cut. In American butchery, it would be known as the flap, the sirloin flap, or flap steak, which is super '50s. But who wants to buy the "flap"? What I mean when I say "new American butchery" is that when we butcher the pig, we still come off with the picnic ham and the Boston butt. We have the same names for each of those things. In that sense, it's very traditional and American. But then, we'll do a few other twists to it. Like, for example, we take the pork tenderloin, and we'll tie two together, so it's a much larger thing. We just tweak it a little bit.
JG: Also, we have to do that because we use heritage animals, and they're smaller than what people are used to. Our pigs usually come in around 200, 250 pounds, versus some monster that is eating god knows what.
Is one of the challenges of doing this that you have to manage customers' expectations, when they're just used to seeing sirloins and stuff of a certain size?
EN: Yeah, for sure.
JG: Or, like, buying five pounds of hanger at a time.
JG: There's one hanger on every cow.
EN: We try really hard to steer them in the direction that makes sense for us. There's still a good deal of education that happens over the counter. It's funny because I think, when Jocelyn and I started White Gold, we thought, no one wants to be educated. Most people come in and...it's like buying a pair of jeans, and someone approaches you, "Oh, do you need help?", and you're like, "No. No. I don't." There's a level of defensiveness that everybody comes in with. We came into it thinking, nobody wants to actually talk to us. Apparently, that's not true. Even though, at my old place in LA, I would hit a wall trying to educate people, and I'd get this glazed-over look, like they're just not really listening. You can see it happening, and they're getting defensive and kind of annoyed with you.
JG: Yeah. "Whole Foods is three blocks away."
EN: Exactly. But then, I've realized that so much of our clientele here are not that way, and they love it.
How important do you think it is for a customer to have a good relationship with their butcher?
JG: It makes my life easier if someone has a relationship with me, because then I'm more informed about what they want, and what's going to be successful for them. At the end of the day, I feel like a butcher shop, even though ours is also a restaurant that's getting whatever amount of acclaim, it's still a neighborhood place. It's still shit that people are cooking at home for their kids, their wives, their husbands. That's awesome, and that's what I think we love about it.
EN: I think that's definitely true, and I think we make it a point to be outwardly friendly with our regulars. I want to know their first name. I want to know as much information about them as possible. That's how it should be. It's because, I think, traditionally, the butcher shop, the barbershop, these are places that...
JG: Where you go kick it.
EN: That have always been gathering spots. It's a place where people talk about politics. It's a place where people mingle. I think it's important to assert yourself and insert yourself into the community as that place. Then, you want to invite people to be a part of that. I think the best way for that invitation to occur is to give the type of service that is old-school, that goes beyond what you would normally get at any regular spot. You're probably more inclined to want to go to the bar where you know everybody who works there. I want that for us, but I also want that for this community.
What do you think about being women in a predominantly male profession?
JG: My dad is a retired Army guy who lives in Texas. I think he thought I was in the back of a grocery store, with a bunch of fat white dudes covered in blood. Then he saw Salvation Burger, and he's seen the chef, and now he kind of gets it. But I have a really skewed perspective because I learned at Lindy & Grundy's, which was owned by women, and lots of women worked there. Then when I went to Dickson's, it was mostly dudes. Here, I think it's a 50/50 split, so it doesn't seem novel to me.
[to Nakamura] What do you think about that? You've trained with a lot of guys.
EN: Sure. I've trained with a lot of guys. I've also trained a lot of guys. It's funny because the kitchen, in general, is traditionally male-dominated. Then we also have April, and she's a beast in the kitchen. I think in a lot of ways, we as women have a tendency to overcompensate a little bit in order to be taken more seriously. But I don't know that that is a real thing anymore. It's changed a lot. Even the butchery scene's changed a significant amount. But what I always like to joke around about with Jocelyn is that she's everybody's friend. She's able to really get people to do what she wants by being a friendly boss. I rule with fear, all the way, through and through. People are afraid of using the sink behind me, you know what I mean? Maybe I have a Napoleon complex, and...
EN: Shut up. Also, I've been in some really intense kitchen environments. But I think it's certainly changing. Whether it's me and Jocelyn, or, there are some other super-noteworthy female butchers, like Kari Underly...
JG: She redid the entire Whole Foods meat department.
EN: Yeah. She's totally amazing. There's more and more women out there. We love to try to be activists to an extent, too. There are support systems for ladies in this environment. I'm a charter member of something called Grrls Meat Camp. It's like some charcuterists, some preservationists, some farmers. It's all ladies, and we all hang out in the middle of the woods in Michigan once a year and cut up meat together. I have a tremendous appreciation for that stuff, because I think having a mentorship-type program is the best way to grow the culture and to support people.
Do you think one of the main barriers to entry in a profession like this is simply the perception that women don't do it?
EN: Yeah, I think so, for sure. But women these days are pretty ballsy, too. They're just like, "Whatever. I'm going to try to do it."
JG: But people do still say stuff like...I read an article the other day about [celebrated Bay Area chef] Dominique Crenn, and someone, I don't know who wrote it, said, "Oh yeah. She's so awesome. She cooks like a man." That's like at the Olympics, when someone was like, "Oh, she's a female Michael Phelps." It's like, she's just a fuckin' thug, and she's good at what she does.
Do you have any tips for someone who wants to get into butchery?
EN: Tips for them? I say, don't stop until you get what you want. You can start by going and buying books that are going to help you out. But ultimately, I think you want to find the spot with people you respect, and people you want the knowledge from, and you just have to ask them as many times as it takes.
JG: Don't pretend like you know anything, or think you know anything, because as soon as you start, you'll be like, "Oh god, I know nothing." I don't know. Just wear a cut glove.
Do you have any book recommendations?
JG: Merle Ellis.
EN: Yeah. There's a book that's out of print. Merle Ellis wrote it. It's called Cutting Up in the Kitchen. It's hand-illustrated in a pen-and-ink style. I think it's from the '70s.
JG: The illustrations in his book are like the stuff tattoo dreams are made out of. It's definitely a trip.
EN: Other books...Kari Underly wrote a really wonderful book called The Art of Beef Cutting. It won a James Beard Award a couple of years ago, maybe three years ago. Then there's this guy Thomas Schneller; he's one of the guys who runs the meat program at the Culinary Institute of America, and he has a series of textbooks that are all very clinical. Totally geared toward culinary school students trying to figure out how to debone whole chickens.
Do you both cook at home?
JG: The past few months have been a special experience of eating a lot of takeout.
EN: It's true. Typically, we are folks who cook at home. I love to cook at home because it makes me feel like a normal human. Especially when things are up in the air and insane. It's meditative.
JG: Well, being a butcher, I think, is a good way to keep that love of cooking there, because we don't cook all day.
Do you think being a butcher makes you a better cook?
EN: I say yes, but what do you say?
JG: Maybe more adventurous. I'm much more willing to feed my friends tongue than I was six years ago, but...I don't know. I definitely don't throw away leftovers anymore just because I don't want food in the fridge. I'm not the best cook in the world, so...
EN: Yeah. We know what sells in the meat case. For us, if we're going to cook at home, we're going to take the thing that people aren't going to get, or we try to, and occasionally we hook ourselves up. But we're not typically the ones who are going to walk away with a ribeye or New York [strip] or a pork chop for ourselves; we're going to try other stuff.
JG: Like pork flank steak, or something.
EN: Exactly. Then it allows us the opportunity to take that home, cook it, and then be able to tell our customers, "This is how you do it." Because otherwise, you're just winging it. Your credibility is shot when you wing it in this industry.
What's your favorite meat to eat?
JG: If I'm doing a braise, or a roast, I always want pork. But I would take a steak over a pork chop, if that makes sense. I love chicken, man. People hate on chicken. I think it's awesome. Rabbit—gun to my head, I always pick rabbit.
What's your favorite cut of meat?
JG: I really like pork shoulder, and I really like flat iron. Those are my two favorites. The flat iron is this awesome hybrid. It feels decadent a lot of the time, but it's really quick-cooking. Unless I'm going to cook something for 12 hours—I don't really have the attention span to do anything more than six minutes.
EN: My favorite meat to eat is something that we call the boneless chuck short rib. It's the short rib section, but from the shoulder, not from the actual shoulder. My favorite way of eating it is leaving the bones in and freezing it, and then cutting it really thin on the bandsaw, so it's like a galbi cut. Marinate it and cook it on an open flame. I'm all about the outdoor hibachi lifestyle.
What's your favorite animal to break down?
JG: Beef, definitely. It feels the coolest, I think.
EN: It's the biggest animal.
JG: Yeah. It's fun. It's like a workout. You put on some dope music, and you get your heart rate up.
EN: My favorite animal to cut up might be a lamb. Lamb is very, very easy to handle, but it's still got all the anatomical characteristics that these other animals have. What I love about it is that it literally is almost the size of my body, but it's hanging. It's almost like I'm doing this dance while cutting it. Don't look at me like that. I don't know. I love it a lot.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.