If you don’t ask, it’s never going to happen for you.

Melissa Cortina
Owner, Bavette Meat & Provisions

https://bavettemeat.com/

 

I was in graduate school for literature. I had a triple major in college: art history, philosophy, and literature. I planned to go into the intersection of all of them, through aesthetics — the philosophy of what’s beautiful and understanding why we think art is art. I’m still really interested in that but I found graduate school to be super detached from the world. I eventually got my master’s and just left; I was supposed to get my Ph.D. but I decided not to. I started working and eventually worked my way into this really fantastic James Beard award-winning restaurant and when I was there, they did a lot of farm-to-table food, tons of it. The chef, Jody Adams, was a really early advocate for working directly with farmers. I started making charcuterie a little bit and doing a little more stuff with meat, and I loved that, so that’s what got me on that path, interested in the way that food used to be made and preserved. Now we don’t need to preserve meat because we have access to it all the time. But before, you did need to preserve it because you only butchered at certain times and then you had to make it last the whole year. I was really interested in that.

 

I went on a search to get more in touch with farm-to-table food in general, but also to try to learn how to butcher. That was a really long and disheartening journey! I went knocking on people’s doors like, “Can I learn to butcher?” and everyone was like, “No.” I get it now in retrospect, and I don’t think it was just because I was a woman; I do think it was kind of because I was a young woman. In my 20s, I know I was very hesitant, very not self-assured. Some people would say, “I’ll teach you but if you make a mistake, I’m going to yell at you and will you be able to take that?” And I was like, “I’ve worked in a restaurant, I’m fine.” Or they would just say no. In the case of Whole Foods, they put me in the bakery and I asked regularly, “Can I be in the butcher shop?” They didn’t say no, they said, “We don’t think you would like that, we don’t think you’d want to be there, we don’t think you’d want to do that, it’s gross, it’s not for you…” stuff like that. And that happened other times; even after I learned how to butcher in Italy, that continued to happen for quite a long time.

 

Once I worked in L.A. for a little while, I couldn’t get anyone to teach me. There weren’t at the time any places that really butchered the way I wanted to learn. I wanted to learn how to get the whole animal and break it down. With this whole farm-to-table thing, I wanted to work with the ranchers and no one in L.A. really was doing that at the time. Now, of course, there were places — bigger facilities, wholesalers — but I didn’t know about that. I was just going to retail butcher shops and nobody was doing that. So, I just went off on this quest. That summer, I applied for an apprenticeship to work on a farm in northern California, and I applied for a scholarship to Le Cordon Blue in Paris, and I got both. I went to live and work on the farm and I got to follow the product from its birth on the farm all the way to the restaurant, and that was the exclusive grower at the time for Chez Panisse, and then I got to go stage at Chez Panisse and then I was off to Paris.

 

While I was in Paris, I had finagled the embassy to give me a longer visa through a lot of begging, so I was going around at farmers markets — and I don’t speak French — and I was like, “Can I come and work at your farm? Can I learn how to butcher? Can I learn how to make charcuterie?” Because at the time, charcuterie was really what I thought I wanted to learn. A couple of them said yes, but I ended up writing this butcher in Italy; I wrote them an e-mail thinking “Oh, they’re not going to say yes, this is the most famous butcher in the world.” I had read about him in Bill Buford’s book Heat. His name is Dario Cecchini. I was like, “Well, I speak Italian, so maybe I’ll just see what they say.” I wrote the letter in Italian and they wrote me back and said I could come for a month! This is better, this is way better, than learning in the U.S. So I packed up all my stuff after I finished culinary school in Paris… and I had nothing. Like, I was broke. I went to France with $900 in the first place, I had lived there for three months — there was nothing left, and then I went to Italy and I had literal cents in my pocket. They taught me to butcher but they taught me a lot more and I ended up getting to stay; they hired me and I stayed for almost a year. I believe I’m the only apprentice who’s been hired. Most people worked for free to learn. In exchange for that, I worked most of the time, I only got to butcher one day a week, if that. It was only for like five hours but it was incredible: these master butchers and the best product in the world. This butcher is very into the sense of food traditions, community, artisanship, quality, above all else. That was different than I think what I would learn at a whole-animal butcher shop here, which is sometimes more showy, and not as much rooted in quality.

 

People are always like “Oh, you’re so lucky that happened,” and I’m always thinking… it’s not luck. First of all, I knock on every single door that is available in my sight. I asked people in French — I don’t even speak French! — if I could go live at their farm. They said yes. If you don’t ask, it’s never going to happen for you. Also, I sacrificed my entire financial well-being for many years. I’m still paying for this trip because I had no money when I went there. I think that for whatever reason, people who find these opportunities, at least in my case, are less risk-averse. I really had to risk everything.

 

I could have stayed; I chose to leave, I guess, at the time. First of all, I had been gone for a long time. I had well overstayed my visa; I was illegal. I still had a lot to learn at that point. Part of the reason I left is in Italy the way they do things is very specific. I didn’t know any of the cuts in English. They only do certain things there. It’s a very dialed-in process, so everything is their way, and it’s wonderful, it’s incredible, but I felt that I needed to learn American cuts. I came back to L.A. because Lindy & Grundy — these two female butchers — had opened a butcher shop and offered me a job. That was where I really rounded out my education and experience because with butchery, it’s all about repetition, so there I got to learn from one of the owners, Erika Nakamura, all the American cuts the way that she knew them. And then practice it every single day for hours and hours and hours. I got really good. I’m so grateful to have been there, because they were really empowering — two women who really lifted me up a lot. They always joked about how when I came there I was very shy, in my corner. I attribute a lot of my confidence now to them.

I have really poor health. I got pneumonia in France; Dario had to take me to his doctor in Italy because I have very severe asthma. Right now, it’s been very severe, so actually after I left Lindy & Grundy’s, I think within a year, I had to stop working completely. I had chronic bronchitis and I had mono and I had all this stuff and I didn’t have health insurance. I had Obamacare, the first iteration, and it was just a hot mess… couldn’t get the care I needed, so I stopped working for probably over a year. When that started to wind down, I started doing little jobs here and there, did some USDA consulting because I have all these food safety certifications and that was less physical. Probably two or three years after I left, I finally started Bavette. And it was partly because my boyfriend’s aunt made a really cute logo. I had a blog and she made me a logo, and I was like, “No, this is not the blog logo, this is the business logo. This is my dream logo.” I missed the meat that I had at Lindy & Grundy’s and it was devastating not to have access to good quality meat any more. So it felt to me like there was still a really big opening for that. L.A. is huge, there’s room for plenty of butchers. So I just started it. But it was like… I’m so reckless! It seemed like I wanted it, but I didn’t have the expertise or the plan or anything that I needed. The first deposit in the bank account was $23. I’m like, “I’m going to start this business, I’m going to get my bank account, got my sole proprietorship,” I did the stuff and made a website and I was like, “Ok, we’re open!” But it doesn’t work that way. Especially because I was looking at kind of this new model, which is what we have today. But I’ve learned so much on the journey that now the business is actually growing.

 

The model is, we don’t have a storefront. Customers either place orders online for pickup at the Hollywood Market, or Altadena Market, or hopefully soon, other markets. They also place orders online and we deliver. I love this model. Not only because it protects my health, which was the main idea when I started the business because I was still kind of weak and my family was very concerned about this because I’ve always been the wild one in the family. That way, I could control how much pressure was on me at any given time. Also, it’s more efficient. I can get all the meat in at one time, package it perfectly, and then freeze it and it’s ready for people. I can meet them at their homes, still have that customer interaction and really serve them with more content and information that helps them feel more comfortable buying and cooking great quality meat. That was what I didn’t want to lose by having a customer-facing experience; I wanted people to still feel that connection with us and so I work really hard through to connect with people through the e-mail list and social media and it’s been really rewarding. And actually no one that I can tell is doing this. No artisan place, I want to say, with that hand-cut seam butchery type of touch. It’s growing right now.

In America, everything’s kind of industrialized so a lot of people just saw through muscle groups. European butchers take the time to seam out, meaning they separate the muscle groups through the natural separations and pull them out in whole pieces and the finished product is neater. It’s usually a better cut… people would argue about that. I cut both ways, now that I know both ways. I’m not tied to one or the other. They say seam butchery’s slower and more “artisan.” But that’s a difficult word and I believe there are different ways of cutting… it’s not fair to say “European seam butchery.” I think in Italy they cut differently; in France they cut a little bit differently. It kind of depends on what you make in your shop. In England and the UK in general, they have their own ways of cutting, their own names for the cuts and I think it has a lot to do with regional products. In France, for instance, you’re probably making rillettes and so you would funnel certain cuts into that pipeline. Whereas in the UK, and in my company, we make meat pies, so certain cuts are funneled into that.

 

You separate it into parts, which people call “primals.” The shoulder usually gets separated between the fourth and fifth rib and the loin is its own section and then you separate the leg. So you kind of break it off into about three parts. A side is a half, usually it’s already cut in half; with a lamb it isn’t, they’re very small. Pigs and beef are usually cut in half and beef they cut into quarters at the slaughterhouse. We could do it here but they’re so tall, it doesn’t fit and they use a big chainsaw to cut it because otherwise it’s kind of a lot of work. When you get beef here, it’s in four parts already: the hindquarter and the forequarter and usually you get two each of those and the first thing you do is take the loin parts off — that’s the center, where all the fancy good cuts are. Sometimes the head is on. It depends if you want the head on, you can ask for it on; it depends how they killed the animal, if you can have the head. Because if they shot it, then it’s destroyed. That’s why stunners are usually preferred now. Beef, you don’t get the head on. They’re more regulated, beef heads, because of mad cow disease, so it’s like a whole other process to get the head. But the pig heads you can get easily. We don’t get the heads of the lamb. It’s more work for the slaughter people, too, so I think if you don’t want the head then they don’t bother with it. Because they’re more regulated, they have to be inspected separately by the USDA inspector who’s on-site during the slaughter.

 

There’s a big gap in consumer knowledge. People don’t understand how intricate and complex it is to get the meat to their plate. But it’s really cool — I almost applied to become a USDA inspector, because you learn a lot. They go to the gnarliest places, like the Jimmy Dean factory or something, where they’re doing thousands of animals a day. I think it’s reassuring to people when they find out that there is a USDA inspector on-site all the time and a veterinarian on-site during the slaughter. There’s a lot of humane handling standards in place in the U.S. right now that are moving in the right direction for slaughter.

I try to get the meat directly from ranchers; that’s our main thing. I really want to support the ranchers who are doing things right and give them their money directly, not through somebody else. A lot of the best ranchers are in northern California and the reason is the weather is more conducive to raising animals. I’m not someone who will use die-hard local in the case of agriculture because not everything grows well in certain climates. That’s why our bison comes from Wisconsin. Bison need the cold, they like it better, they need a lot of space. We don’t have that here. For beef and lamb, I get everything from northern California. Right now, I actually buy our lamb from a distributor… that’s a hot button word! Whole lamb ranchers will get very mad, but I’m very inflammatory in this regard. I do buy the lamb from Marin Sun Farms right now and that’s because they will deliver to me for free and because they have the same buying practices that I have, so they buy from the local food shed, directly from people. One thing I love about them is they are their own slaughterhouse, and the slaughter part is something that’s not talked about a lot; it’s really important. Anybody who tells you that they’re sending their stuff to an ethical slaughterhouse is really questionable because the slaughterhouses in California… there’s not enough, it’s really a difficult situation. For the pork, I get it from southern California near San Diego, directly from a rancher named Oliver and it’s his very special heritage breed of pig. The chickens we get from Pasturebird which is in Murrieta, a former marine who started his own pasture poultry operation and they’re just taking the world by storm. I love that, that makes me feel really good about what we’re doing. Helping people to get access to that type of meat is really important to me. You can buy directly from a lot of these ranchers if you go to a farmer’s market; you don’t have to buy from us. I think what we offer is a different cut, different level of cut, because those ranchers are forced to send their meat from the ranch to the slaughterhouse and then to this place called the cut-and-wrap facility, which is not always the best situation. It’s not horrible, but a lot of times it’s quick and messy. We get the meat in directly from the rancher and then cut it our way, package it, and then also do these little add-on services that make it easier for consumers at home. We have the meatballs, we have the rubs that you put on the meat so you can cook it right away, we do custom cuts and the pot pies, this whole line of provisions that help people enjoy this meat every day.

 

For Bavette, this lamb was harvested this week and it’ll be cut today and into the freezer. The poultry, I get on Wednesday, it’s killed on Tuesday, and then sometimes I package it right away but usually I wait until our orders come in on Friday and then I package it. One thing I always say — and this is the exception, even with a really good butcher shop it’s not always the case — everything is super fresh and you’ll notice that it’ll last much longer in your fridge because it’s been cut so fresh and vacuum sealed. It lasts at least a week or longer. That’s not the case even if you buy something in a good butcher shop. The pork actually does better… I don’t want to use weird words, but when it’s first killed, it’s floppy. The meat needs to dehydrate a little bit, it’s very wet. So giving it a little bit of time, like at least a couple of days, usually you get better cuts. One thing people don’t know about is that there’s this constant process of evaporation so the longer you wait, the more the flavor concentrates, and yes that’s good, but the butcher could lose up to 20% or 30% of the initial weight of the animal in evaporation. So the faster you cut it, the better for you, but if you’re trying to go for flavor like dry-aging or hanging the meat to get more flavor, then wait a little bit. But that affects the price.

I’m more meet my customers where they are, and once I get them in the door, I can introduce them to this new steak or whatever, but if I don’t have the boneless skinless chicken breasts or whatever they want, then I lose them. The majority of people, they don’t care. They just want what they want, and that’s ok. And I want to introduce them to new cuts — for instance, my favorite is what we call the oyster steak or the spider steak. It’s from the inside of the hip and you can usually only really enjoy it off of beef. It’s just a small little steak, though. I like to enjoy it for myself, I don’t always sell it, because it’s little. So I’m not sure that I’m dying for the American public to start wanting the oyster steaks or the spider steaks because there’s not enough. But a lot of whole-animal butcheries sell things like rancher steaks which come from the heart of the clod in the shoulder. That’s something that I think people could really enjoy and eat more. Or there’s a velvet steak from the inside of the leg that’s kind of tucked in there. I guess the idea is that everybody can’t be eating boneless skinless chicken breasts or strip steaks or filet all the time, there’s only so much, so it is important to introduce customers to new steaks. But people are doing fine the way they are and it’s up to us to turn those things into cuts that people want. I go back and forth. All those cuts are really wonderful, but at the end of the day, if they don’t sell for me… I don’t make it my job necessarily to always be educating the customer. I’m going to educate them, but it’s more important to me that they’re buying this meat in the first place, I don’t need to force this steak that they don’t really like down their throats. I can just turn it into meatballs that they love and then everything is fine. I’m still using the whole animal, you know?

 

I want this to become a successful business that serves people in L.A., filling this need for really well-raised, really well-cut great meat, and becoming a part of people’s lives by joining their table every day. I feel really passionate, too, about making great jobs for people in the food industry, so I’m hoping I can make the business work while still offering them more than a living wage. But it’s tough. What I actually have to charge for the meat is a lot, and I get it — people could just go to Costco. I want it to be accessible for people, but right now it’s not accessible for everybody and I hate that, but it kind of is what it is. I don’t want to isolate people, but our prices are high and that’s what we have to charge. Not only because I don’t think that we should have to work for $10 an hour, but because… it’s like putting the steps together and realizing how many people are in that chain and what it’s worth and what an animal’s life is worth. A chicken shouldn’t cost $3. It’s just not right. It was a living animal; it was a being, just like you. All these other people were involved in getting it to you. I’ve been thinking a lot about this and this is my new focus: how to educate consumers in the most loving, non-judgy way about what it really costs to get good meat to them and why it isn’t me just trying to gouge them. Really, I’m not. I don’t want to charge that much, but that’s what it costs, and it should cost that. So that’s what I’m working on. I started these guys at $20 an hour, and for the food industry that’s a lot. I’m not going to ask them to work for less. I’d like to be able to offer some program for people who can’t pay our prices right now. Everybody should have access to good food. I think it was the year before last year, we did a chicken drive where people were able to buy a chicken at cost for a family in need, a good well-raised chicken. People loved it, they asked us to do it again this year. I think the program in the future would look something like that, where people could basically subsidize great quality meat for people who don’t have access to good food. People really liked it and that made me feel really good, too. People want to do good. They just need help knowing what to do and realizing that it’s worth it.

 

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