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We Talked to the New York Chef Who Saved a Lamb Instead of Serving It

In the wake of news that he would have to give up his adopted lamb, we asked NYC chef and Black Tree owner Sandy Dee Hall what's behind his relationship with Smokey.
Hilary Pollack
Los Angeles, US
Alle Fotos: Candy Kennedy

When Sandy Dee Hall—the chef and co-owner of New York City's Black Tree—first met Smokey, he was just a few days old and weighed less than five pounds. Smokey, you see, is a lamb who was born at Violet Hill Farm in West Winfield, NY, band abandoned by his mother shortly after birth. Sandy caught wind of the poor little lamb's plight and soon after, adopted him and gave the animal a new life in the big city.

All photos by Candy Kennedy

Sandy and his girlfriend, Maxine Cher, were soon spotted taking the lamb out and about with them around New York, from brunch at Brooklyn's Five Leaves to the streets of the Lower East Side. For the past couple of weeks, Smokey became something of a local celebrity, appearing in the papers, neighborhood blogs, and countless Instagrams.


But problems began to emerge. Although he's still just a little tyke now, Smokey could grow to be as much as 200 pounds when he reaches adulthood, and sheep aren't exactly a breeze to potty-train—especially in an apartment. And on top of that, sheep are illegal to keep as pets in the Big Apple, and the police have been reminding Sandy and Maxine of that fact repeatedly. As a result, Sandy is having to rescind ownership of Smokey this weekend—though thankfully, he'll be going to a new home where he will still be living a happy, domesticated life exempt from the dangers of eventual slaughter.

We asked Sandy what he learned from Smokey, why New Yorkers seem incapable of identifying basic farm animals, and whether he could ever eat lamb again.

MUNCHIES: Hi, Sandy. So, we've been following the saga of Smokey the Lamb. It's really heartbreaking that you have to give him up. Sandy Dee Hall: Yeah, lambs are illegal in New York. It's only legal to have, like, 15 kinds of pets in New York. Iguanas aren't even legal. It's kind of crazy.


Do you think authorities would have even known that you had a lamb if it wasn't for all the media coverage? Probably not. They haven't really bothered us. They just called and said, "You have to get the lamb out of the city." They guy even said, "You're doing a good thing, but it's just illegal."


Did they give you a timeline of when you'll have to give him up? I'm bringing him back [this weekend], and then we're gonna find a permanent home for him. We're gonna give him to a friend of mine, so that's cool.

I can't imagine how attached you are to him. We've had him since he was four days old. And we've bottle-fed him, so it's a bit more intimate than, say, a dog. With a dog, you just kind of put the food down. You have to bring [Smokey] everywhere, 'cause he's still like a baby, you know what I mean? With a dog, you don't even get them until six to eight weeks after they're born, because they have to get weaned. We've basically done the weaning process.

Are you worried that he's going to be emotionally traumatized? Actually, no. I talked to my farmers , and they said that when we leave and he starts he starts to [vocalize], he doesn't actually miss us—he just misses the social aspect. He just wants someone around. So I think he'll be OK. I hope he is. It's a better move—he's ready for the farm. He just lays in his hay now, and eats it.


Have you started to encounter more and more logistical issues with keeping him in an apartment? He's still OK now—he's only like 25 or 30 pounds—but he's big and he's getting bigger. When he starts getting closer to 50 pounds, then he'll be a real hassle. I got him when he was like three pounds. They come out, and they're just like bones and skin, and that's basically how quickly I got him.


I read that you had taken lamb off the menu at Black Tree after spending some time with Smokey. In America, lambs are still called "lambs" no matter how big they get. I have a big issue with eating baby animals of any kind. But my lambs that I get are not technically lambs anymore—there's a certain grading level that they go through.

I think it's more about a connection with your food. Knowing where your food comes from is a huge thing, and I know where all of my stuff comes from that I put out at the restaurant. And I know how well the animals are treated, and that they're loved. Sometimes if you love something, and you need it for food, it still happens, you know? I know families that raise animals for themselves to eat, in Vermont. And they have, like, a cow around for however long, and it's named, but they still kill it because they have to eat it; that's how they survive.

For me, I fell in love with Smokey individually. I would never eat a lamb anyway, but most of the lambs I get are actually sheep—they're full-grown adults. But I don't know; it might cause a public backlash, I haven't really decided yet. I'm definitely not serving it while he's still around. And I haven't had it on [the menu] in a while. The good thing is that I know that the lambs are cared for, and that they're happy. I think that's a good thing.


You must've gotten some strange reactions with Smokey out in public in New York. The only animals we know here are dogs, pigeons, and rats. Yeah, people still get weirded out when they see a cat. There's this guy I've seen walking a cat on a leash in SoHo, and that's still a weird thing to me.


Do you feel like you were able to educate people when they met Smokey and talked to you about him? Yeah, I think so. Most of the conversations haven't been long enough. But I think there is room for that in education, rather than just accepting what's in front of us. I think it would help people make better decisions with what they're eating—like, if kids were taught about cows and lambs and shit like that, even if it's just one class. They can make the decision whether or not to eat it, or even where to buy it from. Do you want to buy an animal that's had a miserable life, and died miserably in some sort of random-ass slaughterhouse, or however the fuck they treat them? Or would you rather have it from a family that's raising these things for meat, but they're basically part of the family while they're there?

But there still are all of these complications. When people say their chickens are cage-free, there's a whole bunch of different codes in that—and to be honest with you, they're not fucking cage-free. They all still live in a pen. When something says cage-free, it should actually be cage-free.

I think it's a conversation, and it has to be more refined. People think that they're getting something that they're not getting.


What will you miss most about Smokey? You know what I think is the best thing about Smokey? I've had a few people meet Smokey and email me later to be like, "Thank you. I was having a really bad day, and your lamb made me happier." I think that was the best thing, that he literally made people happy for no other reason than just being a silly lamb.

I wish I could have hung out with him. Thanks for talking with us.