The Milwaukee Butcher Who Wants to Change The Way You Think About Meat
A butcher and chef in Milwaukee has a surprising answer to those who suggest cutting back on meat: she agrees. But, she says, when you do indulge, make it a meal to remember.
When you walk into Bavette La Boucherie, it’s not unusual to see half a steer on the butcher table being broken down in the open kitchen. Come back tomorrow, and you might find a lamb or a hog. With nothing but a bar to separate diners from seeing how the literal sausage gets made, Karen Bell, the chef and owner of the Milwaukee butcher shop-restaurant, has made knowing where your meat comes from a reality to taste and see. “The reason is transparency,” she says. “It’s a meal and a show—but maybe a little different from the kind of show people are used to.”
If it takes a pinch of drama to bring some attention and thoughtfulness to the meat we eat, Bell has found her own way to do it. Instead of stereotypical butcher tropes (austere interiors, striped aprons, knives crossed like Jolly Rogers), Bavette has a softness. The dining room is papered in turquoise and gold. Ceiling-high windows and warm string lights give the place an intimate, neighborhood feel. Yet whole-animal butchery remains front and center. “If that’s something that bothers you, you should think more deeply about the meat you’re eating and why you’re eating it,” Bell says. And she means that entirely as an invitation.
A concern with where our food comes from can carry worry of being snobbish or elitist—but there is nothing new or particularly privileged about knowing who collects your eggs, or which part of the pig yields a pork chop. We’re just out of practice with valuing that information. And when the majority of us get our meat as parts and pieces devoid of any context, we have to ask what else we’ve lost sight of. The perils of climate change have grown from a whisper to a roar, making our appetite for meat a factor we can no longer ignore—not when, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions fall squarely on raising livestock for food. Certainly going vegetarian is one approach to untangling those cognitive dissonances, but simply cutting back to focus on quality over quantity is more conducive to long-term change. Or put another way, one sublime corned beef tongue sandwich from a place like Bavette is worth a dozen forgettable burgers.
A Milwaukee native, Bell traces her interest in meat to living and cooking abroad, including a few years owning a restaurant in Madrid. She returned to the Midwest with a dedication to sourcing her food close to home. “I would go to my produce guy across the street every morning to pick out what I wanted,” she recalls. “Same with the meat and the fish. The relationship with food over there is more personal than the one we have over here. That was something I wanted to bring back and maintain.” At Bavette, Bell works directly with farmers. “Ninety percent of our menu is designed around what we are getting in to support the butcher shop,” she says. “We don’t really order extra stuff.” The high-ticket items—often steaks like ribeyes, porterhouses and filets—sell quickly, leaving the kitchen to work with what’s left. Bell has no complaints about that: “I prefer more ‘offcuts’ or braising cuts. Pork shoulder to pork chops, chicken legs to chicken breast. Generally they have more fat, and that adds more flavor to the dish.”
Taking a mindful, judicious approach to eating meat— embracing the whole animal and unlocking each part’s unique potential—becomes even more exciting when you weave in global flavors and techniques. In Bell’s hands, the whole round from the back leg of the steer turns into roast beef for sandwiches. Chicken livers morph into pâté, served on toasted brioche with peppery strawberry jam. Unctuously rich pork belly tucks into fluffy steamed Asian buns. Short ribs slip off the bone, their juices pooling in the nooks and crannies of mashed root vegetables. Sharing those dishes with Bavette’s community of diners—inspiring people, perhaps, to pick up an unfamiliar cut in the shop to play with at home—is Bell’s way of paying forward lessons she learned abroad. After all, no one said changing the way we do meat wasn’t going to be delicious.
FLAT-IRON WITH CHIMICHURRI AND SMASHED POTATOES In a riff on French steak frites, Bell pairs grilled steak with an herby sauce and rustic baby potatoes. Flavorful flat-iron comes from the chuck, or shoulder, and is known as a butcher’s cut—an affordable part that only pros know the virtues of. Get the recipe.
PORK AND TOMATILLO POZOLE Before you shred that trusty pork shoulder into another batch of barbecue sandwiches, take an alternate tack and bathe it low and slow in tomatillos, chilies and spices. Pozole is a traditional Mexican soup thickened with hominy that only gets better the next day, so keep extra cabbage-radish slaw around for round two. (Cornbread for dunking? Don’t mind if we do. Bell’s version calls for brown sugar and buttermilk.) Get the recipes for pozole and cornbread.
CHICKEN LIVER MOUSSE PB&J Topped with piquant strawberry jam and chopped peanuts, this playful appetizer converted all the pâté newbies among our testers. The mousse (a Bavette staple) is airy and silky, perfumed with thyme, shallot and brandy. Not your Grandma’s chicken livers—but maybe she’d appreciate the innovation. Get the recipe.
WINE-BRAISED SHORT RIBS With their marrow-rich bones and fatty marbling, short ribs deliver flavor and richness that cubed stew meat never will. (And you’ve got to love a cut with Fred Flintstone vibes.) Bell recommends springing for grass-fed beef. She prefers that it tastes less sweet than corn-fed. Get the recipe.
CHICKEN TAGINE Common across North Africa, tagines are meaty stews cooked in lidded clay pots. In this version, Bell marinates thighs and drumsticks in saffron, mint and ras el hanout (a blend of cinnamon, coriander, ginger, turmeric and black pepper), then simmers them with olives and preserved lemons for pops of briny flavor. (Tagine’s best friend: couscous. Bell studs hers with dried fruit and almonds.) Get the recipes for tagine and couscous.
CHAR SIU PORK BELLY BUNS
Braised in basil and ginger, then sliced and pan-fried, this pork belly has little to do with bacon. Instead, it’s a tender, melting slab of hoisin-glazed goodness, nestled in soft white buns with cilantro and pickled veggies. The recipe has several elements and a lot of resting time; plan to settle into its rhythms for a cozy (and utterly delicious) weekend project. You can buy pre-fab buns, but once you’ve committed to the belly, why not go the distance and make your own? Get the recipe.