PAT LAFRIEDA, BUTCHER TO THE STARS, BRINGS BUSINESS TO NEW JERSEY
By Elisa Ung
July 17, 2011
You may have seen the names on menus: Valley Shepherd cheeses, Garden State Stout and Pat LaFrieda meats. What makes these sources so sought after by the area’s best chefs? We wanted to find out. This summer, Corner Table highlights some of the big names in locally produced food and beverages, visiting where they’re made and getting to know the people who make them.
He’s the guy behind some of the country’s most acclaimed steaks and burgers, a butcher held in such high regard by so many top chefs that he’ll have his own reality TV show.
But New York’s most famous meat man, Pat LaFrieda III, cringes at the term “celebrity butcher.”
“Whenever anyone says that to me, I tell them, come here at night; you work with us, and you tell me how glamorous this is,” LaFrieda says, watching dozens of workers cut, grind and package raw meat in a 29-degree room. “When they come and they have to do it all night long in the cold and stand at these tables with these men …”
Point taken. And anyway, New York’s most famous meat man is also a New Jersey guy now.
A Ridgefield resident since 1999, LaFrieda packed up his third-generation Manhattan butcher wholesale company in the spring of 2010 and moved to a custom 35,000-square-foot building in North Bergen near the Lincoln Tunnel — “the best thing we’ve ever done.” The $7 million expansion quickly doubled the company’s business, putting meat that was mostly confined to well-known kitchens (from Shake Shack to Mario Batali’s spots) into more retail stores and a growing number of New Jersey restaurants.
His customers say there’s a reason for all the hype. “I tried a bunch of others, and he was the best,” said Rick Ross, the owner of Bucu in Paramus, which uses a custom, coarse-ground, loosely packed LaFrieda blend of brisket, short ribs and chuck for its burgers. “We were looking for something with some depth to it … Many, many people have commented on it, not even knowing who Pat LaFrieda is.”
What is now Pat LaFrieda Wholesale Meat Purveyors was started in the 1920s by LaFrieda’s grandfather — the first Pat LaFrieda — and his brothers, who had a retail shop and then a wholesale company.
The first Pat LaFrieda was known for his ground beef; it was always made from whole muscle, domestically raised; grain-finished; and a grind of a full chuck, the beef shoulder clod, and a whole brisket.
The company still sells that original blend, the meat raised and ground the same way. But LaFrieda has become known for the beef blends he’s tailor-made for restaurants. Among the first was Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack, which wanted something original; its brisket-heavy version of the original LaFrieda blend became so popular that soon other restaurants were asking for it.
The company responded by offering each chef his or her own exclusive blend — about 50 restaurants now have one, the numbers and percentages top secret and proprietary. When New York chef April Bloomfield wanted a robust beefy patty that could stand up to stinky Roquefort cheese at The Spotted Pig, LaFrieda responded by amping up the short ribs in her blend. His most notorious creation: the $26 “black label” burger at Minetta Tavern in Greenwich Village, which includes prime dry-aged meat.
Zeki Yesilyurt, the managing partner of Burger Deluxe in Wayne, which serves a custom LaFrieda blend of antibiotic-free chuck, sirloin and brisket, says the blend is key to giving Burger Deluxe’s 8-ounce burger a complex flavor and juiciness. “This is one of the few items that’s been on the menu since Day One,” Yesilyurt said. “We never changed it.”
The other LaFrieda signature is dry-aged steak. In a corner of the building, about 4,000 New York strip steaks, porterhouses, rib-eyes, prime ribs and even some lamb loins sit for weeks in a 35-degree room with fans running, keeping the air dry, so that moisture disappears from the muscle and the flavor concentrates.
Where are the steaks going? LaFrieda starts pointing: “Minetta Tavern, Zylo here in Hoboken — Zylo uses a ton of dry-aged meat. On this side you’re talking about Porterhouse New York, BLT Steak, BLT Prime … These are mostly for Manzo and Del Posto, Mario Batali’s restaurants.”
The company keeps benchmark standards for all of its meat. It is all humanely raised; “If the animals are not stressed, it’s a completely different product,” LaFrieda said.
Much of it is sourced from family farms. Except for organic beef from Uruguay that was requested by Fresh Direct, the vast majority is domestically raised.
His beef contains no growth hormones, and is grass-fed for at least 85 percent of its life. About 25 percent of the meat he sells is all-natural and antibiotic-free, another 2 percent is certified organic.
And just as in his grandfather’s day, all ground meat is still made from whole muscle — trimmings are banned.
LaFrieda keeps grueling hours, often starting in early afternoon and leaving at 7 a.m. the next morning; the company is primarily run by him; his cousin and partner, Mark Pastore; and his 65-year-old father, Pat LaFrieda II, who comes in around 3:30 a.m. each day.
The three were taped for a year by Zero Point Zero Productions (which also produces Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations”) for a reality series called “The Meat Men,” LaFrieda says. He expects to hear soon what network will air it.
Still, LaFrieda rejects the notion that butchers are the next celebrity chefs.
It’s more of a way of life, he says, of working long hours through the night doing messy, strenuous physical work in extreme temperatures. “This is something my great-grandfather brought from Naples, Italy,” LaFrieda says. “All of his five sons were retail butchers at some point. My father then took over from them, and I took over from my father.
“It’s more of a culture than, ‘Oh yeah, I didn’t know what to do with my life, so I went to cooking school and became a celebrity chef.’ I don’t think anyone could have more street credit than four generations of cutting meat.”
Town: Lives in Ridgefield, “such a peaceful area. The people who live here are really nice people, and the police force is really present. It’s a safe feeling.”
Family: Wife, Jennifer; son Patrick IV, 6; daughter Giuliana, 10 months.
On how he wound up joining the company business: “I don’t think my father wanted me to do this — he sent me off to college (Albright College in Pennsylvania) to do something else. I was a retail stockbroker. I worked on Wall Street for a year; I hated it. All I wanted to do was come back and do what made sense to me.”
On moving to North Bergen: “It was so close to the Lincoln Tunnel, it was a blessing.” In Manhattan, “they didn’t want tractor-trailers. They gave us parking tickets everywhere we went, sometimes $1,800 in one day. Over here, the police pass by and wave. To me, that’s embracing business.” He hopes to eventually expand farther down Tonnelle Avenue, possibly buying and demolishing a nearby motel.
On why more New Jersey restaurants don’t use his meat: “New Jersey restaurants are very price-conscious, and they’re not really worried as much about quality. That’s the problem in New Jersey; you don’t have the niche market … I think the food revolution is hitting New Jersey, it’s just hitting a little later.”
On 100 percent grass-fed beef, which makes up about 5 percent of his business: “I don’t particularly like the flavor profile in it … To me, it’s a little bitter-tasting.” He says all of his beef is initially grass-fed. “Then they decide how to add some intramuscular fat and weight, and the only way to do that is with all-natural grains in a humane way,” often including cracked corn. “Grain-finishing, to me, there’s nothing better.”
On his secret favorite beef cut: The intracostal meat around the rib bone, which butchers remove in a process called “frenching,” so that the bone sticks out from the steak. “That’s the best part! Chefs like (frenching) for plate presentation. (But) I want to eat that meat off the bone. Sometimes I go home with the intercostal meat from lamb and beef and I just barbecue that, and you don’t even need seasoning.”
Find it here
Where to purchase LaFrieda meat:
- Eataly, Manhattan
- Vero Farms, River Vale
- Freshdirect.com (available only in some North Jersey towns)
Some North Jersey restaurants that serve LaFrieda meat:
Bergen County: Andiamo, Haworth; Bucu, Paramus; Houston’s, Hackensack;Napa Valley Grille, Paramus; Rosa Mexicano, Hackensack
Passaic County: Burger Deluxe, Wayne; Tick Tock Diner, Clifton
Essex County: Costanera, Montclair; Lu Nello, Cedar Grove; Tops Diner, East Newark
Hudson County: Cityside Bistro, Jersey City; Dorrian’s, Jersey City; GP’s, Guttenberg; Hamilton Inn, Jersey City; Park & Sixth, Jersey City; Taco Truck, Hoboken; White Star, Jersey City; Zylo, Hoboken.