“Americans eat way too much meat," Ryan Fibiger says, and then grins, "I guess that sounds funny coming from a butcher."
No kidding. But then Fibiger is a butcher truly on the “cutting edge” -- one of the very few whole animal cutters in America, sourcing his organic meat from local sustainable farms and utilizing every part of the animal, from nose to tail.
Once a Wall Street investment banker, he’s turned from issuing stock to butchering them. For the past two years Fibiger trained with the “moo-rus”” at Fleisher's Meats, a whole animal butcher shop in Kingston, NY. With his knives honed as keen as his business skills, Ryan decided to open Saugatuck Craft Butchery and join in Westport’s red hot culinary renaissance.
His shop is one of the most anticipated arrivals in Fairfield County this year; and he granted CTBites an exclusive behind the scenes preview.
As Ryan shows us around his store at the new Saugatuck Center, he points out, "I'm not selling meat as much as I'm selling trust, which is why everything here is transparent."
Customers can watch their meat butchered on a cut table that dominates the middle of the store. Windows into the cold room allow patrons to see what meat is hanging in the shop. Indeed, glass abounds everywhere, and natural light floods the space, even from the sun dappled waters of the Saugatuck River dancing outside his side windows.
Ryan calls it a “fishbowl” approach to processing and promises that the only closed door will be on the bathroom.
Fibiger’s customers can expect full disclosure on every aspect of the meat they are buying, from farm to fork. Ryan knows the farmer who raised and fed the animal and is familiar with how and where it was slaughtered. He hand cut the meat, and he's prepped, cooked, carved and dined on it at his own table.
With two other butchers working alongside Ryan, the shop is a throwback to the old-fashion neighborhood butcher stores that once dotted Saugatuck and Westport before World War II. (See the sidebar below). Back then, a butcher knew his sources and customers by name, and patrons trusted him to pick their cuts and advise how to prepare them.
Like his old time counterparts, Ryan buys meat that was pasture fed on local farms. Today 99% of supermarket meat comes from factory farms where animals are infused with steroids or hormones to hasten the fattening process. The difference is immediately apparent when Ryan contrasts one of his steaks with a cut from an animal that was factory farmed.
The pasture-fed steak is leaner, with yellow-hued fat on the perimeter. The feedlot meat would show more interior marblling, its intra muscular fat a dull white.
Since ruminant animals can’t process grain into protein, the feed lot flavor resides in the fat, not the meat, which is why marbling is essential for good taste in grain fed beef. In contrast, pasture fed cattle process grass into protein, meaning the flavor is found within the meat, itself. The result is a healthier and safer source of flavor, augmented by Omega 3 acids. Marbling isn’t necessary for flavor, which Ryan describes as “earthy/organic,” just like the animal’s diet. Others invoke adjectives like “buttery” and “nutty”.
But what’s with that “yellow” fat on the grain fed meat? Actually, the hue means the adipose tissue stores an abundance of really-good-for-you Beta Carotene. White fat, on the other hand, signifies a deficiency of vitamins.
That’s all part of the education Fibiger hopes to impart to his customers as he introduces them to the taste treasures to be discovered in more fibrous cuts of meat.
"Americans like to eat from the middle of the animal," he points out. "The beef is tender there because there are no moving muscles. I want people to discover the amazing flavor and value in other parts of the animal."
Case in point is his Bavette Cut, a European alternative to the highly popular and pricey Hanger Steak. Most steak eaters don't realize that there’s just 1 serving of hanger steak per animal, which makes it a very unsustainable cut. But the little known Bavette is sliced from a 6 pound flap off the bottom of the sirloin, meat which most American butchers just grind or even discard. Ryan's skilled knifery creates a steak packed with flavor and value.
Ryan tries to use almost every scrap from the animal. From his leftovers and bones, he will cookdown fresh stocks and demi-glace for sale in the store. The less desirable cuts and organs will be chopped into dog food and blended with ground bone, so Fido can also enjoy a pasture fed feast, from his wet nose to wagging tail. Ryan plans to craft candles and soap from the unused tallow. Even bone char can be processed into bbq charcoal. Out of respect to the animal, nothing goes to waste.
All SCB’s beef will have passed safety inspection by the USDA. But since many small farmers can’t afford the optional and expensive fees the USDA charges for grading, most of Ryan’s beef will be ungraded. He claims that the taste and tenderness of his steaks will be equivalent to if not better than the higher grades. To further magnify and concentrate flavor, the shop will also dry age selected ribs and loins from the steer.
In addition to beef, Fibiger will feature lamb, pork and poultry, also locally grown in a humane and sustainable fashion. His cases will include charcuterie, a variety of fresh sausages.
When asked about veal, Ryan visibly winces. “Limited,” he says,” to male calves from dairy farms.”
For seasonal holidays the store will sell turkey, goose, and duck … but customers should order ahead. They are now taking reservations for Thanksgiving Heritage Turkeys
One of the challenges of full animal butchery is juggling customer demand with animal availability.( After all, Ryan can’t call a small farmer and order extra ribs) Since choices will not always be on hand, Ryan sees that as a chance to introduce new cuts of meat to his clientele, along with tips on the virtues of braising, crock pots, and all manner of low and slow cooking.
Fibiger’s outreach extends beyond his new shop. He’ll offer a Meat CSA and also has plans to source restaurants in the area, including a new eatery across the plaza from SCB. Next summer he envisions floating a Burger Barge down the Saugatuck. Like old time shops, he plans to offer home delivery and his truck may even bring orders to the nearby Westport Station for evening commuters.
Ryan Fibiger’s Saugatuck Craft Butchery will be open every day except Monday.
“That’s Meatless Monday,” this thoroughly modern throwback butcher reminds us.
Saugatuck Craft Butchery 575 Riverside Ave Westport, CT 06880
BUTCHERS BACK WHEN
Katie Chase of the Westport Historical Society has done some research for CTBites on old time butcher shops in the area, In the 1931 and 1941 town directories, she found over a dozen retail meat outlets which catered to the small village. While some were found in grocery stores, all probably sourced from local farmers and butchered most of the animal.
Coincidentally, if not eerily, two shops were located on the 500 block of Riverside Avenue. Unless numbers have changed, they would have been butchering directly across the street from the new Saugatuck Craft Butchery. Truly, a Butcher’s Block.
Ms. Chase even tracked down an ad for a long ago Westport shop with the catchy name “Whitney & Wells”. (Sounds like a modern online brand, and far more redolent than “Omaha Steaks”.)
Her colleague Allen Raymond remembers a colorful butcher shop from the late 40’s, though not its name. This store stretched from Main Street all the way to the river, years before Parker Harding Plaza was built.
“It was filled with jovial butchers behind a long counter,” he recalls. “I'm guessing there were at least six butchers, all of whom had wisecracks for customers, as they created an atmosphere that still sticks in my memory.”
“Westport's population, at that time,” he adds, “ was probably around 5,000.”
And hamburger cost 21 cents a pound.
[Photography courtesy of Pam Zaremba]