There’s so much more to meat than just steak or bacon, just ask Eagle Yu of Aged Butchery who specializes in whole animal butchery, meaning he endeavors to use as much of the animal as possible. Yu is one of only a handful of whole animal butchers in Los Angeles, and believes this method is more responsible and sustainable, and results in less waste. Other butchers include Gwen Butcher Shop, A Cut Above and Le French Butcher.
“It's the responsibility of a whole animal butcher to understand and respect the sacrifice that's made to provide the food for our nourishment,” Yu said. [“The resurgence on the old craft is an opportunity to apply the under-appreciated parts of industrialization for a more sustainable and conscious food culture, and to restore the health of our culture and integrity of modern cuisine.”]
Despite his passion for his trade, Yu began his career not in food, but in computers. He was born in Taiwan and moved with his family to Saudi Arabia and Illinois before settling in Northern California when Yu was in the fourth grade. He studied computer science and engineering in San Diego and then spent 15 years working as a DVD author. Essentially, he was responsible not only for making sure the audio and video on the DVD worked properly, but also programming the navigation menus, games and other special features. Yu thrived in this career, working his way up into a managerial position. The industry changed when — just as DVDs had usurped VHS — the format began shifting to Blu-ray and streaming services. This gave Yu the opportunity to think about his career and, ultimately, decide he wanted to try something entirely new. He had developed an interest in culinary arts simply by being a patron of restaurants — taking clients out for dinner, traveling for work and going out with friends who possessed adventurous palates. As he began researching the food industry, Yu found himself particularly interested in pork, in part due to his Chinese background.
"Being Chinese, pork is huge in our culinary culture," Yu said. "I really like tonkatsu, which is a Japanese fried pork cutlet dish, and one of the best types is Kurobuta pork."
Kurobuta is a specific quality of pork — heavily marbled, flavorful, and tender — which can only come from the Berkshire pig, a heritage breed from Berkshire, England.
"There are lots of different breeds of cows and pigs. When you buy meat, you don't hear about the breeds as much, but those things do actually matter when it comes to the quality and taste," Yu said.
Yu's interest in specific breeds encouraged him to find specialty butcher shops that sold these particular cuts, which led him to discover an apprenticeship program offered by Fleishers, a sustainable butchery based in New York. In 2013, Yu and his bulldog, Bootie, drove across the country to upstate New York, where he enrolled in a four-month apprenticeship at Fleishers. It was not particularly cheap — it cost Yu $15,000 for the course — but it was efficient, and allowed Yu to begin hands-on work straight away. He also learned about farming and how everything, including the type of feed the animals consume, affects the quality of the meat. When his apprenticeship ended, Fleishers hired Yu to work at their shop in Kingston, NY. After several months in Kingston, Yu and Bootie drove back across the country again. This time, Yu's goal was to launch his own butchery that could service his friends, family and community.
Yu has never been particularly squeamish about butchery, even in the beginning. He thinks this might date back to a dinner in Saudi Arabia his father took him to as a child.
"They killed a sheep, right on the spot, and put it on a spit. You had rice under the spit and the blood and juices were dripping down and cooking the rice,” he said. Though his father told him the “red stuff” was ketchup, Yu knew better. He also recalls his family eating whole fish, including the heads and eyeballs, as a child. “At that point,” he said, “nothing is exotic anymore.”
"L.A. is not a very farm-centric place like upstate New York, which is very rural," he said. "[In Los Angeles], the farms are all a couple hours outside of the city, where you have to drive to get there. So when I got back, I just started cold calling farms I found online. One of the main points that I wanted to focus on was actually going out to the farms and seeing them for what they were, and seeing if they were true to their word on how they raised the animals."
For instance, one trusted source of Yu’s is True Pasture Beef, a farm with ranches in Southern and Central California, where he said the farmer showed him around and explained that he kept his herd of cows in a particular pasture because it allowed them to graze on 150 species of grass. Yu notes that pasture-raised livestock are allowed to live longer lives, during which they eat real grass and move around in an environment that is more natural for them. Not only is this a more ethical way to treat these animals, but it also affects the way the meat tastes.
"The amount of work the muscles receive translates to how flavorful a cut is. Breeding an animal longer allows for more feed to contribute to the flavor of the meat. Although this would ultimately affect the cooking time of the meal, time translates to flavor. That's why I prefer a slow-cooked meal over a filet mignon," he said.
With his farmers of choice in place, Yu was ready to begin butchering on his own, which he first attempted at a carniceria in Downey owned by a friend who had also completed the same apprenticeship. Yu decided to call his company Aged Butchery, because everything is technically aged. "No one wants to eat fresh meat," Yu said. "Rigor mortis allows the enzymes inside the meat to start tenderizing and basically start concentrating the flavors."
He would first sell his cuts at the West Hollywood Farmers Market and later the larger Hollywood Farmers Market. He found that his customers appreciated his style, as it not only minimizes waste, but appeals to a wide variety of global cuisines.
"That's one of the differences between the [meat] that I was offering versus more Westernized butcher shops. Westernized shops could get the whole animal, but they're going to mainly do steaks, ground beefs, sausages, and things like that,” he said. “Not a lot of people are using the bones other than maybe smoking them and selling them as dog treats. Or, some would sell marrow bones, but a lot of [the animal] was being wasted. So I really embrace whole animal butchery because you learn about the different parts [of the animal], and then you creatively try to think about different ways to use them based on your experience and your culture. I've been coming across a lot of different cultures, and I am learning different ways to use things every day."
For instance, a Danish customer introduced Yu to a new way to cut pork belly that leaves the ribs attached. A Vietnamese customer wanted to buy pig snouts. The British use kidneys to make a steak and kidney pie. Argentinian customers make "sweetbreads," a typically fried dish that uses the thymus gland. While some American customers may veer away from parts that are unfamiliar to them, Yu was exposed to many of these dishes as a child.
"In a Chinese family, you are not allowed to not eat what is put in front of you," he said. "Going back to Taiwan and being immersed in the culture there, you will see a whole lot of stuff. Taiwanese people love intestines. You go to dim sum, you get steamed chicken feet. Growing up, my grandpa would make pork kidney soup—that was one of his favorite things. As a kid, you didn't think too much one way or the other. You sit down to dinner and you eat it.”
If Yu can't sell a raw animal part, he will turn it into something he can market so that it doesn't go to waste.
"If you're not selling ground pork, put it into a sausage. If you're not selling raw liver, then you can make a pate," Yu said. "Bones can be used to make stock."
Whole animal butchery also helps Yu understand how to better prepare meat in general. If you understand each part and how much physical work it gets in the body, then you will understand how tender it is. Yu believes there isn't a bad cut, as long as you know how it should be cooked.
"That's where the expertise of a whole animal butcher comes in and what sets us apart from the guys you see behind most meat counters," he said.
Yu has, for the time being, stopped selling at farmers markets. He ran into a technicality with the USDA where he was not allowed to use his friend’s carniceria — which, as a retail space, is exempt from USDA inspection, and still use his own company name. He is now on the precipice of securing his own space, which will function as a butcher shop and kitchen. Here, he can make his own deli meats, bacons, stocks, and other products. Once that's in place, Yu will resume providing the same transparency and integrity his customers have always enjoyed, all sourced from local farmers with whom Yu has developed a relationship. You can follow Yu's progress via his website or Facebook page.
Top Image: BBQ-ing meat | James Sutton/Unsplash