Whole Animal Butchery Without the Self-Congratulatory B.S.
Tom Mylan is a butcher. Not because it’s trending, but because no one else in his company wanted to do it. Seven years after launching Marlow & Sons’ local meat program, the largely self-taught meat man is running one of the best butcher shops—The Meat Hook—in New York, specializing in whole animal offerings. We talk to Mylan about the school of YouTube, how to not be a food zombie and voting with your dollar.
Molly Mogren: You said you more or less fell into your career. How did you become a butcher?
Tom Mylan: It’s not a super sexy story. I basically got hired to source local products for a little restaurant group, which was Diner and Marlow & Sons…. They did local dairy and eggs. Before that, you could only do the farmers market, which was just a couple of days a week. They brought me in to do sourcing because I had experience. Then, they told me they needed 400 pounds of ground beef a week. So I had to go and talk to all these different meat guys and most of them were weird and unpleasant. Then I found Josh Applestone upstate. He had the first whole animal, local butcher shop in New York state. We started getting stuff from him when his business was relatively new. Eventually, he couldn’t keep up and told us that he couldn’t grind our beef because he was losing so much money. He offered to send us whole pigs or sides of beef and then train someone on our team to be a butcher. I asked all the line cooks if they wanted to be the butcher, and they all said, “No. Fuck that.”
MM: When was this?
TM: In 2007.
MM: So at that point, being a butcher wasn’t cool.
TM: No. It was so not cool. No one wanted to do that job. To make that program work, I decided to be the butcher. I moved to Kingston, New York for two months (which is way too short of a time to learn how to butcher properly). That was as much time away I could get. I lived with Josh and Jessica, and slept in their TV room on a love seat next to a bullmastiff named Booboo that snored and an Egyptian tortoise named Mo.
After that, I came back to the city and started butchering. I watched a lot of YouTube videos to figure it out. Actually, that’s where the Meat Hook cookbook came from. I said, “As soon as I figure this out, I am going to write a book about it because there is nothing out there like this.” Unfortunately, by the time I got around to writing a book, other people had written one. I’d been busy opening my own business, but that’s okay because we got to make our book all fun and psychedelic and weird.
MM: It’s a great book.
TM: We lucked out. Our graphic designer had been a book designer for Artisan, so we actually got to design the book. He’s a really good friend of mine. Another good friend shot the book, and another friend illustrated it.
MM: Originally, you went to school to be an artist. Does your current trade allow for a creative outlet?
TM: Food is extremely creative. It’s as open ended as art, but it’s just a lot more practical. There are always new things to learn and try. I am not super into culinary foams and gastronomy stuff, but I respect it. There is just so much to do in food. It’s as artistic a medium as paint. There is almost less to do with paint than there is with food. I’m never bored. A lot of people want to work here because if you can get all your shit done, you can go nuts. Whatever crazy thought comes into your head, you can do. And you can screw it up once, but after that, you’ve lost your creative privileges for a month.
I think that’s a key to life. As long as you keep learning new things and having fun, and being creative, it’s a lot better than just going to work and pushing buttons.
MM: Tell me about the vibe at the Meat Hook.
TM: We’re a butcher shop without all the self-congratulatory bullshit. We’re just really unpretentious. We’ve got a charcuterie program that’s pretty pimped out, but we spend more time perfecting hot dogs than we do a rustic terrine. It’s that kind of place. It’s a unique place because half the people who work there are women. In most shops it’s a real bro vibe. Our GM is actually our first intern and hire, and then we have all these great females that work for us. We have a bunch of weird college kids with strange degrees. It’s a fun, creative environment, but it’s one of those jobs where you can crank the stereo and no one cares if you’re blasting Katy Perry.
MM: A lot of people are stuck in a boneless, skinless chicken breast rut. What are three ways to up your meat game at home?
TM: Go to the farmers market and buy some stuff. Buy things that look cool and figure out what you’re going to do with it afterwards because you have the internet.
Get outside of New York strips or rib eyes. There are a lot of great cuts of meat out there. Like in the book, there is a grilled, marinated beef heart. The best thing is that it’s super cheap. You take beef heart and marinate it over night, then grill it. It’s fantastic. It’s like steak, but better.
If you are into chicken, cool, but stop buying chicken parts from the grocery store. Buy whole chickens and figure out to how cut them up. Seventy years ago, everyone knew how to do that. Everyone should know how to do that. It’s thrifty and it’s a way to buy local meat that’s properly raised cheaper. You’ll have to develop a whole new skillset, but it’s going to improve your cooking skills and your life a lot.
I feel like a lot of people are food zombies. Just buy microwave stuff if you don’t care about food, or stop being a food zombie and start paying attention. Learn how to cook. It’s like men not knowing how to tie a tie. If you don’t know how to cook, you’re losing at life.
MM: I think it’s important to challenge yourself in your food life, even if it’s just learning the smallest, easiest thing.
TM: Yeah, the other thing is don’t be afraid of failure. Failure is how everyone learns. Give yourself permission to screw up, because whether you stress out about it or not, you’re going to screw up. And you’re going to learn a lot of lessons from it and not make the same mistakes the next time.
MM: In the book, you talk about the food dollar diagram.
TM: We think it’s important to keep money in the local economy. When you buy at a big box grocery store, if the farmer is lucky, they’re getting 11 cents for every dollar. The rest of that dollar is going to middlemen and processing, distributors, and they’re mostly out of state, big multi-national corporations. When you buy something at the farmers market or at the Meat Hook, 30 to 40 cents of that dollar goes directly to that farmer. The rest pays the local slaughterhouse, the trucking guy and above living wages for the people working in the butcher shop. It’s all staying in the local economy. Talking about spending a dollar seems really minor, but you are making a huge choice. Do you want to give your money to a multi-national corporation or give the majority of that dollar to the farmers and small local businesses who are working to make the world a better place. Your small, everyday choices matter.
MM: What’s in your fridge?
TM: My wife really likes to shop at the farmers market and then let the food slowly rot. She gets really excited… so a lot of rotting vegetables. A box of rose. I really like to hoard steaks and ground meat in my freezer that I’ll never cook because I’m always bringing home stuff from work. A lot of cider because my best friend will bring over a bunch of cider, drink one and leave the rest. They’ll sit there forever because I am not trying to be gluten-free at all. A thing of kimchee. I get nervous when I don’t have a bunch of mustard and spicy Italian dill pickles.
Get Mylan’s recipe for Dinosaur Ribs from The Meat Hook Meat Book.
About Tom Mylan
Tom Mylan is the executive chef and co-owner of The Meat Hook. Opened in 2009, The Meat Hook is a local, sustainable butcher shop housed in the popular Brooklyn Kitchen, the largest cooking school for home cooks in New York City. A leading force in the national obsession with meat, butchers, and butchering, Tom has contributed recipes and stories to Food & Wine, Gilt Taste, and Gourmet and has appeared on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. Chow.com called him one of the 13 most important people in food in 2010, and New York magazine honored him as one of the “Curators of New Brooklyn.” He met his wife, Annaliese Griffin, when they both worked at Murray’s Cheese. They live in Brooklyn.