On an island where more than 90 percent of beef is imported, where the chicken is flown in and almost all the pork for the iconic Hawaiian kālua pig comes from somewhere else, Jason Chow wants to open O‘ahu’s only all-local butcher shop. When this idea first came to Chow, the island’s slaughterhouse was struggling to stay afloat and processing only eight head of cattle a month. But these are not deterrents for Chow — he has spent years devoted to saving what we’re about to lose.
As an Eater Young Gun for 2019, Chow has worked in the culinary world for only a few years. But that’s if you think the culinary world begins in the restaurant kitchen. For him, it began in the ocean. Growing up in Honolulu and “coming from a fishing family, we were very dependent on the ocean for its resources, whether it was fish, lobster, tako [octopus], crab, or limu [seaweed],” Chow says. “I wanted to make sure that the future generations could also enjoy these things. I wanted to make sure that the Hawai‘i I grew up in [would be] the same Hawai‘i that my grandchildren could grow up in.”
He studied biology at the University of Hawai‘i in the hopes of learning how to preserve what he knew. He interned with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to help protect threatened animals from extinction, and then with Conservation International (CI) to study nearshore fishing. Up until then, little documentation existed on how much and what was pulled from the islands’ coastlines. It’s hard to know what to save when you don’t know what’s in danger.
Parlaying research into practice, Chow helped CI launch Local I‘a, Hawai‘i’s only community-supported fishery. Borrowing from agriculture’s CSA model, Local I‘a connects fishers with eaters. Seafood is a particularly murky industry — look only to reports of mislabeled fish and slavery-like conditions on commercial boats — probably because so much of it happens far away from most people. Local I‘a offers radical transparency. It tells consumers the name of the fisher who caught the seafood, and when and where they caught it. All the fishers adhere to fishing standards which Local I‘a developed by combining traditional Hawaiian fishing knowledge with principles from the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch and Marine Stewardship Council. Thus, among other standards, fishers supplying Local I‘a have to understand spawning seasons and the seasonality of fish species.
And that’s really where Chow’s idea for a butcher shop started, this idea of connecting eaters to more responsible food. Local I‘a tackled seafood, but he saw a void in land-based meat. While overseeing Local I‘a, Chow also cooked at Mud Hen Water, one of the city’s essential restaurants. Ed Kenney, the chef and owner, says Chow “made interpretations of classic Hawai‘i dishes,” turning pork scraps into lup cheong, a Chinese sausage, or creating a duck terrine with the flavors of Peking duck. “He would take these charcuterie techniques and make them relevant to Hawai‘i,” Kenney says.
Chow remembers seeing the whole animals being brought into the kitchen and broken down into steaks and chops. “Seeing the quality of meat coming through those doors was not like anything I’d seen in Hawai‘i,” Chow says. “It got me thinking, as a home cook, where would I get this? There was nowhere that you could get good, locally sourced meat.”
Of all the food that Hawai‘i imports, beef seems the most bizarre. The Islands are home to about 144,000 head of cattle. But, according to the Hawai‘i Cattlemen’s Council, approximately 75 percent of them are shipped away to be finished (when cows are fed an energy-rich diet in preparation for slaughter) in feedlots on the mainland, while Hawai‘i brings in over 90 percent of its beef.
This wasn’t always the case. In the ’40s and ’50s, the cattle stayed in Hawai‘i and supplied the entire local market. After World War II, a pent-up demand for meat coincided with an excess of cheap corn, and large feedlots spread in the U.S. and arrived in Hawai‘i. Cattle raised on grain gained weight and fat more quickly, a plus for ranchers, and consumers began to prefer grain-fed beef over grass-fed. But boxes of mainland beef, already ground or cut into steaks, started flooding the market and helped satiate Hawai‘i’s growing population. Ranchers, who were importing grain to grow the cattle, couldn’t compete. By the ’90s, it became cheaper to ship calves to the feed than ship the feed to them.
The infrastructure began to disappear: the slaughterhouses, the butcher shops, the distribution.
This is what Chow encountered. He wanted to open a butcher shop, but there was nowhere to learn. At Mud Hen Water, he could learn some butchering skills, but not how to run a butcher business. So he left.
He has spent the past three years working at the Local Butcher Shop in Berkeley, California, and Butcher & Larder in Chicago. At the moment, he’s helping Ricky Hanft, his former supervisor at the Local Butcher Shop, open the Wurst, a meatery in Griffith, Indiana, that will also process game. Chow has learned “everything from the skill of cutting to the business side, how to cost different animals,” he says. “How to market different cuts as well as all the value-added products.” From steaks to stocks, maximizing the cuts and minimizing the waste is the only way to make a whole-animal butcher shop work financially.
The Cows Come Home
Chow plans on returning to Honolulu at the end of the year. And then he’ll open his own place. He’ll carry only local beef, pork, and chicken. He’ll provide custom-cut meats, like three-inch thick ribeyes and tomahawk steaks with the rib bone attached. Trimmings and everything else will be made into meats as ubiquitous as hamburger patties in Hawai‘i, like Spam and Portuguese sausage and lup cheong. “Imagine locally made Spam! Crazy!” Chow says. “And locally made Portuguese sausage. Everyone loves it, but where is that pork coming from? I’m not trying to do crazy Michelin-starred stuff. I want to make things that people in Hawai‘i eat on a regular basis, but better.”
Chow hasn’t been gone from Hawai‘i long, but in that time, the meat landscape has improved. For the past decade, ranchers, sensing a demand for local, grass-finished beef and everything it stands for — personal and environmental health as well as a move toward the islands’ self-sufficiency — have been trying to keep more cattle in the islands. It took years to build the infrastructure back up, and it’s only recently that their efforts are showing larger-scale results. Parker Ranch, one of the country’s largest cow-calf operations (where calves are raised to be sold and finished elsewhere), has committed to keeping back some of its cattle. Kunoa Cattle Co., which began as a ranch on Kaua‘i, bought O‘ahu’s only slaughterhouse in 2016 and now moves about 400 animals through it a month. There’s even a butcher shop in Waimea on Hawai‘i Island, which Chow says sells twice the volume of the Butcher & Larder. It’s proof to Chow that the interest is there.
“People want good, local meat,” says Chow. “You just have to provide it.”