Leave it to Berkeley to have a meat shop so good, even vegetarians flock to it. Of course, it takes a duo like Monica and Aaron Rocchino— gurus in the culinary field, with experience in top restaurants like Chez Panisse and Oliveto— to make it happen. Their inspiration to bring five-star, sustainably raised meat to kitchens in their community came to fruition in The Local Butcher Shop, and we can’t get enough.
Wanting to find out more, we went right to the source (in true Local Butcher Shop fashion) and sat down with Monica Rocchino to learn all the tasty details about the shop, the secrets to buying sustainable meat and their salad-inspired sandwiches.
Why don’t we start with a basic introduction? What were you and Aaron were doing before The Local Butcher Shop, and what was the “Aha!” moment in deciding to open a butcher shop?
Aaron was a chef over at Chez Panisse for six years, and I was in catering, so for our whole relationship (which was about eight years at that point), we always had opposite schedules. We were really tired of it and wanted to see more of each other but we also wanted to stay in the food industry, and we wanted to have some more impact directly on our community.
There are so many restaurants and so many cafes, but we realized it was really hard for us to find local, sustainably raised meat that we could really believe in—unless he brought it home from the restaurant.
They do whole-animal butchering at Chez Panisse and Oliveto (in Oakland), where we had both worked before, so Aaron had 11 years to build up relationships with the farmers and ranchers who supply both of those restaurants. None of them sourced to any retail shops, so it was pretty much impossible to get any of their product unless you ate at the five-star restaurants they supplied.
So Aaron called them all up and asked if they’d be interested in selling to a retail shop so that home cooks could enjoy their meat too. And they all said yes! When we first opened, we only carried farmers and ranchers with whom we had worked at our previous restaurants. They are still all on board with us, but we’ve since hired other farmers and ranchers in order to keep up with the demand. And from all of our providers the quality and the taste is really… you can’t get it at any other butcher store.
So you’re the only retail store they’re selling to?
For most of them. For 90 percent of them.
And you’ve been pretty successful with the idea!
So far! It’s been two years and two months.
Awesome. So from my perspective, I’ve watched films like Food Inc. and other cautionary food documentaries, and it seems like, at least in California, a lot of people of have turned a cold shoulder to meat. Veganism and vegetarianism are on the rise—but meat is not necessarily the enemy if it’s done the right way. Has there been any backlash or negative response from Berkeley’s large vegan and vegetarian community?
It’s funny, the day we signed the lease, there was a vegan parade going down Shattuck with all of their protest signs, and it was like, “Oh my, what are we doing?”
But actually the community has been really supportive. We had just a small bit of vandalism when we first opened, from PETA, but we also have a lot of vegetarians come into the shop and say, “I’m a vegetarian, I’ve been a vegetarian for 20 years, and I want to start eating meat. I hear this is the place to be, what do I do? Help me.”
We have a lot of vegetarians who come to shop at our store. I totally respect vegetarian and vegan lifestyle, and we sell a lot of products that aren’t meat, whether it’s eggs or beans or what not. Actually, for all intents and purposes, I’m a vegetarian unless I know the source of the meat that I’m eating.
What would you say are the top misconceptions about meat or the meat industry?
Well, when you’re talking about 100-percent pasture-finished meat (so on pasture it’s whole life, birth to slaughter) there are a lot of misconceptions.
One is that people don’t think about meat being seasonal, but the pasture is seasonal, which means that pasture-raised and pasture-finished meat is just as seasonal as the vegetables in the farmer’s market. The input is seasonal, so the output is too. That means that the consistency and quality of the meat varies with the seasons. There are definitely certain seasons when you want to be eating certain meats or certain cuts, and other seasons when they’re not as prime to eat.
For example, wintertime is really hard for pasture-raised animals in general. They’re using all of their caloric energy to stay warm, so they lose a lot of weight, and usually that’s fat, intramuscular marbling. So for cows, for example, there will be about a 300- to 400-pound difference in a same frame-size animal from summer to winter. The farmers do everything they can to maintain weight in the winter, but you’re never going to get an animal that puts on weight in the winter.
Cooking steaks in the wintertime, when all that marbling is missing leads people to think that that grass-fed meat is lean and tough, but it’s really just that it’s not in season. In winter you want to be braising and stewing the meat, which is what we naturally want to do anyway.
In the summertime, all of those grasses go to seed, and that seed is protein and carbohydrates. It’s like they cows are on a spaghetti diet. They put on thee to five pounds. a day, and that’s when all of the intramuscular marbling is happening. That’s when gras-fed beef is best for eating and when you want to be throwing those leaner cuts the grill.
Other meats are seasonal too. You want to have baby lamb in the spring. And chickens don’t do well in the cold. It they get wet, they get diseases and colds and die really easily, and in winter they lay much fewer eggs and smaller eggs, and they shrink themselves because they use all of that energy to stay warm.
Really, the only year-round meats in the Bay Area are pork and goat. Goats will eat anything year round, and most of the pigs around here also get supplemental feed. They’re not 100 percent on pasture, so they’re able to maintain their weight.
That’s a totally different perspective than walking into a grocery store and having one of everything at your disposal. What would you say is the most underrated cut of meat?
I think the legs of any animal are underrated. They just have to be prepared the right way, and take a little longer to cook. Our house-made roast beef, for example is made out of beef legs, and roasted pork and chicken legs are great.
For people who are looking to buy sustainable, fresh meat, what keywords or tips do recommend that they look for specifically?
First of all, you have to define what “local” means to you. It could mean the state of California, it could be the West Coast… But the really important thing to look for is 100-percent on pasture. Every animal is pasture-raised and grass-fed until it gets sent to the feedlot, so, they can write “grass-fed” or “pasture-rasied” on anything and still finish it on grain in a feedlot. Same goes for “natural,” and even “organic” meat can be finished on organic grain, so it’s really important to know that it’s finished on pasture. “Pasture-finished” is really what you’re looking for.
Moving on to your awesome sandwiches, which change daily. Was there ever an ingredient that you weren’t too sure about being on a sandwich that turned out really great?
Yeah, that definitely happens. The way we come up with the sandwiches is that we go every Tuesday to the farmer’s market in Berkeley and look at what’s in season and what looks awesome, and then we incorporate whatever that is into the next week’s sandwich menu.
There have certainly been times, especially during the first year when we were going through the seasons for the first time, when we though, “Uhh.. I don’t know, how about melon and ricotta, or melon and feta with mint and pork?” And then those combinations turned out really well. Over the summer we did a watermelon sandwich with tomato and mint. And then last year, we ran a few different kinds of melons. Basically we take our inspirations from salads, and then we add meat.
What do you consider the key ingredient to a really great sandwich?
Aioli, homemade with farm fresh eggs and really good olive oil. We make our aioli every morning.
Which sandwich is your personal favorite?
I really like our corned beef on rye with our house made kraut. I also love our chicken-fried steak or Milanesa. I’m a big fan of fried food!
Oh definitely, I think everyone is deep down inside! Lastly, I’ve heard that The Local Butcher Shop has a community focus, including monthly classes. Do you have any plans to expand to more classes or farm tours?
Yeah, I think next year we will be doing more classes. We did a farm tour as part of a class, and also a grilling class up on a farm, and that was really great. I hope that we can do a few more of those this year. People really liked it, and it was awesome to connect people with our farms. It also shows people that we’re for real, and that they’re getting the truth about these farms. They can see with their own eyes that we’re all about truth and we have nothing to hide.
The Local Butcher Shop is located at 1600 Shattuck Avenuve Suite. 120, Berkeley. It is open Daily from 10 a.m. until 7 p.m. on weekdays and until 6 p.m. on weekends.