It was a chilly morning last week, the sun was shining and the smell of raw meat was thick in the air, as Sara came strolling up to the front of her butcher shop, The Meat Hook. As we sat and chatted about the development of her journey through the meat world, I was completely inspired by her passion to challenge herself, and her commitment to quality… Not to mention, she so artfully handles a cut of meat: a graceful swoop of her blade, shows utter respect for her craft....
Plus her meat shop music jam might surprise you, check it out below.
Nativen: You’re from LA, right? Do you think that growing up in Los Angeles in any way affected your decision to start being a butcher?
Sara: I don’t know. That’s a good question. After I had moved out here, I was interested in this and I started working in this field. I was super‑interested in whether there was anything like that in Los Angeles.
Obviously in every large city there are communities that have butcher shops.
Growing up, my dad would get meat from Costco. He would come home with these enormous pork loins that were really gross, in retrospect.
Sara: I think everywhere you grow up you eat things that are weird and regional. I grew up eating shark because it was an easy, cheap thing to get at the grocery store in San Diego. I think I stumbled on this in New York because it was happening here.
Nativen: Was there a specific event that influenced that decision in your life to become a butcher?
Sara: Yeah. I feel like this is a really boring story, but I was working in an office where I was in PR and pitching to food people the whole time. I was constantly reaching out to people who were working and writing about food. They were crafting a story about something liquor, and talking about how it was made. A couple times I got to go to Ireland or Scotland to see where things were being made and get a little behind the scenes of that.
If you’re making whiskey, you want something that is consistent but you can also learn a little bit more about the science of it and think about how the different weather factors will affect the way your stuff is aging.
The same thing is true with meat. If you’re breaking down beef every day, it can get really boring, but if what you’re looking at is a larger picture, you can think about: How was this aged? How was this grown? How old was it? How are these muscles different and why? You can go down the different rabbit holes of that food science, and that’s super interesting.
Nativen: That’s how you make huge growths, by people who are super‑committed to one beautiful thing and building and developing that. Actually, I have a lot of admiration for it, because it’s not who I am as a person.
Sara: It’s hard.
Nativen: It is. It takes a really specific level of commitment. You were working in PR, before, right?
Sara: Yeah. I was interested in food. I think still there are so many options available to you if you don’t have a food background…You can either come up through dish‑washing when you’re 15 years old. Start in kitchens at a pizza place or whatever, and continue to work and line cook and stuff out through high school or college. Or you can come to it from culinary school.
Short of that, you really have to force your way in. That’s what I did because I didn’t have any kitchen background. The people who do have kitchen background don’t really respect those who don’t so you have to prove yourself on a different level and show your merits elsewhere.
I came to an internship, basically, that I petitioned for, and I met one of the owners here when he was out having a beer. I asked his girlfriend, now wife, first if she would introduce me, because I didn’t want to seem like a creep.
It was the smart thing to do, because she was like, “Yeah, of course, here you go, blah blah blah…She wants to intern,” and I did. He was drunk and forgot that I was even showing up and, when I did show up, he was like, “Oh, oh yeah, sure. OK, fine.” It was a really easy introduction and I really liked it.
Actually, before that, my boyfriend at the time bought me charcuterie classes. I was worried that I wouldn’t enjoy it and, looking back now, thinking that I would ever be scared of touching raw meat or concerned that I would freak out or whatever. It’s so weird to me now, to think that.
Nativen: Because it’s such a part of your everyday life.
Sara: It’s everyday, and also the disdain that you acquire after doing that everyday for people who don’t get it. There are still definitely things that gross me out about this job, but touching raw meat is not one of them anymore.
Nativen: That’s an important thing to overcome, if you’re going to be a butcher. [laughs] Step one, be OK with touching raw meat. Everything else from there, just lessons.
Sara: Yeah, it just falls into place.
Nativen: What do you love most about Brooklyn and how do you think that Brooklyn is integral to the work that you’re doing now?
Sara: Good question. I’ve only ever lived in Park Slope and Bed‑Stuy and Williamsburg. I haven’t really seen the breadth and depth of Brooklyn as a resident, but I have tried to visit a lot of different places here and I love it, it’s great.
I think, when I moved here, it was getting to that point where it was saturated, like the cool thing to do. People in my circle weren’t moving to New York and moving to Manhattan because it was so expensive. It was a very easy option for me to say, “Brooklyn, of course” and I haven’t really looked back. I’ve never lived in the city. I always wanted to live in the city, a little bit, just because it seems like a fun experience. It sounds like a trip, honestly. To walk out your door and be there. That’s just crazy to me. But the neighborhood‑iness of this area is great. Williamsburg is a tourist destination, but it’s also in pockets, very much like an, old, residential neighborhood. Meeting people who have lived here for 20, 30 years are very interesting individuals.
I feel like it’s something that I grew up with. I definitely grew up in a suburb where people had lived for generations, but their stories weren’t as interesting to me. Because it’s like, “Oh, you lived in Culver City for 40 years, and now your son lives here too. That’s nice.” The community here [in Brooklyn], I think, is a lot different.
Nativen: Sociologically, that’s really fascinating, because I guess I haven’t really thought about it exactly like that. I do think about the perspective of the residents, because it’s one of those things that you think about in the context of gentrification.
Some people really welcome gentrification from the standpoint of, “Oh, this means that beautiful and interesting things are coming to my neighborhood, or my property value that I own is going up, which is great,” or things like that.
It’s almost like being the eyes of someone who went from the Industrial Revolution to computers, or something like that. To live in a neighborhood where it was maybe impoverished or just super middle America, quiet. I mean middle America, in the sense of average income level kind of person or community, and then have it go to something like what the West Village is now, what Williamsburg is even becoming.
Sara: Totally. It’s also very difficult to take any stance on that as somebody who works here, for example. I don’t want to say we’re part of the problem, but we’re certainly not the solution. We’re selling very expensive stuff, and I think our price points…We’re very conscious of what they are and why they are what they are.
We’re selling meat that not everyone can afford, and we know that. I think everyone’s not totally comfortable with that maybe. We’re not selling foie gras, We’re selling grass‑fed beef. The reason it’s expensive is because the way it’s raised is very expensive. The farmers have to charge a certain amount to make any kind of profit. Even then, the profit margins for farmers are so small.
Nativen: I think it is really important to be part of that conversation too. I would love to be able to, in developing my product, charge it for nothing, something that everyone can afford, but you have to make sure that the people who are involved in it are getting compensated properly and things are being handled properly. I want to be supportive of that, and I’m sure you do too.
Sara: It’s weird to stand on one side of the fence and say, “Gentrification’s bad, and shame on [X business] for moving into this neighborhood. Or this rib eye costs $40?” It feels really weird to say this grocery store that we’re a part of is a place that some people shop daily, some people shop weekly. Some people come here when they’re like, ” I’m flush with cash and I want to get something nice. I want to buy an expensive carrot and these fancy sausages, or whatever.” We know that. While we do want to be profitable, we don’t want to rip anybody off. We always try to strike a balance.
Nativen: Just a couple of rapid‑fire questions. In Brooklyn, what’s your favorite restaurant?
Sara: Oh, good question. Damn. I don’t want to say anything dumb to make myself sound cool. I’m just trying to think… Can we come back to that?
Nativen: Sure. Do you have a favorite home goods store?
Sara: I love ABC Carpet, mostly because I like to go and play the “how much do you think this costs?” game, because you’re never right. It’s always three times as much as you think it’s going to be. It’s a beautiful space. I love the way it is put together. I don’t think I’ve ever purchased anything there but I love that it exists.
Nativen: It’s like a New York institution that also creates a window into a whole world. ABC does it so well because it’s an entire building…
Sara: Oh, it’s huge. It’s crazy.
Nativen: Favorite park or outdoor space?
Sara: I love Prospect Park. Lame answer, but…I used to live a block away from there and I felt very lucky to live so close. It’s just great and sprawling.
Nativen: Do you have a hidden gem in New York or Brooklyn?
Sara: I don’t think I have my finger on the pulse of anything that’s really special…There is a casino out in the Rockaway area, near JFK, that has a race track and it’s a big, weird, bizarre casino ‑‑ Resort World. But they have dim sum and I sometimes come there for dim sum.
Nativen: That’s a really good hidden gem outing. What do you think in Brooklyn is the greatest resource to your work?
Sara: I would say we have space here that you don’t in Manhattan. We can afford, as a business, to have more space to do more but we’re also easily accessible from Manhattan. People will come, get what they need and go back to where they live. We also have people who come in from Long Island to shop here, which is really nice.
As a small business it’s also very important that everyone likes each other and gets along, feels good around each other and is supportive of one another. That’s really big for us.
Nativen: Do you have a favorite type of meat to cut or butcher?
Sara: Yeah. I would say pigs are the easiest. Lambs are the most fun to teach people, because they’re like beef and pork but on a much smaller scale and you have all the same parts.
I think beef is the most fun just because it’s so big and it’s more complicated. You always feel cleaner doing it, I guess, for whatever reason. Lamb, you end up smelling like lamb. Pigs, it gets pig juice all over your hands. But beef, for some reason when you have beef blood and fat on your hands and on your apron, it doesn’t feel dirty. It feels accomplished, which is weird.
Nativen: That’s great. No, that’s an awesome sensation. I think it’s a good sign that you’re in the right field.
Sara: Yeah, completely.
Nativen: Absolutely. What part of the process brings you the most joy?
Sara: I think actually talking to customers. I love our customers. I love being able to introduce people to stuff and banter with them. Also, that social aspect is big for me. I really love being able to see the same people week after week or day after day.
I really like the tough customers who people avoid, because they’re demanding or they’re crazy or they ask a lot of questions or they’re rude. The ones are always my favorite.
I love the moment where the person who’s annoying or rude or brusque comes across to everybody as a little unapproachable, where you just find the right spot to push them and then you’re friends. It’s really fun.
There’s a guy who comes in, I think he’s German, and he is an art teacher. He comes in and he only wants like six slices of ham, or he only wants the bacon as long as it’s not fatty, which is anomalous because bacon is fatty. It comes from the belly. He rarely gets what he wants.
But he comes in and he’s like, “Oh, gosh. You don’t have this thing,” and he’s very sassy about it. I just started sassing him back, and he takes it so well. Now, we’re buds. Every time he comes in, he waits for me to wait on him because we get along. It’s great. It’s super fun and I think that’s the most satisfying part of my day is getting our customers what they want and talking to the people who enjoy coming here.
Nativen: Food is so personal, but to be able to connect with somebody on that I think is really beautiful. What part of the process do you think is the biggest struggle for you?
Sara: Just lifting things everyday ‑‑ day in, day out, for years. Eventually, you’re just exhausted. I think that was the most fun part originally for me, it was like, oh I get to be a badass and throw things on my shoulder. It definitely makes you stronger and it’s not difficult, but it’s still…
Nativen: Grueling and hard on your body. What’s one thing that you’ve always wanted to do but haven’t done yet?
Sara: Go to Africa. I have never been. I love traveling. I don’t get to travel enough. I got to go to Western Europe, like France England, and Spain, which was awesome.
But I haven’t been anywhere recently that has really challenged me or freaked me out, or anywhere that would give me any kind of culture shock. I think that that’s really important, and I haven’t done that in a very long time. I would like to do that.
Nativen: That’s awesome. If you weren’t a butcher, what do you think you would be?
Sara: A student, probably. [laughs] I would probably be in grad school, is my guess. Other than that, I don’t really know. I like structure. I like having clear hierarchies and clear protocols for things and all of that.
Nativen: I think that’s really valuable for your business and for you as an individual. That’s really cool. Clearly, you guys listen to music while you work, but is there a song in particular that you’re really into right now that you listen to a lot?
Sara: This is super embarrassing. Everyone here is listening to Taylor Swift. Everybody. It’s so embarrassing. One of the owners is super, super into Taylor Swift. We actually all hung out the other night and sat around debating whether or not one song was really bad or really good. It was pathetic. We’re all like 29 to 34.
Nativen: Taylor Swift fans.
Sara: Oh, god. It’s embarrassing. What else? The cool thing about that, though, is that everyone has a pretty diverse range of musical taste. We listen to weird 1960s underground folk music, bookended by Taylor Swift and Rihanna… I think when you’re working in a small space under fluorescent lighting doing manual labor, you need pop music. The other day someone put on “Sea Change” by Beck and…
Nativen: And it gets sad really quick even though it’s beautiful music.
Sara: Yeah, it was great. I love Beck too, but you can’t really get pumped to break down a beef shoulder to that.
Nativen: I like that. That’s a good quote…. What are three words that sum up your work?
Sara: Fun. Bloody. I don’t know… Raw.
Nativen: That’s good. I like it. Is there something that you do with your work to specifically connect with your community?
Sara: I always say yes to everything, so if someone asks me to come meet them to talk about either the shop or whatever, I say “Yes.” The Slow Food Alliance asked me a couple of years ago to go and break down a lamb for them and talk about our process with a chef from someplace in the West Village. I was like “Yes, absolutely.”
I don’t think any of us who do these kinds of things are really making any money on them, but it’s fun. I think it’s really important for the business name to get out there, for sure. But also, you get to meet really interesting people and you get to do really interesting stuff and you get to see the way that other people see the butcher shop.
I think all of us try to say yes to as much as we can, because we want to be a part of a larger food conversation. We want to be a part of the whole spectrum of meat production, whether that’s at a farm or a slaughterhouse. Brent and I went down to Virginia to a particular ham maker, because I hadn’t seen a country ham producer before. I was really excited about that, because that’s one thing that I’m just in love with and excited about.
Being able to talk to them about their production schedule and how they do it and what the message is for them, as far as their product and their place in the food world, was all super interesting.
I guess to be a part of the New York food community. We want to be a butcher shop that doesn’t have any ego, hopefully. I think it’s five years ago, when this place opened, it was like, “Ooh, rock‑star butchers. They’re so cool.” It was cool to be above it all, because you do this awesome artisanal craft that no one else does.
Now, there a ton of butcher shops that are doing the exact same thing, which is awesome. But it also means that you can’t really be standoffish. You have to embrace your part in the food world and what other people are doing.
Nativen: Absolutely, it’s great to be supportive about it and use that as an asset rather than a feeling of threat.
Sara: We try to work with restaurants on a very, very limited basis that are in the neighborhood. We don’t do delivery. We don’t technically do wholesale, but we do work with restaurants that we like, that we support and that we think are doing cool stuff where we can. We have Yuji Ramen. Are you familiar with this guy?
Nativen: I haven’t been there.
Sara: He opened a ramen place, it close. He is just a really awesome guy and he opened a Chinese spot called Okonomi, which is on Lorimer Street near the sandwich shop that we opened in March.
Nativen: To have a rapport with someone.
Sara: Yeah, exactly, and feel like we can talk to customers about him and about his stuff is and what he’s doing. I think it’s fun for people who live around here too, to say like, ” I go to this place and I can get my awesome sausages, but then I can go to this place and they’re using responsibly‑sourced bones for their ramen broth. I feel good about that.”
Nativen: What’s the most helpful advice you’ve received or what advice would you offer to creatives that are looking to develop their own thing?
Sara: Let’s see. I would say that having somebody, whether it’s your friends or the person you’re dating or whoever, being really supportive of whatever you’re doing. Not crucial by any means. You can do it on your own, absolutely. But I think having the people around you who love and support you is so helpful.
Here I’m working with a team of 10 people who are all doing the same kind of thing. We’re all working together towards the same goal of producing the stuff everyday.
But if you’re doing something on your own, if you are starting a clothing line or if you are writing a book or whatever, I think it’s really helpful to have a network of people outside of your experience of what you’re doing every single day who are…Maybe they don’t understand what you’re doing. Maybe they have no idea what your day is like. But they’re really excited for you to succeed and pull for you.
Nativen: You’ve got to have a support network… That’s a valuable piece of advice. Do you have a hero in this line of work?
Sara: Kari Underly, I think, would be. She’s awesome and her book is great. She is a part of the meat industry in a way that’s under the radar. I think the whole, “You’re a lady, you’re a butcher, you’re a lady butcher?” That thing is old, it’s tired. No one should care. I think most people don’t at this point. I think it is still difficult to be a woman and be in any business, in any line of work. Whether you’re a teacher or a nurse or whatever it is. Even if you’re in a role that’s traditionally female, it’s still hard.
Nativen: What are five objects you can’t live without?
Sara: Chapstick and good knives, obviously. I feel like that’s an easy one: right now, my phone, it sucks.
Nativen: It’s a mobile tool.
Sara: You have to have a laptop in your hand. You have to have a computer at your disposal. It is a frustrating reality. Yesterday I had half an hour to sit down at a computer and bang something out for this event last night, and that was the only time I actually got to sit and work at a desk. Otherwise, you’re standing in a corner on your phone.
So for sure my phone and I really can’t live without my good water bottle or cheese…
...I’m also going to say, for restaurants, Okonomi’s really stellar. Really, really good. I’m not saying that because we work with them. I’m saying that because they have a really weird range. They have a small Japanese set‑menu breakfast in the morning and then at night they have ramen. Their ramen is, they have some really weird stuff. They have one with Camembert and salmon on ramen, which sounds gnarly, and it was amazing.
Nativen: Because Camembert can do some really beautiful things.
Interview and Photos By: Lily Hetzler
Assistant Editor: Emily Murphy (This interview has been condensed & edited)
all images copywright of Nativen