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The Magician of Meat

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At LaFrieda headquarters on Leroy Street: a custom hamburger blend for 5 Napkin Burger.  

Composing the perfect blend involves a complex back-and-forth between Pat LaFrieda and a restaurant that can take a few months. To come up with the Shake Shack burger, for instance, Pat created nearly twenty different combinations of meat. “Every chef is a little crazy, but I’d say April Bloomfield may be the most demanding we work with,” recalled Pat, who has moonlighted as an informal adviser to Martha Stewart and Rachael Ray. “Like with the Spotted Pig? We must’ve come up with 25 different blends before she chose one. Twenty-five! First she wants more short rib, then less, then more. And now with the Breslin, we went through the same thing with her lamb burger.”

Pat was always drawn to the family business, helping out from the time he was in elementary school. But as he matured, Pat was pushed by his father to do something with less idiosyncratic hours. So he majored in business and spent a year trading stocks at a Wall Street brokerage that was busted as a chop shop. “Have you seen the movie Boiler Room?” Pat said. “It was basically that.” While waiting for another finance job to open up, Pat started helping his father and soon decided to stay: “I went from trading stocks in a suit to wearing jeans and a fleece and driving a delivery van.” It was a tough time for the business; the company’s co-founder, Pat’s grandfather, had recently died, and profits were declining. “My dad was all alone,” Pat told me. “I was the young, fresh blood. I told my father, ‘We’re going to build this up again.’ ” At the time, Pat and his father were the only butchers, his aunt handled the orders, and the business served under a hundred restaurants in the city; today the company has over a hundred employees and handles over 600 local accounts, as well as shipping to about a hundred restaurants along the East Coast. To accommodate the growth, the company is currently in the process of building a 36,000-square-foot facility in North Bergen, New Jersey, just across the Hudson.

Peter Luger has “no loyalty. They’re rainy-day customers. We don’t work that way.”

Despite such rapid expansion, Pat LaFrieda owes much of its success to having fundamentally remained the sort of quirky, homespun operation that is increasingly endangered in New York City. “See these machines?” Pat told me, pointing out the two grinding machines used to make hamburger meat. It was almost three in the morning, and the place was bustling: meat being cut, meat being boxed, the phones ringing nonstop with restaurants placing orders. “At any given time, these can grind a maximum of 300 pounds,” Pat said. “That’s tiny compared to what you’d see at a bigger plant. Go to a larger place, and you’d be staring at something built to handle a thousand pounds.” Using smaller machines means more work for Pat and his crew: The meat grinders must be emptied and cleaned between each batch of custom blends. “Is it time consuming? Sure it is,” Pat said, as he showed me the multiple steps involved in each batch of ground beef: slicing the muscles into strips with a band saw, then grinding them with one machine with a 3/16-inch blade, followed by a second machine with a 1/8-inch blade. “But if we used larger ones, we’d only be able to churn out one type of ground meat. There’d be no way we could do what we do.”

It would be a challenge to exaggerate the obsessive nature of Pat’s relationship with every piece of meat he delivers to a restaurant. Recently, he told me, he was at a wedding in New Jersey when a text from Riad Nasr, Minetta’s co-chef, lit up his phone: The restaurant was running low on strip steak and marrow bones. Pat makes it a rule to personally handle all the top-quality product, and so, to the familiar chagrin of his wife, he left the ceremony, drove into the city, and spent the night cutting meat in his tuxedo. “It sounds insane, but, believe me, I’m the only guy who really gets what the chefs want,” Pat told me as we made our way into the dry-aging room, a dark, musty quarters where the shelves are stocked with pungent dried rib eyes and strip steaks. An order from Minetta had just come in—it needed more steaks and ten pounds of the Black Label blend. After carefully surveying the selection, Pat hooked a piece of meat he knew would be met with approval by Nasr. (When he’s especially fond of a selection, he’ll snap a cell-phone photo of his choices and text it to the chef.) After Pat broke the meat down into steaks and trimmed off some of the fat, he began putting together the components of the Black Label blend, at which point I learned just how seriously he watches over his creations. His first step was weighing a piece of—


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