Small Bites: Women invade the butcher shop and I was a Top Chef: The Tour judge

by Terry B on May 25, 2011

L.A.’s woman-owned Lindy & Grundy butcher shop is just the latest example of women breaking into this macho field. And yes, I was a guest judge when Top Chef: The Tour breezed through Chicago.

For some time now, butchers have been sharing the food rock star status first bestowed upon chefs and later on farmers. When one of our favorite chefs, Rob Levitt, hung up his toque (which in his case was a Yankees cap) to open his own butcher shop, The Butcher & Larder, the local press proclaimed that Chicago finally had a rock star butcher of its own. (And truth be told, Rob still wears the Yankees cap.)

Increasingly, though, women have been invading this former boys club, turning up in butchery classes and behind the counters of butcher shops from Brooklyn to San Francisco. Amelia Posada and Erika Nakamura have taken the trend a step further, opening their own shop.

Lindy & Grundy (Posada’s and Nakamura’s nicknames) just opened last month in Los Angeles and is already a huge hit. As with the whole new breed of butchers and butcher shops, the focus here is on local and sustainable. Posada and Nakamura buy only pasture-raised animals from ranchers and farmers within 150 miles of L.A. And they take a nose to tail approach, letting nothing go to waste. You can read more about these former vegetarians-turned-butchers on the USA Character Approved Blog.

I’ll be the judge of that—Top Chef: The Tour comes to Chicago

Top Chef has always hit me as a kind of culinary high-wire act. Throw strange ingredients and extreme challenges at chefs, roll cameras and yell, “Action!” Sometimes the chefs perform amazing feats of derring-do; other times they come crashing down, always without a safety net. Bravo TV’s Top Chef: The Tour is the barnstorming version of that, a traveling roadshow with makeshift kitchens, mystery ingredients and happy live audiences.

Top Chef: The Tour 2011 rolled through Chicago a couple of weeks ago, and I was invited to be a guest judge. My fellow judges were Ted Grady, co-owner of J & L Catering, and Dale Levitski, runner-up on Top Chef season 3 and executive chef at the popular, inventive Sprout. Heady company indeed.

And so it was on a beautiful day in Chicago’s Millennium Park that Top Chef season 8 contestants Antonia Lofaso and Michael Isabella faced off under a tent with shrimp, their choice of 10 other ingredients, one secret ingredient of their choosing and exactly 15 minutes to impress the three of us.

And impress us they did. Antonia chose Wonder Bread as her secret ingredient(!) and made fried shrimp toasts topped with crunchy sesame seeds and Sriracha mayonnaise. Michael prepared a grilled shrimp served over polenta grits and topped with a fresh citrus salad, digging deeper into the ten-ingredient list and adding red onion as his secret ingredient.

Also impressive was the experience itself. While Antonia and Michael cooked for the judges (keeping up a playful braggadocio banter as they did), behind-the-scenes sous chefs prepared the same dishes for the audience to try.

So who won? Michael’s citrus-tinged polenta grits were wonderfully unexpected, almost like a warm sorbet. But the simple, layered flavors of Antonia’s that allowed the shrimp to shine through, followed by the Sriracha’s heat made her the unanimous choice, for our session anyway. The two did four sessions in all that day and tied.

Top Chef: The Tour is visiting 21 cities in all, wrapping up June 21 in San Jose, California. To see if they’re heading your way, visit the Bravo TV tour website.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

randi May 25, 2011 at 2:38 pm

Great article!
We haven’t had a butchershop in our area for almost 20 years since he retired. They’ve started popping up in the last 3 years or so and I’m so happy. They too use humanely treated, pasture raised and sometime organic livestock. Homemade sausages from them don;t even come close to grocery store fare. It is slightly more expensive but you get what you pay for. I’ve only ever known one woman butcher who worked at out local IGA but she’s long gone.

Terry B May 25, 2011 at 3:40 pm

Thanks, Randi! Yes, the cost can be an issue sometimes, but you also have to consider the cost of cheap meats on the animals, the farmers and the environment. And if you want to save money, nose-to-tail butchers often offer more unusual cuts that you wouldn’t even find in the supermarket at lower costs. Not only do you save money, but you get to explore new cuts. At The Butcher & Larder, we recently bought a couple of filets of beef heart; I quickly pan seared them in butter and oil and deglazed the pan with red wine. It was wonderfully meaty and like the leanest steak you could imagine.

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