On a perfect Sunday in late May, with blue skies and fluffy clouds straight from a Rococo painting, Yves-Marie Le Bourdonnec, the most embattled butcher in Paris, was in his element. In the village of Le Plessier-Huleu (population: 75), about 67 miles northeast of Paris, he had gathered the employees of his three-shop butchery empire, along with their families, his students, and other select associates — about 30 people in all — for an annual barbecue at the farm of one of his breeders.
Le Bourdonnec wore all black, in keeping with his rock ’n’ roll image, though he topped off his curly gray locks with a brimmed straw hat. The group took a stroll to inspect the herd of Samuel Fouillard, a 28-year-old farmer who has been working with Le Bourdonnec for about four years, and whose steaks they’d be tucking into later. A cluster of cows and calves were grazing calmly in a field when nature inevitably called. A calf took a long, hosing piss, unperturbed by the onlookers. “That’s not milk!” Le Bourdonnec called out to the guffaws of his disciples.
Often named, along with his frenemy Hugo Desnoyer, as one of the luminaries of the slice-and-dice world of French butchery, the 49-year-old Le Bourdonnec has as many titles as there are ways to carve a cow: “the bohemian butcher,” “the king of butchers,” and, as he has called himself, “the angry butcher.” Simultaneously exalted and deemed an outcast, Le Bourdonnec was expelled in 2012 from La Confédération Française de la Boucherie, the French butchers’ federation, for proclaiming that British cattle breeds produce the best beef in Europe. His shop in Paris’s 16th arrondissement and social media accounts are regularly targeted by animal rights activists, who have splashed the outside of his shop with faux blood and plastered it with images from slaughterhouses. At the same time, he has many high-profile clients, counting among them Mick Jagger, Pharrell Williams, aging French rocker Johnny Hallyday, and Michelin-starred chefs Alain Ducasse and Guy Savoy.
Le Bourdonnec’s most ambitious project, however, is taking him beyond the profile of a traditional butcher. Over the last decade and a half, he has worked to cross little-used 19th-century French breeds with British stock, engineering what he believes will be the perfect cow. His crusade has been an uphill battle in a land that vaunts its homegrown Charolais and Aubrac steaks, and one that pits grain-fed beasts bred for their mass against a new strain of animals created to be both succulent and well adapted to their local environments — animals that Le Bourdonnec thinks could revolutionize not only French butchery, but the entire French beef industry.
It is the mark of the truly passionate — and the médiatique (media-savvy) — to be able to repeat a story over and over with the same urgency and freshness at each telling. As Le Bourdonnec’s goes, his aunt and uncle raised him on their farm in Brittany, where he became fascinated by the butcher who would visit once a year to slaughter an animal for the family. Defying his aunt and uncle, who wanted him to pursue a field that did not involve manual labor, he left the farm at the age of 16 for an apprenticeship outside Paris. “I had to impose my will,” he remembered, in order to become a butcher. “I did an internship where you had to kill an animal almost with your bare hands, with just a knife and a hammer. I did that to show my uncle and aunt that I could be a butcher.”
By the age of 18, Le Bourdonnec had taken over the butcher shop where he was working, Le Couteau d’Argent in Asnières-sur-Seine — which he still owns, 30 years later. It was something like destiny, maybe. “In 2008, I lost my father,” he confided. “I never knew my mother and I wanted to find out who she was. I learned — I was already 40 years old at the time — that she was from a long line of butchers.”
Le Bourdonnec seems to embrace every aspect of being a butcher, from working with his producers up to making the sale, citing an obligation to “tell stories” about the meat to educate consumers. The typical French client, for example, will say that they want lean meat, Le Bourdonnec said. But this isn’t what they actually want: As he has said repeatedly — in his TEDx talk, “In Search of the Ideal Steak,” and Steak (R)evolution, a documentary in which he goes in search of the world’s best steak — people want meat that is “tendre et goûteuse” (tender and tasty). Tenderness requires that the animal be low in collagen, which means it should be slaughtered young, and taste comes from a balanced fat profile, which is largely genetic — thus Le Boudonnec’s battle to create a new breed of super (delicious) cows.
The most popular French breeds were originally bred for labor, not for meat, so they were often slaughtered at the end of their working lives and were riddled with a rigid form of collagen, a connective tissue protein fiber that shrinks when cooked and results in toughness. A typical French beef dish, such as bœuf bourguignon, is one that boils or braises meat for a long time to tenderize it. But with quickly seared steaks in fashion, British cattle, which have been specifically bred for their meat for generations, are best suited to today’s tastes, in the opinion of Le Bourdonnec. (The publication of L’effet boeuf, his 2012 book on the evils of industrial agriculture, led to his expulsion from the French butchers’ federation because it explained the superiority of British beef — “a point of pride,” he has said. The federation, which did not reply to several recent requests for comment, issued a statement when the documentary Steak (R)evolution was released in 2014, calling him a “detractor of French rearers” and “a paid-up supporter of British farmers.”)
Le Bourdonnec “started from zero” 15 years ago because French breeders were simply not offering what he sought; he was forced to rethink the entire production chain, from farm to table. He decided that he had to go directly into business with farmers to show them how to raise the meat his customers wanted to eat. “I concluded that we would use French breeds that we used at the end of the 19th century,” he said, because they were well adapted to their regions, making them easier to raise without expensive imported grain. There was a problem, though.
“None of the French breeds have the characteristic of arriving at adulthood early,” Le Bourdonnec said, referring to the toughness of meat from older animals. So he crossbred his French cows with British bulls. Today, he has six suppliers who are raising hybrid cattle to his specifications and five who are converting to his model, for a total of about 3,500 head of cattle. (As a point of comparison, 40 percent of grain-fed cattle in the U.S. comes from feedlots with a capacity of 32,000 or more.) “I can’t say we have a flourishing economy,” Le Bourdonnec admitted, “but we function.”
When I mentioned another French butcher who works directly with farmers, Le Bourdonnec dismissed the notion of any similarity because most breeders continue to raise cattle with grain. “To produce his cow, [the farmer] has to give her an enormous amount of feed, and he won’t earn anything. That’s why I say I’m opposed to this vision — I’m opposed to the vision of the entire profession in France,” Le Bourdonnec said. His fervor has not earned him many friends among French butchers. A young Parisian butcher I know told me, “He takes potshots at everyone.”
Given his disdain for what he sees as the collusion of grain lobbies, French agriculture, and the French butchery establishment, it is not surprising that Le Bourdonnec has created his own movement, including a training program to form “butcher-entrepreneurs” in his own image. (Speaking of his own image, he has jokingly asserted that with his brood of five sons, ranging in age from 8 to 25, he has bred his own butcher shop. His two oldest, Yann and Paul, head up his 16th arrondissement and Asnières shops respectively.)
On the Plessier-Huleu farm, the assembled butchers were exclusively young men, bright and motivated, ready to take French butchery beyond the Old World clichés of the village butcher with his cap, necktie, and one-shouldered apron. (The sole female butcher among Le Bourdonnec’s staff, a single mother, declined to make the Sunday morning bus ride.) As Le Bourdonnec’s true believers, they endlessly repeated his mantras about eating “less but better” meat, the benefits of grass-feeding cattle, and the necessity of caring for both the economic well-being of the farmers and the animals’ quality of life — ideas now so thoroughly integrated into high-end American dining that saying them out loud seems almost quaint, but that remain inimical to the traditional institutions of French butchery, where the focus is mostly on craftsmanship, not the larger implications of their profession for agriculture, the environment, or dining.
One of Le Bourdonnec’s students at the barbecue, 30-year-old Louis-Marie Martin, came to butchery after an earlier career as a wine seller. During his year as the program’s first student, Martin visited slaughterhouses, farms, and restaurants, then finished his training by going to Japan with Le Bourdonnec for 10 weeks to discover Japanese butchering methods. Currently working as the manager of the meat aisle in Paris’s Galeries Lafayette food hall, as well as in its steakhouse (both of which feature Le Bourdonnec cuts), Martin recruited other young butchers “with the same état d’esprit, the same vision as Yves-Marie,” he said. His clients demand the “traceability” of their meat, and want to know how it was fed and if it is local. Martin uses techniques he learned in the training program, notably how to dry-age meat — a Le Bourdonnec trademark — in his work.
“When I decided to become a butcher, I had to face a lot of preconceptions,” Martin told me, sipping a beer. “People thought it was a profession for old people, dirty and a bit old-fashioned. I had to convince people around me, my family and even my wife, that this is a profession for the future. … Above all, the fact that I work with Yves-Marie, with his philosophy, allowed me to convince a lot of people.” He attributed Le Bourdonnec with giving “a new élan to the profession of butcher.”
I walked along with Le Bourdonnec and his band as they continued their tour of Fouillard’s farm, and there, in the finishing stables, was the final, real-life product of Le Bourdonnec’s toils. A hundred head of crossbreeds — French Salers cows mated with a British Angus bull — stood munching on hay, beets, and smashed potatoes, all grown on the farm.
“That’s a half million euros right there,” Le Bourdonnec said.
“Maybe that’s the value in your shops,” Fouillard retorted.
The group wandered over to an open field where industrial-sized grills and tables had been set up. Now it was time to make lunch. Le Bourdonnec had brought 66 pounds of dry-aged beef for 30 people, clearly way too much. Some of the crew set the meat to sizzle on the barbecue, while others sipped wine or beer.
“It’s time to turn it, isn’t it?” Le Bourdonnec asked at one point.
“No!” several people yelled in unison. “Yves-Marie, you’re a butcher, not a cook,” remarked one of his students. Le Bourdonnec backed away with a smile.
When the beef was ready to serve, someone asked, “Papa, do you want to cut the meat?”
Le Bourdonnec hesitated. He had battled for 30 years to reach the top of his profession, to sit at the head of the table. But today, on this lovely hot afternoon, surrounded by his “family,” Le Bourdonnec was prepared to lay down his knives.
“Go ahead, guys,” Le Bourdonnec demurred lazily. “I taught you.”
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