Famous faces have long adorned the walls of New York restaurants, from the caricatures of world leaders at the Palm to the autographed glossies of pro athletes at the Pump. But when the chef Laurent Tourondel opened BLT Market in the Ritz Carlton at Central Park last fall, he decided to decorate the new space with snapshots of a guy cradling a duck; another one wielding a big slab of ribs; and a saintly looking woman sporting a wheel of cheese as if it were a halo.
These hitherto anonymous purveyors—butchers, farmers, fishmongers—are the new stars of a New York food scene consumed with carefully “sourced” ingredients. And they’re relishing their moment in the spotlight.
“It’s all models, parties, celebrity chefs,” drily said Rob Kaufelt, the longtime proprietor of Murray’s Cheese in Greenwich Village, the other day. The temperature- and moisture-controlled caves beneath his store on Bleecker Street are stocked with wheels of cheese bound for Le Bernadin, Bar Boulud, Bouley and Blue Hill—and that’s just the Bs. The shop also provides a pungent and complex Winnemere, washed in beer and wrapped in spruce bark, to Thomas Keller’s posh Per Se.
The previous evening Mr. Kaufelt, 61, who appears on Mr. Toroundel’s wall and gets a shout-out on the menu of the Lower East Side eatery Allen & Delancey, had attended a fund-raiser for Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama at the PaceWildenstein gallery in Chelsea. Composer Philip Glass and novelist Salman Rushdie were there, along with gastronomical grand pooh-bahs Mario Batali and Danny Meyer. “They’re all celebrities now,” Mr. Kaufelt said. “You can imagine how strange our culture has gotten if purveyors are celebrities.”
“You can’t turn crap into gold,” said Louis Rozzo, 45, fourth-generation president and CEO of F. Rozzo and Sons, over a plate of rock shrimp last week at Nobu Next Door in Tribeca, one of some 350 restaurants that order fresh seafood from his family’s 109-year-old company. “Chefs depend on their purveyors. Their reputations are on the line every day.”
Mr. Rozzo, also pictured at BLT Market, credited chef André Soltner of now-defunct Lutèce for being the first to publicly acknowledge suppliers, back in the 1970s—the last time Manhattan cuisine had an eco-conscious moment.
Eat My Meat
“My dad laughs at it sometimes,” said Pat La Frieda, 37, a third-generation Manhattan meat wholesaler whose forebears surely never expected to see the family name (both his father and grandfather were also named Pat La Frieda) synonymous with fancy $16 hamburgers. “Pat La Frieda’s special blend of short rib and brisket,” is how they’re heralded on the menu at City Hall restaurant in Tribeca, which doesn’t mention any other food supplier or preparer by name—not even the place’s chef and owner, Henry Meer.
Hats bearing the company’s logo and slogan, “Eat My Meat,” worn in kitchens across the city, were sold out at press time.
“We’re very behind-the-scenes type of people,” Mr. La Frieda said. “It’s strange for us to then read about ourselves. Why do they want to know about the meat? I mean, it’s sort of obvious. But to my dad, it’s like, ‘I don’t understand. It’s about the restaurant.’ Lately, though, it’s about the meat.”
The family, which also traffics in steaks and veal—moving some 250,000 pounds of meat a week, Mr. La Frieda said—has long prided itself on its chopped beef program, but only recently has it attained such a cult following.
“When the burger revolution began about five years ago, we were already there doing it,” he said. “My dad’s always put brisket in, my grandfather put brisket in.”
A variation of the family’s signature blend can be found at Danny Meyer’s burger mecca Shake Shack, whose exact recipe is a closely guarded secret. “We came up with the blend together, between his chefs and us,” Mr. La Frieda said. “We must have done 25 tastings before Shake Shack opened.”
Meat is ground fresh around 3 a.m. every morning, with careful attention to temperature. “We grind at a very low 29 degrees,” Mr. La Frieda said. “It keeps the meat flowing through the blades at a great speed so that it doesn’t overgrind, so you have a coarseness to the meat, and also enables the restaurants to cook medium-rare burgers, whereas a lot of burger places you’ll go to and order medium-rare, and it’ll come out gray inside. The temperature has a lot to do with that.”
Chefs are often “too generous” when Mr. La Frieda drops by to check on his meats in action, he said. “It’s embarrassing sometimes. You’ll ask for a bill. Sometimes they won’t even give you a menu. They’ll just send out one of everything. You’ll need like a wheelchair to get out.”
This Little Piggie …
“We carry our balls around in a wheelbarrow,” said Bev Eggleston. “I say that deliberately because it really describes our risk and our commitment and our beliefs in this whole thing.”
Mr. Eggleston, 42, is the folksy-spoken Che Guevara of pig farming—or, as he puts it, the Bruce Willis in the imaginary slapstick spoof Live Free Range or Die Hard Trying.
For him, the role of supplying only the finest free-range swine flesh to such high-end venues as Gramercy Tavern, Fiamma and reputed pork fiend David Chang’s various Momofuku restaurants is about more than mere haute cuisine—it’s about mounting a culinary insurrection.
“We’re entrenched in the clean food revolution,” Mr. Eggleston said in a recent phone interview. “I’m just a militia member.”
A decade-long vegetarian and self-described “contentious objector” to industrial meat production, the founder of Virginia’s Eco Friendly Farms raises pigs “in an environment that lets them be pigs”—that is, roaming a grassy pasture instead of leading a life of imprisonment in concrete pens.
It’s “a collective, kind of a spiritual shamanic endeavor,” said Mr. Eggleston, who espouses an “intentional vocabulary,” particularly when the time comes for each little piggie to meet his maker. “We harvest animals—we don’t slaughter them,” he said. “Their life was given up—and I’m not just taking that for granted. Matter of fact, I pull the knife 90 percent of the time. I’m willing to take that karma on.”
He compared the plight of pigs to that of slaves over two centuries ago. “This incarceration, this molestation is coming to an end,” he said.
But, in the meantime, so tasty!
“When you do the right thing with animals, they taste fucking great,” said Mr. Eggleston, who relies on his chefs to serve as the actual taste-testers. “Good meat comes from great ecology and great stewardship.”
“There’s much more complexity, there’s a very cool sweetness to the meat both in the smell of it and the flavor of it,” said chef Marco Canora, who serves up Mr. Eggleston’s pork shoulder-blade steaks at the East Village wine bar Terroir. (“There may not be any dish I’ve enjoyed more in recent months,” raved The Times’ Frank Bruni, who also name-checked Mr. Eggleston in his Terroir review this past June.)
Mr. Eggleston’s efforts at sustainable farming don’t end at the plate, either.
“We’re about two weeks away from our delivery vehicles runnin’ off pork fat,” he boldly predicted, explaining, “We take it back from the restaurant, process it, put it in our vehicle to go back to Manhattan and to also give some back to the farmers—they put it in their tractors and their trucks.
“Eventually,” he further prophesied, “our plant will be run on mini-turbines which will be biofuel. We think we can save about six or seven thousand dollars a month in fuel and electricity.”
The Truffle Tsar
“I’m like a drug dealer when it comes to these truffles,” said importer John Magazino, 38, as he prepared to head out for a round of deliveries on a recent Monday
“I’ve got a cooler bag, I’ve got my digital scale, I keep a little counterbalance weight in my pocket,” he said, adding, “I don’t use plastic baggies, though—it’s not good for the truffles.”
On any given Monday or Tuesday, the founder of Primizie Fine Foods will have up to $100,000 worth of the coveted fungus stashed under lock and key—“security cameras, the whole thing,” he said—in his funky-smelling Bronx warehouse.
Mr. Magazino has put about 94,000 miles on his Audi Quattro over the past two years, delivering the pricey items to high-end restaurants across Manhattan. “We go in, we do the transaction just like a drug deal,” he said. “Put the goods on the scale, everybody sniffs it a little bit.”
His clients have included such trendy eateries as the Waverly Inn, where the truffle-infused macaroni and cheese costs $55—a bargain, if you ask him: “During white truffle season, that’s a tremendous value, probably the lowest price for a dish with fresh truffles in Manhattan.”
He makes most of his deliveries at night. “It’s all about speed,” Mr. Magazino explained en route to Manhattan that evening, The Observer riding shotgun. “The truffles will lose about 10 percent of their weight in 24 hours because they’re about 90 percent water and they shrink rapidly.”
And that means shrinking returns. Musky-scented white truffles, in season from October through December, run between $250 and $2,500 per pound.
“In fact, when I put them on the scale before we left, it said 1.69,” Mr. Magazino pointed out. “When those came in this morning, they were 1.73. So, already, I’m down about $75.”
His present supply wasn’t his best, he conceded, predicting that some of the more discerning chefs along his route would likely balk at the size of them. Sure enough, his initial stop at Daniel proved fruitless; one chef liked the smell of Mr. Magazino’s truffles, another not so much. He figured they were probably looking for a bigger batch to use as showpieces.
Later, Mr. Magazino dropped by the home of an Upper East Side billionaire, whose identity the truffle dealer begged to keep under wraps; the billionaire’s personal chef would go on to cherry-pick the biggest of the bunch, nearly a pound, for a total price tag of $2,250.
Next stop: Le Cirque. Mr. Magazino worried that he might be stuck with the rapidly shrinking leftovers overnight.
“We’re going to walk in like we own the place,” he said, parking his car right on Beacon Court.
Grabbing his digital scale and box of truffles from the trunk, he proceeded into the restaurant and onward into the kitchen.
“That’s it?” executive chef Christophe Bellanca asked when examining the remaining 0.68 pounds of the noisome fungus. “For Friday, I need for 20 people.”
Mr. Magazino insisted the truffles were tough to come by that week. At which point one of Mr. Bellanca’s staffers brandished a take-home container full of them.
“Who’s got ’em?” Mr. Magazino asked.
The chef reluctantly named a rival dealer.
“Oh, those are Croatian,” said Mr. Magazino, who deals primarily in Italian truffles.
“Same price?” the dealer asked.
“Same shit,” the chef replied.
“He took ’em, thank God,” the relieved importer said later, after unloading the dregs for a cool $1,311. “I started worrying there at the end that he might change his mind.”