Cutting your own meat can cut costs, L.E.S. butcher says

By Kara Bloomgarden-Smoke

Jeffrey Ruhalter said there’s one, and only one, reason why he recently started offering classes on butchering.

“I am doing this because things suck right now,” Ruhalter said bluntly. “In 1929 people lost jobs and asked their butchers how to save money. Welcome to another crash. I show people how to save money. It is cheaper to buy a whole shoulder and cut it yourself.”

Ruhalter is the owner of Jeffrey’s Meat Market, a butcher shop that has been on the Lower East Side since 1929. He is hosting a series of butchering demonstrations on Saturdays that started on Feb. 28 and runs through March 21.

The first session was pig, followed by beef, lamb and fowl. Each class costs $75.

On March 7, about 15 people came to the Essex Street Market to watch Ruhalter demonstrate techniques to cut beef.

“There was a demand to show how meat can be more cost effective,” said Ruhalter’s business manager Danny McNeill. “Jeffrey was showing customers one by one, but that was not productive, so he decided to host classes. It is a like a show — Jeffrey loves to entertain and educate.”  

A fourth-generation butcher, Ruhalter began helping his father when he was 7 years old.

“I’m now 53, so you do the math,” said Ruhalter.  

“It is easy; really it is just a matter of doing it thousands of times,” he said of his trade.

At many points during the lesson, Ruhalter would line up the large hunks of beef to show how they connect.

“We are going to build a cow,” said Ruhalter. “All animals have the same pieces, just different sizes. Darwin was right.” 

“When meat is already prepackaged, you don’t know what it looks like coming off the cow,” observed class participant and regular customer Milton Meyer. 

Ruhalter began the class by sharpening his knives and covering basic cutting skills.

“Watch your left hand if you are a righty and your right if you are a lefty,” he stated. “You expect the meat to be solid and consistent, but it isn’t. There are sinew and air bubble pockets.” 

Ruhalter rents his knives rather than owning them, and says that fancy, expensive knives are not necessary. 

“I called Jeff to find out if he had silky chicken, and he told me about this class,” said Ben Brown, who has lived on the Lower East Side for five years. “The neighborhood has changed even since I have lived here,” he said. “I can no longer afford prime rib. But after taking this class, I am thinking of buying an entire shoulder and cutting it up myself.”  

Leah, Ruhalter’s 10-year-old assistant for the day, handed out copies of diagrams of the cow and cooking temperatures for different cuts. Her mother, a regular customer, was in the class, and Leah frequently helps out at the butcher shop.

Ruhalter offered basic definitions of commonly used terms. 

“Another name for dry aged is ‘let it sit there and rot,’ but nobody would buy it if it was called that,” said Ruhalter. Meat is aged by hanging it in a temperature-controlled room. “The bacteria sits and multiplies and creates a cauldron of flavor,” the butcher explained.

Ruhalter doesn’t trust the different grades of meat because he has been in the business too long.

“Never look at the grade of meat, look at the marbling,” he said. “More fat means it is more tender. Cheaper meat has less fat. If they can’t sell it as prime, they drop it to choice” 

Nowadays, said Ruhalter, he just throws away the fat. In the old days, the “fat man” would pick it up and pay as much as 15 cents a pound.  

To many of Ruhalter’s customers, a good butcher is harder to find than ever. 

“I read about the class in a newspaper and decided to come Downtown for it,” said Adam Singer. “There are no butchers left on the Upper West Side.”  

Singer asked if it is true that there are less butchers and why.

“Because who the hell wants to do this?” Ruhalter answered him. “You wake up at 4 in the morning to pick out meat at the meat markets and you don’t leave until 7, six days a week. It is a lot of physical labor, and it is dangerous. Last time I went to the hospital for stitches, the nurse told me to find another job! But I love it.”  

“I shop here twice a week,” said class participant Karen Konicki. “I mostly buy chicken and cheese. I’ve been living on the Lower East Side for 10 years — I used to shop at a fish and meat shop, but when that went out of business I came to the Essex Street Market. It was such a mess that I turned around and left. But I came back a few years later and they had really fixed it up. I have been coming here ever since.”  

The butcher shop has used the same band saw since the 1930s, and Ruhalter demonstrated how, as a child, he used to ball up the meat dust that is a byproduct of the saw and throw it like a spitball.

“You can make little meat balls out of it and toss them on the ceiling,” said Ruhalter, He tossed one at the wall to show how well they stick. “They will stay there forever.” 

An NBC crew was filming the session for a cable news show. Toward the end of the session, the film crew asked Ruhalter to provide sound bites.  

“As a vegan butcher, I am going to hell,” began Ruhalter. Someone in the class asked if he was really a vegan, to which Ruhalter responded, “Of course not.”  

In 1984 Ruhalter expanded his business to distribute to various settlement houses on the Lower East Side, as well as supplying restaurants. When a vendor didn’t get an order in time and came to him, the butcher was inspired to create a company called “Who F–ked Up the Order?” The company functions as a last resort for restaurants. “It is not quite as cheap as a wholesaler — about 10 cents more a pound. But I am here,” Ruhalter said. “I am the last game in town.”  

One time he got a phone call from somebody looking for 10 rabbits at the last minute, so he called up his “bunny guy” and had them at his counter within the hour.

“They were still warm,” said Ruhalter. “It turned out that they were for ‘The Martha Stewart Show.’ ”  

At the end of the class, Ruhalter gave out the various cuts he had demonstrated.

Ruhalter prides himself on being a neighborhood fixture, and knows many of the customers walking by his booth, as well as what cuts of meat they like.

“A butcher doesn’t just cut meat,” Ruhalter said. “He helps create experiences.”