It's a cold night in December and John Poiarkoff, the executive chef at The Pines in Gowanus, Brooklyn, takes me outside to their large walk-in refrigerator. Inside are cases of wine and five ducks hanging from their feet. I see their black eyes, their beaks, tiny holes below their heads. Underneath is a tray to catch drips of blood. Rusty pink and bumpy with raised dots, the ducks will age for two weeks before hitting the menu. Poiarkoff gets his ducks from John Fazio in the Hudson Valley. His ducks are not shot in flight and retrieved by a cute dog, but rather walk into a machine that loops their legs, flips them around, and shoots a bolt up into their neck and out through the back of their brain. I pull my eyes away from the birds and glance further into the walk-in.
"Here's the rib eye," Poiarkoff says, taking a tray off the top shelf. The giant slab is dark; almost the color of a purple beet still covered in dirt, or a scab, and it's developing a tacky coating called a pellicle. The beef has been air-drying in Poiarkoff's walk-in for over a month. He pointed to a fan that helped the air circulation that was so necessary to the process. A few weeks earlier I had eaten a rib eye at The Pines that had been aged for 120 days. Sprinkled with a tiny bit of finishing salt, and nothing more, it was the tenderest piece of meat I had ever placed in my mouth.
Chef Tip: According to the NYC Department of Health, meat hanging in a walk-in fridge is fine if it is kept under 41 degrees–out of the "danger zone," where bacterial growth is most likely. As the meat ages, it forms a pellicle that protects it from external infection. The natural enzymes will help tenderize it as evaporation draws water out of the meat and intensifies the flavor. However, make sure that the fridge is not too humid or the pellicle may never form and your meat could spoil. If Poiarkoff spies a crack in the meat he'll "spackle" it over with rendered beef fat before he begins the aging process.
When Poiarkoff took over as executive chef, he overhauled everything—the fresh vegetables, how often the menu changes, the wine list, and where he got his meat. "For me, its cool supporting the little guys, and its also the quality of product," he told me over beers. He used to get his meat from Pat LaFreida, the same guy who seemingly supplies anyone and everyone in New York's culinary scene. But Poiarkoff will be the first to tell you that buying from LaFreida doesn't mean you know where your meat comes from. Much of what LaFreida sells—all high-quality—comes from the Midwest, which is anything but local to a chef in New York.
Enter Dan Honig from Happy Valley Meat, a small, one-year old company with a network of farmers in nearby Pennsylvania. Honig had just begun selling cuts to Poiarkoff's brother, Mike Poiarkoff, the executive chef at Vinegar Hill House, so he dropped off a few cuts at The Pines. "His beef was delicious," Poiarkoff said. So he ordered some. Then ordered more. At first, the inconsistency of the beef from different farms was a "little frustrating," but then he liked it. "You get to taste different flavor profiles, and try different farms and you get to see what you prefer."
Chef Tip: Most beef tends to be corn-finished, but not all perfectly marbled meat has to be corn finished. If you find the right farmer who knows his pastures, the steer will be just as fatty and flavorful. Corn-finished beef will still be higher in omega-3 fatty acids and, well, nothing will ever be as rich as Kobe beef.
The education you get while you're in the weeds has proven invaluable. Poiarkoff described the early days: "At first we weren't charging enough and we were hemorrhaging money." Then they were charging too much, which the Gowanus neighborhood couldn't support. As the chef, he had to quickly figure out how to order for a restaurant that still didn't have a consistent draw.
Despite his Russian background and Pennsylvania upbringing, Poiarkoff had a ton to learn when it came to meat. Honig recommended he read Butchering Beef by Adam Danforth. A bible of sorts, the book includes a forward by Temple Grandin, who led the trend toward creating humane slaughterhouses. Sometimes Poiarkoff will refer to pages in the Danforth book for cuts he wants from Honig.
Early on, the chef was using the culotte, a small triangular cut he liked, but that proved too variable—there are only two per animal. He opted to try the chuck for a few months. "I broke down each one in a different way and cooked each muscle separately, using different cook times and temperatures. It was an interesting experiment and I could use the trimmings on our backyard menu. Eventually, I talked Dan into cutting out just the seratus ventralis muscle from the underblade of the chuck for me. It's a very marbled, uniformly thick cut of meat that is rarely utilized for anything other than ground meat, but it makes a beautiful steak."
Chef Tip: Steaks aren't necessarily the best cuts. It's all of the connective tissue that's best. The collagen in these cuts turns into gelatin, which is what makes it taste so damn good. Also, when ordering from a menu, go for the offcuts like beef chuck, tongue, pork jowl, or something you've never heard of.
There are hundreds of ways to break down an animal. Honig describes working with Rising Springs, his processing plant, to get just the right underblade cut. "Before, to save time, they were cutting the chuck into smaller bits. The chuck is a large primal with rib bones running through them," Honig explained. "The plant had been cutting across the rib bones, but by [doing that] they truncated the muscle John wanted to use." So Honig drove to the plant. "Once I was there, it was easy to point out what I was looking for." In November, Honig even spent a month filling in at the plant. He soon came to the conclusion that "he was too soft" for such long hours.
Strangely enough, the guy helping to educate Poiarkoff was also a vegetarian, at least for a few years. It happened after reading Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, and before beginning a masters degree in bioethics at NYU. Honig detailed his route from being a vegetarian to someone whose job is buying and sellingmeat: "While I didn't agree with Foer's philosophy, his book made me realize that there are huge, complex, and very real problems with the American food system, especially when it comes to animal proteins. It made sense to stop eating meat until I had a better idea of what was going on, so I read everything I could find on meat and animals as food. All my research led to the conclusion that it isn't the killing of an animal that is wrong, but the treatment."
From this epiphany, Honig looked around for companies who were, in his opinion, doing things the right way. He found the people behind Heritage Meat Shop, eventually working with them to open their Manhattan location. Despite having a family history entrenched in animals (his mother's side in Russia were all butchers), Honig didn't pick up the craft until working at Heritage. From there he went to Sea to Table, which was where he met Dimin. The two discussed their idea to bring local, sustainable meat to chefs and consumers, and Happy Valley Meat was born.
Chef Tip: Like produce, meat is seasonal. Most small farmers don't have animals year round. Farmers tend to have cows that give birth at the same time either in the fall or the spring, which means their animals will be ready two years later. As grass quality changes, 100-percent grass-fed beef will have even more seasonally driven flavor.
Dimin began compiling a list of slaughterhouses, including several he had found on the PETA website. Visits to them included having their phones confiscated, promising they weren't journalists, and seeing things like a "double tap," which refers to when a processing plant has to kill an animal twice. What they saw, and the people they spoke to, were uniformly undesirable. Eventually, they found the perfect partner in Rising Spring Meat Company.
Happy Valley currently orders four to six steers a week and ten to 15 lambs a month, delivering cuts to chefs all over the northeast, and a few even further. Like nervous hens, around midweek Honig and his partner have their eyes glued to the FedEx website as they track their packages. The meat, packed with enough gel ice to last three days, is usually fine, but one time Honig had a box disappear on him. "One of my customers had a box of filet mignons and a box of bones, and I was like…please let it be the bones," he said. It wasn't the bones.
So how many cuts are in one 1,200-pound animal? Honig rolled his eyes. "Hundreds," he said. The small company pays a close eye to waste, but there are still unusable items. They can't use the head, per regulations. Other weight that is lost is sinew, water, blood, stomach, intestines, lungs, and hooves. Cowhides, the one item of small value, are sold to big tanneries that make leather for cars.
This year is already shaping up nicely for both men. In between trying to convince their farmers to let them ride the steers (not recommended), Happy Valley Meat is hoping to add poultry to their roster of animal proteins. And The Pines, when not trying to get their name out there and show people that "we're doing some pretty cool shit," will be opening a sister restaurant in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn this spring called Willow. And if you have cable, Poiarkoff will be starring in this season of Bravo's Best New Restaurant.
He won't tell me who wins, but I hope it's the little guy.
All photos by Liz Clayman.