Give an 11-year-old boy a video game, and chances are he’ll be enthralled. But for Pat LaFrieda, pre-adolescent intrigue came in the form of a slaughterhouse visit, not Grand Theft Auto. Orchestrated by his father, a third-generation butcher, this killing-floor cameo was an attempt to dissuade his young son from pursuing a career that required a cleaver. It grossly backfired; instead of being horrified, LaFrieda was transfixed. “I was so interested in the process,” recalls the acclaimed butcher behind New Jersey-based Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors. Much to his dad’s dismay, he was en route to becoming a meat man.
“The thought of me struggling and working in 35 degrees in the middle of the night is not what my father wanted for me. He preferred to spend his money on my education and see me in a suit,” says LaFrieda. He gave corporate life a shot, working as a retail broker and “selling intangibles to people” for a year out of college, but he was miserable. When his dad’s business partner retired, he begged yet again for a chance to revitalize the family company, and with a little nudging from a convincing aunt, LaFrieda Senior finally caved in. “I would cut meat with him, sometimes make deliveries, and rush to a small bathroom and change into a suit to solicit customers on the road. That’s how I began to grow the business,” LaFrieda says.
People want to feel good about what they’re eating and where it’s from, and we get to help tell that story.
Back then, there were just 44 customers; 20 years later, LaFrieda has lured in 1,200, allowing the company to compete against million-dollar meat behemoths. Devotion to quality, prime-sourced products (“People want to feel good about what they’re eating and where it’s from, and we get to help tell that story”) has been the brand’s calling card, as has a knack for creating custom burger blends for chefs. In addition to the now-global Shake Shack blend, LaFrieda crafted the famous Black Label burger at Minetta Tavern, a secret mélange of dry-aged meat that kicked off the haute-burger trend in New York restaurants in 2008.
Much has changed since LaFrieda’s Italian immigrant great-grandfather debuted his Brooklyn butcher shop in 1922. Yet despite its current celebrity status, old-fashioned values prevail. “We still consider ourselves behind-the-scenes people. I learned accessibility through my father. His phone and pager numbers were on the invoices, so if a customer had an emergency over the weekend they could reach him. That’s something I’ve never forgotten,” he says.
LaFrieda’s new book, the aptly named Meat: Everything You Need to Know, with Carolynn Carreño (Atria Books), celebrates tradition and the art of butchery through recipes that delineate the intricacies and versatility of different cuts. “I feel that too many chefs ask me questions they should know the answers to because a lot of books show a stick figure of a hog. I wanted this to be a thorough meat guide, not a memoir,” he points out.
From revenue-boosting veal chops to nostalgic Sunday pork, here are 10 of the meaty dishes—all making an appearance in the book—that have encouraged LaFrieda to move forward while looking back.
Grandma LaFrieda’s Braised Stuffed Veal Breast
Learning how to make a pocket through an economy cut of meat, like veal breast, was a significant butchering technique for me. Veal breast is what my grandmother used to feed us—the poor man’s veal chop. She’s from up in Utica, NY, where there is a tradition of eating greens, specifically escarole. Every restaurant there serves a version of escarole, whether as a side dish or main, but to me it was always just the stuffing inside her veal. (Photo: lidiasitaly.com)
Veal Rib Chops Valdostana with Foie Gras Mousse at Il Mulino
The polar opposite of Grandma’s veal breast is the high-high-end veal chop at Il Mulino, and it was a game-changer for us. We still had to buy all of our meat at the 14th Street meat market then. It seems easy now, but it was difficult to track where it all came from. That dish made me seek out the best veal in the country, and it was the first cut of meat we got straight from the source. Because of that, we were able to grow a relationship with one of New York’s most significant Italian restaurants. (Photo: Forbes Travel Guide)
Whole Shank Osso Buco
My first customer was Joe Bastianich, before he was Joe. I walked into Becco and he was there with the executive chef arguing over the rising price of veal shank. Unlike other restaurants that offer it seasonally or as a special, Becco serves osso buco 52 weeks a year. I was selling it about a dollar a pound less [than competitors], and he told me the price was too good to be true. If I was paying off any of his chefs, he promised me he would take it out of what he owed me. This is how I broke into Bastianich’s world. (Photo courtesy Pat LaFrieda)
Roasted Calf’s Head at La Perla
Americans got further and further away from what they were eating, and for the most part, calf heads are sent down to Mexico. Some restaurants don’t even serve heads of fish anymore. It’s just something that’s disappeared. Michael Toscano, Perla’s chef, took the brain out of the calf’s head and cooked it like a puree. I haven’t seen anything like that in 30 years, and the fact he brought the dish back is incredible. At Perla, I tasted the different parts of the head prepared to perfection for the first time in my career. (Photo: Perla)
LaFrieda Family Stuffed Lamb Crown Roast
Growing up, we didn’t have a lot of money. In a family of butchers, you’re often cooking with mistake cuts. So this was a special dish we sat around the table eating, usually on Easter, unless the lamb supply was so short that year we’d have to sell our meat, too. Then we were lucky if we had a leg of lamb. This is one of the last things we trust our butchers with because it’s so expensive. The slightest mistake can be costly. You have to place your fingers very close to the saw. Like an artist whittling wood, it takes skill to whittle lamb rack into roast. (Photo: Food Network)
Black Label Burger
During the economic downturn, every restaurant was asking for an economy cut. I love burgers, I love dry-aged meat, and I wanted to figure out a way to get a dry-aged flavor into a burger. I made a version of the Black Label burger and had a tasting at Astor Center where six chefs liked it and six didn’t. When it was put on the menu of Minetta Tavern, Adam Platt of New York magazine asked how anyone could serve an upscale $26 burger during these times. But, as opposed to the $75 dry-aged steak, it’s only a third of the price. (Photo: Tummy Diaries)
The Shake Shack Burger
Mom’s Duck à l’Orange
My parents are now divorced, but they get along really well, and this is the dish my dad still asks for. Making this classic with my mom, from a recipe her grandmother used, is what inspired me to cook at an early age. Knowing how to cook helps me learn what chefs look for. This dish is about heritage, and making it the same way as it was made 100 years ago, without tweaks, is rare. (Photo courtesy Pat LaFrieda)
This was my grandfather’s Sunday tradition and it makes me think of my childhood—standing next to him, helping tie the meat, and learning a butcher’s knot. People usually use beef for this dish, but my grandfather started making it with pork, and that’s the way we do it to this day. (Photo: Marcus Samuelsson)
Skirt Steak Pinwheels
Angelo Bonsangue was an old-timer who worked for my dad and owned a butcher shop for many years. One of his bestsellers was the skirt-steak pinwheel. In my first official days of training, Angelo showed me how to cut meat, and when we were done he taught me how to make the pinwheels with fresh Italian parsley, salt, and Parmigiano-Reggiano. It was really popular in the 1940s, so when chefs ask me these days for something new, I suggest something old by recreating the pinwheel. (Photo courtesy Pat LaFrieda)