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The Meat Hook's Tom Mylan: How a Lapsed Vegetarian Is Changing How Americans Eat Meat

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Photo: Daniel Krieger

It was October 2009, and Tom Mylan was a month away from opening the Meat Hook, his Brooklyn butcher shop. The anticipation was unreal, particularly among the crowd at the New Amsterdam Market in Manhattan's South Street Seaport. Mylan was there with Josh and Jessica Applestone, the butchers who had trained Mylan at Fleisher's Grassfed and Organic Meats—the Hudson Valley operation seen by many of their peers as ground zero for the modern butchery revival—five years earlier. Mylan and Josh Applestone were on stage, racing to cut up pigs as part of a fundraiser for the New Amsterdam Market.

"People were going nuts," says Jessica Applestone. "I thought there were going to be women literally throwing their underwear."

That was the Tom Mylan fan club in action. Grub Street's write-up of the same event promised "fodder for Tom Mylan groupies" — though warning them that, hands off ladies, Mylan had just married. This was all in the midst of a full-on fervor for a group of butchers that even the likes of the New York Times fawned over as "celebrities" or "rock stars." The scene sprang up around Mylan and gave him the platform from which he's built a career teaching cooks and diners alike about the value of local, sustainable meat. With Mylan leading the way, ethical meat consumption and whole animal cooking have gone from obscure to hip to—in a certain type of restaurant—the status quo.

Origins

Tom Mylan grew up in Reno, Nevada, until the age of 12, at which point his family moved to Orange County, California. "They're both, basically, like big, giant suburbs," he says, using the slang term "Orange Curtain" to refer to the latter, a conservative enclave adjacent to—but politically and socially, infinitely far away from—the more freewheeling Los Angeles. There weren't independent neighborhood butcher shops in the city of Orange, you went to the grocery store and took whatever meat they gave you. "There was no alternative," Mylan says. "Or at least alternative that I knew about."

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[Photo: Daniel Krieger]

It wasn't hard for a girlfriend to convince Mylan to become a vegetarian in his twenties when he was living in San Francisco. She had given up meat in protest of the unhealthy conditions of industrial agriculture, a position that made sense to Mylan. He stayed meatless for about three years until he moved to New York City in 2003. As he told Eater NY in 2011, "in a weird way, becoming a vegetarian was a first step towards becoming a butcher. I stopped eating meat because I didn't agree with industrial agriculture, and I started eating meat again when I moved to New York because there were farmers' markets."

Mylan's first food world job in New York was as a fromager at Murray's Cheese Shop, where he met his now-wife Annaliese Griffin, editor in chief of the community news site Brooklyn Based. Two years later, Mylan landed the job that would kickstart the next decade of his career: In November 2005, Mylan became a buyer and manager at Marlow & Sons, the grocery component of a Brooklyn restaurant empire headed at the time by Andrew Tarlow and Mark Firth.

Andrew Tarlow was on board immediately with hiring an in-house butcher.

For years, Marlow & Sons and its sister restaurant Diner were getting their meat from Fleisher's. But, as the New York Times reported, the team at Fleisher's decided in 2007 that they would only sell half or whole animals to wholesale customers such as Tarlow's restaurant group. The best option would be to hire an in-house butcher. Tarlow was on board immediately. His restaurant Diner had switched to buying legs for its hamburger grind, which meant it didn't have steak anymore. Customers weren't too happy with that, so the opportunity to have their own butcher and bring whole animals in-house presented a solution. "It wasn't hard to convince us," Tarlow says.

The trouble was that nobody wanted the job. Though Tarlow recalls thinking that Mylan was "the obvious candidate" and Mylan has often talked about it as though he'd volunteered in nanoseconds, he says now that it was a little more complicated. "We had been dicking around for the better part of four or five days trying to find anyone who was willing to jump on that hand grenade," Mylan says. "Basically it came down to was that if I didn't volunteer we were going to have to basically shut down the program and start over." So Mylan volunteered.

The Education of Tom Mylan

There weren't a lot of options at the time for butchery school. There were some agricultural university programs and some instructional videotapes for breaking down a carcass. But Fleisher's offered to teach Mylan themselves. And so he moved upstate in October 2007 to spend six weeks learning about butchery from the Applestones. It wasn't easy.

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[Photo: Daniel Krieger]

At the time, Fleisher's itself had only been open for three years. The Applestones were excited to take on apprentices, but hadn't yet developed a curriculum, so they just put Mylan to work alongside their staff. That meant 14-hour days of working alongside the staff, breaking down lambs, pigs, and cows. "I remember him being exhausted at the end of the day, like falling asleep while he's eating kind of exhausted," Jessica Applestone says. At night, he slept on the loveseat in their TV room, snoring along with the family's bull mastiff and asthmatic tortoise.

"I am honestly probably the worst butchering pupil ever."—Tom Mylan

"I am honestly probably the worst butchering pupil ever," Mylan says. "When I left my apprenticeship, I felt like I had just enough knowledge to make myself dangerous mostly to myself."

(Jessica Applestone disagrees with Mylan's self-assessment, describing him as "a natural" and pointing out the physical and mental demands of butchering. "It's not diamond-cutting, but it's not pottery either, where you can just throw the clay back in the box and spin another pot. You're constantly working with something that you know is costing $50 a pound. So there's that pressure too, and I think that pressure always affects your perception. I think that's where Tom's perception of his poor performance might be coming from. And he might be just trying to be modest.")

Not that it mattered either way. Tarlow and the rest of Mylan's team at Diner didn't notice or care how good of a student Mylan had been. He came back knowing how to butcher and that was that. "We were just happy to be in control of our own destiny," Tarlow says. "We were just inspired to find out what we could cook today based on what he had cut. Even seeing a whole cow was just amazing for us. So it was all positive."

Mylan spent the next nine months back at Diner and Marlow & Sons, working with the chefs and sous chefs to figure out what to do with the full animals that came in. It was a lot of trial and error, he says, but the butchery program took off. Jessica Applestone explains that part of the excitement was because this was the first restaurant group in New York bringing in whole animals to process and sell themselves. Mylan was also offering butchery classes and throwing parties whose invitations reportedly read, "We will set something on fire, and it may be a can of PBR."

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[Photo: Daniel Krieger]

In December 2008, Food & Wine cited Mylan's in-house butchering at Marlow & Sons among its American restaurant trends to watch. At the same time, the restaurant group opened its own butcher shop, Marlow & Daughters, with Mylan at the helm. A year later, Mylan announced that he was opening his own Williamsburg butcher shop, the Meat Hook, with Brent Young and Ben Turley.

The So-Called Rock Star Butcher

By the time the Meat Hook opened, Mylan was already a bit of a celebrity. The butcher-as-rock-star idea was a big thing in the late 2000s, spawning trend pieces from New York Magazine, the New York Times, and Nightline, and a trend piece about rock star butcher trend pieces on Grub Street. Most of these pieces cite Mylan as a prime example, with the New York Times describing him as "moody, broody" and New York calling him the "brash new face of this modern carnivore movement."

Mylan was at the center of this attention in part because Diner and Marlow & Sons were the first of the modern wave of restaurants practicing whole animal butchery. But Mylan also just seemed cool. An NPR reporter who took Mylan's butchering class in 2009 described him as carrying animal carcasses like a firefighter and quoted him referring to the Lynyrd Skynyrd on his iPod as "cocaine music." And then there was that whole lighting-PBR-on-fire party invitation thing. Mylan's reputation grew with each macho anecdote.

"Tom was able to give butchery a hipster appeal." — Jessica Applestone

"I think Tom was also really able to give butchery a hipster appeal, for lack of a better term," Jessica Applestone says, laughing. "He'll kill me, I know. Butchery got all sexed up, and I know Tom had a very huge part in that, without meaning to. I would never say that Tom Mylan went out in his life to create that by any means, but I know that his being [part of it] helped promote that."

While he was never press-shy, Mylan did seem to have some reservations about his growing fame. In a 2009 interview with the Village Voice, Mylan complained about what he perceived was a tendency of the "brand-name press" to hype up the sexiness of a butcher while ignoring the sustainable meat movement. "That whole rock star butcher thing was about fashion, you know what I mean?" he says now. "It had no substance." Sure, Mylan and his colleagues listened to Skynyrd while they worked, but that didn't actually have anything to do with cutting meat.

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[Photo: Daniel Krieger]

That said, the whole sexy butcher thing had a silver lining. "It got people back into an actual butcher shop and out of the grocery store aisle," Mylan says. Jessica Applestone agrees. "It made people aware of things that they might not have been aware of before." And once they were aware of sustainable meat, butchers like Mylan could teach them even more: how to prepare an unfamiliar cut of meat; why using whole, local animals would make for a tastier meal; or even how to cut meat themselves.

Training a Next Generation of Butchers

James Lum is one of the hundred or so apprentices who have passed through the Meat Hook. He started as a dishwasher there in August of 2010 just to make some money while he was in New York on a film internship. "It wasn't long before 'just a job' became more than that," Lum says. Within months, he became an apprentice, and eventually was offered a full-time job at the butcher shop.

The Meat Hook generally takes in about one apprentice at a time, maybe a couple days a week for a morning shift. Training would start with cutting up chickens before moving on to pork and, eventually, beef. It was Mylan who taught Lum how to break his first beef shoulder. Lum listened to Mylan's instructions, then looked at him and waited. But Mylan wasn't about to show Lum how it was done. Instead he said, "You're gonna do it; I'm just here to tell you how."

Learning butchery at the Meat Hook is trial by fire.

Lum's time learning butchery at the Meat Hook was "definitely trial by fire," he says. But he's glad to have learned that way, adding later in an email, "I learned faster than I would have otherwise, and I learned how to take things into my own hands."

But Lum's experience as an apprentice wasn't just about his own education. The Meat Hook also made sure that he knew how to teach his customers. That, too, was trial by fire. Lum says he didn't really know what he was doing the first time he worked at the counter on a busy day. But he had back-up in his co-workers, who would help him answer whatever questions that had stumped him. And it wasn't long before he knew what he was doing. The Meat Hook values customer education to the point that they would take the staff on field trips to the farms and purveyors to learn about the products they were selling.

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[Photo: Daniel Krieger]

There's not much room in the popular shop anymore to hire on apprentices, Mylan says, but for the most part the program has been a success. "More than a few of the people that have come through have gone on to open their own shops," he says. Lum is one of these Meat Hook alums with his own butcher shop; in October 2013, he and fellow former Meat Hook employee Matthew Greene opened JM Stock Provisions & Supply in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Educating the Consumer

Butchers are often expected to be teachers as well as skilled meat cutters. "Josh, my husband, has always said that it's better to have a butcher that graduated with a PhD in philosophy than someone who comes from a supermarket," Jessica Applestone says. "What he means by that is someone who's thinking outside the box. Someone who is able to talk to customers and to explain things and to ruminate on things."

Mylan's charisma made him a spokesman for the sustainable meat movement.

Mylan always had that ability. "He's charismatic, and he is gregarious and outgoing," Tarlow says. That personality is what positioned Mylan to become a spokesman for the sustainable meat movement. He charmed NPR reporters and home cooks alike in his butchery classes, which still continue to sell out at The Brooklyn Kitchen. There, Mylan also engages with his customers, explaining to them the different cuts of meat and how to cook them.

Now, Mylan has taken that focus on education and turned it toward a wider audience with the release of The Meat Hook Meat Book. In her two-star review of the book, Eater Reports Editor Paula Forbes described Mylan's cookbook as "a charming read," however noting that it is "better for developing an understanding of meat cuts than it is for recreating them yourself at home." But that was the intention: Mylan says he wants his readers to come away from the book feeling like they've had a conversation with their butcher.

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[Photo: Paula Forbes/Eater.com]

"All butchers do all day long is think about meat."—Tom Mylan

"I wanted it to be written in a very conversational way that disarmed the person reading it, made them really believe that they could do this," he says of his book. "By using that tone, I really wanted to bestow upon them not 'this is how you cut things up,' but 'this is how you think about meat like a butcher.' All butchers do all day long is think about meat. Twelve hours a day, six days a week."

That kind of approachable approach has been successful. Lum, Jessica Applestone, and Tarlow all point to Mylan's intelligence, articulation, and sense of humor as his valuable contributions to the butchering profession. But Lum also points out that Mylan doesn't take himself too seriously. "Obviously he takes himself seriously enough," Lum says, "but I think one thing that bugs him about the sustainable food industry is that everybody is freaking out and taking it very seriously. If you take it too seriously, nobody is going to want to join you."

Bringing Sustainable Meat to America

Mylan's hometown in Orange County has a robust farmers' market now. Megan Penn, co-founder of the Old Towne Orange Farmers and Artisans Market and a lifelong resident of the city of Orange says that it's the city's first weekend market, though there have been a couple of less-frequented weekday markets over the years. And beyond the city of Orange, Anaheim Packing House, a giant food hall with an artisan butcher, opened earlier this year right near Disneyland. Residents no longer have to cross that Orange Curtain to find forward-thinking food purveyors in Los Angeles. "I think that's a huge, significant leap forward for where I grew up," Mylan says.

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[Photo: Daniel Krieger]

That kind of neighborhood development has been happening across the country for the past 10 years. Jessica Applestone says that part of Fleisher's success was that they were starting off in butchery at a time when Michael Pollan was publishing his sustainable eating manifestos such as The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food, while Eric Schlosser took down the fast food industry with Fast Food Nation. "In 10 years, it's been an enormous change," she says of the American attitude towards ingredient sourcing, though she adds that sustainable butchery was really just "sort of going back in time" to the era when butchers and not supermarkets were responsible for America's meat consumption.

"You had to be a vegetarian to eat the way that we eat now. Tom was part of that movement."—Jessica Applestone.

"Just to be able to walk into any supermarket now and know that there's an organic section, it's astounding to me," she says. "You had to be a vegetarian to eat the way that we all take for granted, the way we eat now. Tom was definitely part of that movement. We all were. But that was just the beginning of it as far as meat goes."

Mylan concedes that this change in American eating habits is one positive thing that came out of his days as a rock star butcher. It got people out of the grocery store and into the butcher shop. Applestone wonders if maybe the rock star butcher phenomenon had to happen in order to effect this kind of change. "It was something that really needed to take place," she says. "And, the truth is, butchers are sexy. Mushroom foragers just don't get the same attention. Maybe they should."

· All Meet the Butcher [-E-]

The Meat Hook

100 Frost St, Brooklyn, NY 11211

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