The Butcher Kitchen is the only certified Kobe beef retailer in San Francisco. What makes Kobe beef so special?
To be honest with you, all Japanese beef is extremely special. Kobe is one of the many Wagyu brands in Japan. The definition of Wagyu is simply Japan, Japanese + cattle, cow. Kobe is known for its traditional flavor, dense and creamy intramuscular marbling, and quality. Kobe beef adds provenance, validity, and luxury that our establishment promotes (and customers desire). We sell over 500 pounds of Japanese Wagyu per month in retail only, and when our associated steakhouse, Niku, is open we sell double that.
I travel at least 2-3 times a year to Japan and go to no less than nine farms each time, in multiple prefectures from Northern Japan to Southern Japan, spending time with the farmers and the animals to understand the terroir of the animals, the climate, the land, the feed, the philosophy and the passion of the farmers. Japanese Wagyu is comparable to fine wines and champagnes. In my opinion, some of the finest wines come from right here in Napa, and of course, only true champagne and some of the finest wines in the world come from France. Wagyu only exists in Japan. There are multiple cross breeds all over the world that are incredible in their own right one of them being Masami Ranch Domestic Wagyu from Corning, CA, Imperial Domestic Wagyu from Omaha, NE, as well as Jack’s Creek from Australia. We promote and serve Masami to our guests. Some of the Japanese and Masami animals are born, raised, and harvested just for us.
You went into the butchering industry after reading Upton Sinclair’s popular novel, The Jungle. What was it about the depiction of the meatpacking industry that inspired you?
Simply put, I’m a product of a hippy mom and biker dad. I was conceived one fine evening in San Francisco in 1969 with a combination of my parents’ indulgence in red wine, quaaludes, and weed, and I was born in San Francisco 9 months later in 1970. I was raised with care and respect for all things big and small. The entire planet is alive and we disrespect and destroy her daily. We, humans, are brutal animals. Which brings me to The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. I read the book in 1984 when I was 14 years old. I witnessed the horrors of human and animal interactions through his writings. Full well knowing that we are carnivores, I began to reconsider our place in the protein production cycle. I strove to make a change to educate others on respecting all things. The horror of The Jungle fueled me to walk four blocks from my home to the local butcher shop. I asked for a job and the owner put a broom in my hand. The rest is history.
You have a background in architecture. How does this influence your craft?
The precision and aesthetic of my education and years of working as an architect was a natural flow between both disciplines. Architecture houses and protects the body, while butchery feeds the body. The display of proteins is just as calculated and artistic as architecture. It can be obscure, it can be obvious, it can be playful, it can be liberating, but if done without care and respect, it can be oppressive.
I love that customers can come in and ask for cooking tips. How important is this dynamic to the business?
Human interaction is key in this disparate society of humans communicating six inches away from their electronic devices. People are begging to ask questions and to be validated by real human beings. We educate, listen, and learn from our guests. This is probably the most important aspect of our business. We serve our clients. Every person, no matter what business they are in, serves someone.
How is the business evolving with the pandemic?
We are a retail butcher shop, an “essential business.” Our retail business (selling raw meat) has increased fourfold. The takeout business is a new concept in reaction to keep the heart/hearth alive in our kitchens of the adjoining Niku Steakhouse. I am extremely proud to say that we have had the ability to rehire ten of our employees to execute this program. We do have a very successful takeout program with the “Butcher’s Burger” that has been creating lines in front of the shop for the last year.
We are evolving by creating a sense of calm in our shop. We only allow one guest a time into our extremely clean and COVID-19-friendly environment where three butchers serve one guest at a time. I really enjoy this new dynamic. It makes the guests’ experience very intimate. Also, the Tock pickup is next door at The Niku Steakhouse front door, which is also a singular special experience handled by the general manager of the steakhouse, which I have rehired to be the front of house face of this project.
What are you excited about for the future?
New ways of farming. New ways of sustainability. Cultured meat. Maybe even the deconstruction of the entire protein industry in the future as we know today. We need to change to survive, we need to evolve to survive and not be the true human virus that we are to our home. We can help heal Planet Earth if we all practice our businesses differently. I am 50 years old and I’m excited to see my children and their peers around the world make all of these global changes. I am but a grain of sand dropped into the infinite sea of this industry. I have created a microscopic ripple, but a ripple nonetheless. I hope that others drop stones together to form future waves.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.