Reserve spends a lot of time sourcing some of the best meat and fish in Grand Rapids, and there’s good reason: Chef Luke and his team break down their own animals & primals into cuts for the menu. Below Chef Luke shares why he’s committed to butchering and breaking down whole meats – and how he does it.
Q: Where does Reserve’s meat and fish come from?
A: Our team sources products from a variety of local farms. Much of our meat comes to us from Louise Earl Butcher on Wealthy Street where Matt, the owner, shares our same philosophy when it comes to sourcing integrity. He sources chicken and hogs through Hehlden Farm in Coopersville, Michigan, and beef from folks like Todd Bean in Mt. Pleasant and Seven Sons in Indiana. We also work directly with local farms like S&S Lamb & Acre Knot, as well as purveyors like Motor City Seafood, and Fortune Fish & Gourmet. Motor City Seafood procures whole fish from around the world, and Fortune supplies us with beef primals from CDK in Illinois.
Q: How do you identify farms to work with?
A: I was blessed to step into this role with some already-established relationships, thanks to my predecessors. But finding new farms is also very exciting. Our partnership with Louise Earl has introduced me to several local farms. But my favorite way to discover new partners is to get on my motorcycle visiting farmer’s markets and riding through the beautiful countryside of West Michigan.
Q: What are the benefits of receiving whole meat?
A: There are so many! When you buy whole animals you have a direct connection to the person or persons raising them. You know more about the animal – its quality of life, its feeding practices, and its overall health. Buying whole animals also allows you to customize cuts, which we do for our guests. We serve a nearly 3” pork chop, a difficult cut to source, and a 26 oz bone in dry aged ribeye, which we cut to spec with our band saw.
Animals are composed of mostly water. When we buy whole we can control the amount of hang time a carcass sees. The longer the hang time, the more water that is drawn out. This makes the flavor more concentrated. With commodity meats, animals are processed shortly after being dispatched and packaged with excess moisture. i.e dry age vs. wet age. I prefer the former to the latter.
Q: Do you create less waste by breaking the animal down in-house?
A: Absolutely. Our team uses the entire animal when we break down a whole hog. The fat is used to fill our fryer, the skin is boiled to add to sausage or beans. We brine hams, cut chops, smoke hocks, make bacon, etc. It’s very easy to create an entire menu based on whole hog butchery. Whole beef is a different situation as the animal is much larger in general. We have run a rotating cut off of a whole steer, but ran into some challenges. A hanger primal may only yield us 6 steaks, so when hand selling in the dining room we were finding that servers were selling cuts faster than we could communicate with the rest of the staff. For example; Tom just rang in the last hanger steak, but Brendan is at a table right now selling that as our current cut. It is still a dream for me to be able to run a whole beef steak program, but currently we are just sourcing primals.
Q: Where did you learn how to butcher meat and filet fish?
A: My Uncle Doug taught me how to hunt and fish, which provided a base knowledge. I honed my skills here at Reserve under the instruction of my then Sous Chef, Brandon Sturm. Brandon was precise and technical and is still the best sausage maker I know. I also attended Pig Stock by Cherry Capital Foods. Butchers from Austria, France, and the U.S. came to Traverse City to share different techniques and approaches to whole animal butchery, starting from the live animal all the way down to the charcuterie. Beyond that, I’ve grown my knowledge through books, hands on practice, and my favorite avenue of info consumption, YouTube.
Q: What is your favorite meat to prepare?
A: Pork was my first love because of its versatility, as well as its availability and practicality. But as my palate has evolved, fish has taken the number one spot. My favorite pairing is a riesling with a former cook; Quynh’s Vietnamese Caramelized Catfish. It’s one of the best dishes someone has ever prepared for me.
Q: Which lesser known cuts of meat do you enjoy?
Lesser known cuts have gained traction as people’s palates evolve and pocketbooks tighten. Hanger was one of my favorites, but it’s now as expensive as a ribeye. I also enjoy bavette, oxtail, and spider/oyster steak. These cuts are much smaller and require a skilled hand to remove correctly. This means they usually end up in a grinder at your butcher rather than a display case.
Q: What do you look for when selecting the right cut of meat?
A: It’s helpful to see the animal first in its whole form to gauge its overall health. I look for consistency and color of the fat on the animal. A darker red – vs. pink – means a healthier, more mature animal. I also look at marbling or fat striations throughout the muscle structure. This lends itself to tenderness, moistness, and flavor. But, it all depends on the application. Treated right, any cut can be delicious.
Q: After you break the animal down, what does the storage process look like?
A: Reserve has an HACCP for ROP, a Hazard Analysis of Critical Control Points Plan for Reduced Oxygen Packaging. This means the Health Department has approved us to vacuum seal meats, keeping them as fresh as possible. Reserve also has a dedicated meat walk-in where we store and age certain cuts. Before we begin processing an animal, we have a plan for where everything is going. It is a costly investment to buy in such large quantities, so making sure that everything has a predetermined use is crucial.
Q: Do you do the butchering solo? Or do you work as a team?
A: It depends on time constraints. I would love to be able to do it solo, but it really does take a village. Quite a few members of my team have been indoctrinated into the “Cut Club.”
Q: Who inspires you as a chef, as it relates to butchering?
This is by no means a new practice, and there are plenty of chefs in the world far more skilled than myself at this approach. But April Bloomfield comes to mind. Paul Kahan at Publican has built an empire around the concept. Fergus Henderson and Chris Consentino taught me a lot about using off-cuts.
Q: What do you want everyone to know about this process?
A: Butchering and breaking down whole animals is a dying craft because our communities have lost their connection to local food sources. It’s a lot of work to butcher and break down and it requires a full team effort in a restaurant our size. But, it’s worth it. Please support your local farms and farmers markets!
Next time you visit Reserve ask your server about our available meat cuts or fish selections – and where they came from. View Reserve’s seasonal menu here and make a reservation. Join our mailing list to stay up to date with the latest from Reserve Wine & Food. You can also follow us on Facebook and Instagram for more.