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August 2016 Update: Johnny Farrel is now the head butcher at Blue – Butcher & Meat Specialist.
In Hong Kong, where most of us are divorced from the origins of our food, Johnny Farrell is quietly ushering in a meat revolution at the helm of the city’s first proper English butchers’ shop, part of Butcher & Baker Cafe, on Cadogan Street in Kennedy Town. He tells us about why nose to tail is more than a hashtag, what he thinks about veganism and why his favourite every day cut is the picanha.
How did you become a butcher? Is this something you always wanted to do?
I grew up in a small village in the north of England and it wasn’t uncommon for me to come home from school and see my dad skinning some rabbits, or plucking a pheasant, so the concept of butchers and butchering was very much part of my upbringing. At an early age my mam would get me in the kitchen and make me cook with her, usually because I’d been in trouble and wasn’t allowed to play outside. That’s where I picked up most of my skills. I continued working in kitchens growing up, but I was more into music and went to uni to study that instead. Eventually I found myself in Beijing writing music and doing sound design for a games company. I met my now-fiancée there and she got asked to move to Shanghai so I dutifully followed. I couldn’t get any audio work there and ended up finding a job as a butcher. I thought to myself: why the hell not? I fell madly in love with the trade. I couldn’t get enough! Sadly, the boss was an absolute nightmare so I left after a few months. I was hooked and determined to stay on this path so I started going down to my local butchers to buy what I could and began teaching myself knife work and the different parts of each animal. Those locals were very fond of me, I was probably the only gweilo buying pigs heads off them!
Whilst in Shanghai, the missus and I set up Butcher Farrell. We offered up proper English snacks like pork scratchings for a couple of bars. Shanghai has an awesome foodie community; everyone supports each other. There was already an English fella making sausages (Bad Boy Bangers), a pie lass (Pie Society) and an English couple making chutneys and that (Amelia’s), so we took on snacks and charcuterie.
About a year ago, we moved to Hong Kong, and I spent my time doing private catering gigs and making bacon for friends. Last July, Wayne Parfitt (founder of Castelo Concepts) got in touch about Butcher & Baker Cafe. So here I am after a long journey, on top of my game heading up their butchers.
What’s your favorite piece/cut of beef? What’s your go-to for an every day dinner?
It changes a lot depending on what I get in at the butchers. Overall though, I’d have to say the picanha. It’s a Brazilian cut of meat that is incredibly versatile. You can roast it, fry it, bake it, BBQ it… It’s usually the first cut I suggest to my customers and I’ve got a load of them hooked on it. It’s tastier and leaner than a rib eye, not to mention it’s HKD100/kg cheaper!
Pork, lamb, beef- what’s your poison?
As with my favorite cuts, this changes depending on what I get in. A supplier brought me some French pigeons recently, and I couldn’t get enough of them. If I have to choose, I would say that pork is my all time fave. It’s a proper nice meat that you can eat all day, every day, and still be surprised by its many forms.
What’s your mission at Butcher Baker and Butcher Farrell?
For Butcher Farrell, I’d ultimately love to get my own range of sausages out in the shops. I love making them and feel so passionately about them. I recently made a beef sausage that’s bright purple (thanks to the addition of beetroot), has this strong sweet yet savory taste from hibiscus flowers, as well as a tang from sumac.
As for Baker & Butcher Cafe, my main mission is to make it more like the butchers I grew up around. I’m aiming to get a whole carcass of venison in, and when the season is back on, bring in some pheasant and other similar birds. Game is such an under-appreciated meat, not to mention that consuming game can help with sustainability issues in a small way. If you eat meat, spread the load and eat different kinds of meats! I also want to continue to grow our in-house charcuterie. We have been introducing our customers to things like head cheese (a terrine made from the meat of pigs), ox tail brawn (similar to head cheese but made with ox tail) and guanciale (Italian cured pork cheek/jowls), another classic butcher’s shop staple.
What are the most underrated cuts of meat? What are the most overrated?
It’s different depending on where you are. In Hong Kong, I’ve found that a lot of folk are so used to being forced to buy the few available options that most people here just ask for rib eyes, sirloins and tenderloins. While I wouldn’t necessarily say these cuts are overrated, there’s definitely more to the beast than just these. Actually, scratch that: tenderloin is definitely overrated. At Butcher & Baker, I bring in a great deal more options. One underrated steak is the triceps brachi, or shoulder heart. This bad boy sits right next to the flat iron (in my top 5) and is super lean but packs mean flavour, which makes it ideal for health-conscious gym goers.
Organic, grass-fed, hormone/antibiotic free? What do you make of all of it?
I’m a country lad that was brought up on local beef. There wasn’t organic this and grass-fed that, or 95% this with a 5% finish of that. It was just a cow, brought up in a field, eating what it wants, when it wants. But I understand that markets change and people go about rearing cattle differently in order to meet a load of forced requirements. At Butcher & Baker, our beef is Australian pasture-raised and finished off on locally-farmed grain. The animals even have their very own nutritionist, who makes sure they get their five a day or whatever the bovine equivalent is!
What’s your take on the local meat scene?
Having lived in mainland China for many years, I have definitely struggled to source decent meat. I used to wake up at 5am to go to the meat market just to make sure my pork was fresh, rather than go later on in the day after the meat had been sitting out in the heat for hours.
I’m pretty sure the local butchers have an idea in their heads of what they’re cutting, but to me its hack this and hack that. Before I started at Butcher & Baker, I used to buy my pork from this really sweet couple near the Sai Ying Pun MTR. The first few times I tried to show them how I wanted my meat and I learnt a couple of things such as: trying to take the cleaver out of another butcher’s hands whilst they’re in full swing might not end well! Me not being able to speak Cantonese is also a challenge; I can’t communicate to the best of my abilities.
I do get concerned with how the livestock is carted around here. Although I haven’t been to an abattoir here, I’m 99% pretty sure the animals go in there stressed and this really messes up the meat. You can have the most well-looked after and healthy animal around, but if the poor thing is stressed in its last few hours of life, then the meat will come out tough and blotchy.
Veganism as a lifestyle choice is gaining in popularity. As a butcher, what do you think about that? Can meat be part of an eco lifestyle?
I could go on for hours on this topic. Veganism is absolutely fine by me. It’s a lifestyle choice that suits certain people and not others. But I take umbrage with hardcore folk running into restaurants shouting “meat is murder.” Do what you want, it doesn’t bother me, but please leave me to eat my brawn sandwich, that I made using ox-tail and pig trotters, a part of the animal that has great nutritional value and taste, yet often gets wasted. I once had a late night debate with a vegan after a few drinks, during which he likened my profession to the holocaust whilst simultaneously killing a cockroach with his flip-flop. The irony wasn’t lost on me.
Vegans do have some points that us meat eaters should take note of. That being said, nose-to-tail eating is not just a fad. It’s not just an empty hashtag that people use on Instagram. It is a conscious meat eating philosophy that us butchers have been following for years to get the most out of what we have, utilizing the whole animal and not wasting parts. I don’t waste anything at the butchers. The bones get used for stock, skin for pork scratchings, I’ll make bacon from the middle and hams from the entire leg that the cafe uses in any number of dishes.
If you’re craving a burger don’t go to a crappy fast food place where each burger will contain over 100 cows, go to a place where they are open about the meat they use. If you’re unsure ask the staff. If they’re cagey about it, then chances are they buy cheap sh*t.
What do you see as the future of butchery? How has the industry changed in recent years?
When I was growing up, I went to the local butchers regularly. It was the sort of place where I would have to stand around in a freezing room whilst my dad would engage in the obligatory chat about the weather and how busy the motorways had become as we waited whilst the meat was being prepared. During the waiting, we would also learn about the animal we would be eating later that day.
If I could shape the future of butchery, I would tear the customers away from the faceless supermarkets and bring them back into our butcher’s fridges, where we can re-educate them about different cuts, cooking techniques, seasonality, not to mention some lively chats about how difficult it has become to get a taxi in this city! I’m not naïve, I understand there are far too many mouths to feed for every person on the planet to consume free-roaming Scottish highland Aberdeen angus meat. But a little re-education goes a long way.
All images courtesy of Johnny Farrell.