BY COLIN GOULDING / PHOTOGRAPHY BY ANDREA THOMPSON
When you walk into V. Miller Meats, the first thing you'll see is an impeccable case full of beautifully cut lamb shanks, freshly made sausage and oxtail the size of kabocha squash. Your first thought probably won't have anything to do with a breakfast in Brooklyn, but that is how the only whole-animal butcher shop in Sacramento began.
It was the ever-inspiring, smoky magic of bacon that started Eric Veldman Miller on his journey toward opening a butcher shop. And a common ethos of transparency in food production brought him together with Matt Azevedo, a magician of sausage, salumi and charcuterie. The duo worked for two years to realize the November opening of their shop in East Sacramento.
A few years ago Miller's brother-in-law invited him to explore the Brooklyn food scene, and it was there that Miller discovered a new passion—the neighborhood whole-animal butcher shop— over a simple breakfast in a small restaurant.
"It was a bacon, egg and cheese biscuit, that's it, nothing special," said Miller. "The bacon was phenomenal." He asked where the restaurant procured the meat, and learned that it had traveled mere steps from a butcher shop one storefront over.
"I paid for my meal and walked next door, and I ended up standing in there for probably close to five hours talking to the owner, watching what he was doing and learning that this is what they did. They were a whole-animal butcher shop," said Miller. "I thought, 'This is it. Sacramento doesn't have this.' I could see this working."
And it is working. In their first week, V. Miller Meats nearly sold out of all the meat cut from a full steer, four hogs, two lambs and a brood of chickens. While consumers may believe that whole-animal butchery is standard in the industry, many of the offcuts not typically sold to consumers end up ground into burgers or sausage or tossed in the bin. At V. Miller Meats, you can find all rare intact cuts in the case, ready to be transformed into delicious, unique meals.
"There's a bazillion recipes out there that call for all these offcuts which you're never going to see and we can provide those," said Miller. "We can provide any kind of weird little cut that you can usually only find stashed in someone's freezer."
In bringing a whole-animal butcher shop to Sacramento, Miller and Azevedo had concerns about how the community would react to the difference in the availability of well-known cuts of meat. A whole steer has just two tri-tips, and these butchers cannot simply retrieve another box from the walk-in to refill the case.
"Sometimes we don't have six rib eyes to sell you," said Miller. "That was a scary moment: Friday on our first week and we didn't have any rib eyes."
So far, however, the customers who come in with a specific cut in mind have shown excitement and interest in discovering novel cuts of meat they have not used before. "We're trying very hard to stick to whole-animal and we haven't brought in any pieces or parts," said Azevedo.
With the public's willingness to try new things in the kitchen, Miller and Azevedo find themselves teaching almost as much as they butcher. They call on their own past experience working in high end restaurant kitchens (including Restaurant Gary Danko, Chez Panisse, and Mulvaney's B&L) to guide customers on preparing the meat so that it ends up showcasing the quality and flavor of their ethically raised animals.
They had been frustrated when they'd seen what happened to the efforts of some farmers. "It all comes from an annoyance at going to a farmers market and all the fresh meat that these guys work really hard at raising is frozen," said Miller. "There's got to be another way to do this."
Azevedo and Miller visit all of the farms that raise the meat they sell in their shop. If they can't speak to the conditions on a farm, that meat does not come through their door.
"When you go to the grocery store, you don't always know where that meat you're buying is coming from," said Azevedo. "You don't know how it was raised and you don't know what it ate, you don't know what kind of life it led, and when you come here, you know. Our animals have one bad day."
And after that one bad day, customers get to appreciate the difference it makes in the product when an animal is cared for well. That stands out not only in the full-flavored pork chops, perfectly roasted rotisserie chickens and their house-smoked meats, but also in the fact that the rest of the animals are fully utilized. In this shop, steam kettles render beef fat for tallow and boil bones for stock, and the waste bins are light at the end of the day.
Azevedo emphasizes the value of the meat they bring into the shop. Wasting parts of the animal is a disservice to the animals and the people who raise them. "These are not farmers who have factories to raise animals, these are farmers who take pride in what they do and who care for the animals," he said.
It circles back to a belief in transparency. "Eating meats [from animals] that are responsibly raised, the way we would like to raise them, and eating meats that we would like to eat is really important to us," said Miller.
As it is to many socially conscious consumers. In other words, this is food you might raise in your own backyard if you could keep your neighbors from reporting you.