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Q & A with Jake the Butcher

jake 2.jpgWho would’ve thought “Sam the Butcher” would become the sex symbol for the 21st century?  Chefs, bartenders, chocolatiers, and butchers are all experiencing a moment in the spotlight.  Jake Dickson takes the concept of the local butcher to a new level.  He’s determined to provide New Yorkers with top quality, artisanal meats from local farms.  He launched Dickson’s Farmstand Meats in 2008, and a year later, opened his first storefront in Chelsea Market with housemade charcuterie, like lamb sausages or a tongue & leek terrine. 

Dickson’s not your average twenty-something New Yorker.  He gave up his marketing job and moved upstate where he learned the business at farms and butcherhouses in upstate New York.  He even worked as the livestock manager at Stone Barns.  Now, he’s selling pork, lamb, beef, and creative charcuterie to prominent restaurants as well as offering lunch, such as a pulled pork sandwich, at his Chelsea Market store.  When he’s hungry, he goes for a burger at The Spotted Pig & DBGB.  As for steaks, he likes Keen’s & Lugers Steakhouse.  Where does the local butcher get married? The Ace Hotel, of course. 

Single/Married/Divorced?  My wife Jen and I got married at the Ace Hotel in November
(a mere five crazy weeks after we opened the shop.)  April [Bloomfield] had only just opened the kitchen so we
were a bit of an experiment for them. 

What did you want to
be when you grew up?
  A Mechanical Engineer.

What was your first
job in food and what did you learn?
  Banquet Prep Cook at The Statler Hotel up at Cornell University,
where I attended college.  I also
worked on the cafeteria sandwich line from time to time.  I learned that a buffalo chopper is a
beautiful thing and that someday I’d need an excuse to own one (we have one at
the shop, so I guess all my early aspirations in food have been realized.)

Growing up, was meat a large part of your diet?

Yes, but not in the nose-to-tail
kind of way.  We ate dinner as a
family every night of my childhood, and meat was always the on the center of
the plate.

Was there a last
straw or a definitive pull factor that caused you to give up a career in
marketing and pursue butchery as a career? 

Towards the end of my marketing career, I was working from a
Chateau in Burgundy where my friend was running the kitchen.  I was spending every non-marketing-job
moment in the kitchen learning all I could (in exchange for free room and
board.)  I just said to myself –
why not turn this around and make the thing I enjoy (food) my career?  Once I decided that I would pursue a
career in food, I was naturally pulled toward meat from the start (I am a
voracious carnivore.)

Did you take a
significant financial hit to follow your passion?

Isn’t pursuing a career in food by definition taking a
significant financial hit?  I kid….
The first year after leaving my marketing gig was all about learning and I was
willing to go anywhere I could gain knowledge, mostly that meant without
pay.  The second year was all about
building relationships with farmers. 
It’s only now that I have the shop open that I’m even thinking about
profitability.  We’re creating
something unique in the food world, and it requires 100% commitment.  I went all in with Dickson’s Farmstand

You have said in past
interviews that in order to uphold a locavore philosophy, you follow a 400-mile
radius rule when selecting the sustainable farms used to source Dickson’s
Farmstand Meats. How did you determine this maximum radius?

We’re all about traceability – knowing where your meat comes
from and how it was raised, but without transparency – ability to verify – I
think it is meaningless.  It’s
actually a 400 mile max supply chain (farm-to-slaughterhouse-NYC) rather than a
radius.  I chose 400 miles as it is
a reasonable day’s drive if I ever need to, or my customers ever want to,
follow the path that an animal took from the farm to their dinner plate.

What do you think of
the sudden rock star status of butchers and meat purveyors?
  It has certainly helped in driving attention to what we do.
This attitude came up because people were learning how bad things are in the
meat world and wanted to find someone who was doing it different/better. What I
would love to see is greater attention put towards sourcing, transparency, and
traceability – that is the most valuable information for consumers. It is
likely that some of the hype around the industry will fade, but the bigger idea
of lasting, responsible businesses, offering high-quality products and services
will hopefully be around for a long time. 

You’ve made a point
of stating that the Dickson’s Farmstand grain-finished beef is raised just as
humanely as its grass-fed beef.  
So taste-wise, do you prefer grass-fed or grain-fed beef?
  For me, it’s like beef and lamb – I like them equally, but
they are simply different products. There’s a lot of hype, mis-information, and
misconception concerning grain-finished and grass-finished beef. While
grain-finished beef that is produced by industrial agriculture and the feedlot
system may have numerous flaws (not to mention accounts for the majority of
beef produced and consumed in our country), there are humane grain-finished
options out there. For instance, our grain-finished beef comes from a small
farm outside Albany, Wrighteous Organics, that raises their livestock without
antibiotics, hormones, with access to pasture, and is fed organic grains and
hay raised on the farm. As you know, we carry both options, and that is because
we work with farms that raise the animals responsibly, with consideration for
the health of the animal and land, all with the goal of producing a
high-quality product for consumers to enjoy.

What were the most
important lessons you learned as the livestock coordinator at the Stone Barns
Center in Westchester?
   I actually worked for Craig Haney, the livestock coordinator.  What I learned working at the Stone
Barns Center is that I had to develop my own personal ethic around the raising
and slaughter of animals if I was going to work in this industry.  You can’t read in a book about good vs.
bad practices.  You have to get out
in the field and in the slaughterhouse with the animals and come up with your
own belief system and be able to know inside that you are doing right by
yourself, the people you are feeding, and the animals whose life and death you
are responsible for.  Above all you
must never forget that this is a serious business.

What’s your favorite
burger blend in the city?
  I might be a little biased, but our own Dickson’s Farmstand
dry-aged beef from Wrighteous Organics beef is just great.  It’s an 80-20 blend that we grind

Is there any cut of
meat you won’t eat?
   I’m not crazy about kidneys.

What’s your favorite
bit of offal?
    The base of beef tongue (where it attaches to the animal.)
Our chef, Gabe Ross, cures and smokes it – it’s about 90% fat and melts in your
mouth like lardo. Absolutely delicious.

What restaurants do
you supply?
    First and foremost we are a retail business.  I pay the farmers for their products
too much to compete in the NYC wholesale game (low margin, high volume.)  I do supply a few friends on occasion
for fun (Zak Pelaccio’s restaurants, Brookvin in Park Slope, Iris Cafe, and The
Green Table, to name a few.) 

What is your favorite
charcuterie creation at Dickson’s?
  That’s a tough question – perhaps the Tongue and Leek
Terrine, or maybe our new Lardo.  It
changes all the time. I’m always snacking on our Chili Smoked Pork Butt and
Beef and Lamb Sausage with Sichuan Peppercorns as well. Gabe’s latest creation
is usually what I want to eat.

What’s your least
   Since I taste everything that comes out of the kitchen for
the meat case we don’t offer anything I’m not a fan of. That said if we were to
ever use kidneys, or carry them, then that would be the best answer.

Where do you go for a
good steak?  Where do you go for a
good burger?  (Other than spots you
  Lugers or Keen’s for a steak.  For a burger, I go to the
Spotted Pig or DBGB.

What advice would you give to those interested in learning to butcher
    You really need to leave the
city.  Butchery can only be learned
through repetition and there is no one in town doing enough volume of
whole-animal-through-retail cutting. 
We probably do the most volume of any similar shop in town (3.5 steers,
7-10 pigs, 7-10 lambs per week), but even that is not enough.  If you go to a small slaughterhouse
upstate, you’d get to see that much in a single day.  Also – butchery is something that takes years to
master.  I do not consider myself a
butcher.  Even my head butcher (Adam
Tiberio) who has 7 years in the business is not comfortable calling himself a
butcher. We’re always happy to give guidance on home butchery and since we
butcher in full view of customers, it’s easy to watch Adam as he breaks down
product throughout the week.

What tools are
necessary in order to butcher meat at home?
  A boning knife. 
Maybe a small 18” meat saw and a meat hook depending on what you are

What are some of your
favorite meat dishes in New York City?
  The head cheese at Lupa, the beef cheek ravioli at Babbo,
and the tongue tacos at Cabrito.

Do you have any plans
to expand your Chelsea Market storefront or to open other locations?
  Maybe someday, but if I have just the one successful location
I’d be content.  I’ve always wanted
to be a small business owner, not to build an empire.

Dickson Farmstand Meats
Address: 75 Ninth Ave., btwn. 15th &16th Aves. (Chelsea Market)
Phone: 212)242-2630

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