It's a cold Tuesday morning, the week before Thanksgiving, and Josh Applestone is feeling annoyed. He's working the counter at Fleisher's, the Brooklyn butcher shop he runs with his wife, Jessica, when in walk a couple of twentysomethings – the guy bespectacled and bearded, the girl skinny-jeaned and cute – or, as Applestone puts it, "these two fucking idiot hipsters." The two of them probably wouldn't know a heifer from a ham hock, but they want to smoke a turkey for Thanksgiving, and they want Applestone to tell them how to do it. "So this is your girlfriend?" Applestone asks the guy.
"Uh, lady friend," he says.
"Sure, whatever. And this meal – both your parents will be there?"
"Meeting each other for the first time?"
"Do yourself a favor," Applestone says. "Do not try to smoke this shit on the fire escape of your fucking 500-square-foot apartment. Don't get fancy. Just put it in the oven, turn it on, and roast it. I'm not trying to be a dick. It's just a lot of stress."
The couple exchange a look.
"But if you insist on doing it, at least come back and tell me what a disaster it was." He smiles. "You owe me that much."
Josh Applestone knows more about meat than you. With his Hulk Hogan mustache, lumbar-length ponytail, and tight black T-shirt that reads bacon gives me a lardon, he's the closest thing high-end butchery has to a rock star. His biceps are adorned with tattoos of meat-to-be – a chicken, a steer, a pig, a lamb – and his e-mail handle is icarveanimals. He's trained butchers like Julie Powell (of Julie & Julia fame) and supplied meat to such uber-chefs as Dan Barber and Thomas Keller. It's not hard to imagine him with his own reality show. All in all, not too bad for a guy who spent nearly 17 years as a vegan. (More on that later.)
Applestone knows he can come off as – in his own words – "condescending," "an arrogant asshole," or "kind of a dick." At the same time, that's part of his appeal. You go to Fleisher's for the same reason you hire a trainer: (a) it's good for you, and (b) sometimes it's fun to get a little beaten up. "People want someone to guide them," he says. "You don't want to be like, 'You're obviously an idiot and you don't know what you're talking about.' But . . ."
Over the past few years, there's been a movement steadily building in this country of something that, for lack of a better term, could be called "The Responsible Carnivore." Think grass-fed, hormone-free, locally sourced, The Omnivore's Dilemma. It's in keeping with the back-to-the-roots mentality that's spawned the current vogue for everything from $40 moonshine to artisanally sharpened pencils; and Fleisher's, founded by the Applestones in 2004, is at the head of the pack. Their Brooklyn shop, on a bustling block in the upper-class-boho Park Slope neighborhood, is a self-consciously styled throwback: distressed tin ceilings, stroller parking behind a velvet rope, a chicken rotisserie in the window spinning like a delectable Ferris wheel. (Applestone calls it "chicken TV.") It's less a butcher shop than a kind of curated meat boutique.
This morning, tempers are running a little short. They've got 800 turkeys to get out the door in the next six days, plus the air conditioner is broken and Applestone can't find his cellphone. He turns to his manager, another ex-vegetarian named Jason Fox.
"Spices and cryo bags are an absolute priority today," Applestone says. "Unbelievably important. Slipped by us. Another fucking mop-up. Also, we need to get the ingredients for the turkey stuffing immediately. We have a huge bottleneck with the potpies – we really need to start fucking concentrating on figuring out what the fuck we're doing about assembling the goddamn motherfuckers. We're out of meat loafs, we're out of meatballs. And we gotta talk about herbs. And hickory. And I need to know about the egg situation. And did I mention 'fuck you'?"
"Yes," Jason smiles.
"All right. Now give me your phone. I want to play some music."
As the opening riff to Metallica's "Enter Sandman" echoes through the shop, Applestone slips on his chain-mail apron and buckles the scabbard around his waist. He looks like the villain from the next installment of Saw.
The butcher's case, Applestone likes to say, is a canvas: Every day he has a picture to paint. "What butcher shops do is, we make raw meat look like candy. The whole thing is based on sight. If I can get it in their mouth – and they like food – they're mine." Filling the case is a race against the clock, with the goal being to finish by opening time every day. They rarely make it. When he and his top assistant are firing on all cylinders, it can take more than four hours to get through a day's cutting. Today it'll be more like five or six. "It looks fantastic when we're done," Applestone says. "But it's fucking work."
Pigs are the first order of business today. Because it's finishing season – meaning farmers slaughter them so they don't have to feed them over the winter – Applestone has a lot of pork. And because Fleisher's is a sustainable business, he has to use every bit of it. What he can't sell fresh, he'll smoke or turn into charcuterie. The fat he'll use for sausage or render for soap; other parts get ground up for homemade dog food. Even the tails get snipped off, braised, and barbecued like tiny hot dogs. "You can't eat them regularly unless you're, like, running around naked in the Arctic," he says. "But they're fucking delicious."
Applestone hauls a massive slab of pork out from the freezer and slams it on the butcher block. When he first started butchering, it took him an hour and a half to break down a pig. These days he can do it in 44 seconds. (His dream is to one day do it with a pocketknife.)
With his G.I. Joe shoulders and thick upper torso, he can deadlift more than 200 pounds, about the weight of an arm chuck. (If he were a steer, he'd make a great brisket.) Working to the strains of Black Sabbath and AC/DC, he blows through the pig in no time, pausing only to scrape something pink and plaquey off a cut of shoulder. "Bone dust," he says.
Next it's time for the lamb. First he slices out the tongue and uses a bone saw to take off the head, which he tosses in the garbage with an unceremonious thud. Then out come the insides – the heart, the kidneys. Contrary to popular imagination, butchers don't actually use their cleavers that much: Instead, most of Applestone's work is done with a five-inch boning knife, which he works with the deft precision of a surgeon. When he reaches down for his scabbard, he knows where each knife is without even looking.
But then it's time to take off the legs, and Applestone needs the heavy machinery. He fires up the band saw. There's a high-pitched whir, and then the piercing whine of metal on bone. Over the speakers, the intro to "Welcome to the Jungle" starts to play. Applestone glances at the clock. "Two hours!"
All is quiet on Wall Street. No, not that one. This one is in Kingston, New York, a sleepy upstate town on the banks of the Hudson River. It was here, eight years ago, that the original Fleisher's opened for business, on the same block as a Renaissance costume shop and the Hudson Valley LGBTQ Community Center. These days – thanks to Fleisher's, no doubt – it's one of the tonier spots going, with a mixology-inspired cocktail lounge and a tapas bar. "I tell Jess all the time," jokes Applestone, "the day there's a cobbler across the street, we're done."
It's a Monday, so the store is closed. But inside, two apprentices are laboring intently, the only noise the ambient soundtrack of butchering being done: the snap of rubber gloves, the rip of brown paper, the soft thump of a knife blade on the wooden block. Applestone hauls an armful of pork out of the freezer, a pungent walk-in chamber they call Big Bertha, and grins. "That's fresh-cut muscle you're smelling. Blood, really." Applestone grew up on Long Island, the son of two public school teachers and the great-grandson of a butcher named Wolf Fleisher (Applestone is his wife's last name). After high school, he spent his twenties wandering the country working various chef and bartending jobs: Portland, Madison, Brooklyn, Berkeley, Santa Cruz. He rode motorcycles, smoked his share of pot, spent a few years following the Dead. Then, in 2001, he was headed to Maui to move in with some buddies when his mom was diagnosed with Parkinson's, and he moved back home to Long Island to take care of her. That's where he met Jessica.
Fleisher's started in 2004, basically on a whim. Jessica, who'd long been a vegetarian, decided she wanted to try eating meat again. But when she looked around for ethical local options, she couldn't find any. She was shocked – didn't they live in a farm belt? She and Josh started talking, and they landed on a crazy idea: What if they opened a butcher shop of their own? They hatched the plan in February, started raising money in March, got married in May, and by June, were open for business.
The first few years were tough, Applestone says. "We lost everything in the first six months. I mean every freaking penny. We were throwing shit out left and right – we didn't know what the fuck we were doing." They were getting crash courses in everything from animal husbandry to Hudson Valley climatology; he says their learning curve was a vertical line. Then there were the accidents: Josh nearly severed his carotid artery with a meat hook; another time he impaled himself with a boning knife and almost died of septic shock. He was also hospitalized for five days with bleeding ulcers, brought on by stress. "We should have died, multiple times," he says. "We were way the hell out of our league. But we were also way the hell ahead of the curve."
Meanwhile, Applestone was also something highly unusual for a butcher: a vegan. He had been since high school, when his younger brother was diagnosed with Crohn's disease, an inflammatory disorder of the intestines. Josh gave up dairy out of solidarity, found that he liked it, and eventually phased out meat and eggs as well. "I just wasn't into meat," he says. "It didn't taste good. It wasn't that great. It was expensive. It's not like I was calling myself 'a vegan.' That's just what I was."
Applestone's veganism was always more practical than moral. "I didn't eat meat, but I'm not a big animal-rights guy," he says. "Don't get me wrong, I love animals. But if you take a steer and release it into the wild, it's gonna starve and die. These animals have been domesticated for hundreds and hundreds of years. No, they're not healthy, and, no, it's not the best thing in the world – but that's what they're here for." Then, in 2004, a bad motorcycle accident crushed his knee, and he had a really hard time recovering. Jessica convinced him that animal protein might do him some good. "You gotta eat blood," she said. "You need liver. You need meat." Eventually, six months after they'd opened, he relented and gave bacon a try. He cooked up a knuckle-thick slab of Fleisher's finest – rubbed in pepper, hot-smoked, and basted with apple cider – and proceeded to devour it straight out of the pan. Followed by another. And then another.
"It was mind-blowing," Applestone says. "I think more than anything else, it was the fat. That's the one thing vegans and vegetarians don't get – fat is brain power. If you don't eat fat, you are starving your body. Immediately I was like, 'Wow! I feel better!' " Within a month, he was a full-on carnivore. His conversion is commemorated by a T-shirt they sell, which reads bacon: the gateway meat.
Eight years later, Applestone has eaten just about everything: heart ("amazing"), brains ("pretty good"), coxcombs ("a little chewy"), testicles ("taste like balls"). "A butcher shouldn't be afraid to try anything once," he says. "We're not there to yuck your yum."
Applestone has grand plans for Fleisher's over the next few years. Right now the biggest project in the works is their meat-cutting university, which they plan to open later this year. They hope to offer 30 courses, in everything from slaughtering to sausage-stuffing, with Fleisher's butchers as instructors and a shuttle service to get people to campus and back home in time for dinner. "Not to be arrogant, but we can change the way people look at food forever," he says. "Usually it takes billions of dollars and several corporations to do that. This time it's just two Jews from Long Island."
And thus the former vegan has become a full-on meat evangelist. Still, he's not trying to get people to eat more meat. In fact, he'd be happier if everyone ate a little bit less.
"Jessica and I are constantly trying to downsize people," he says. "Four to six ounces apiece – you don't need any more than that. Much more and you're going to kill yourself. You eat that much meat, and you're not gonna be around in 10 years." "And we," he adds slyly, "want you around."