'Smokehouse Handbook': The Roving Butcher found his calling between Brooklyn and the Berkshires

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About the time home-brew pickles, bean-to-bar chocolates, locally-sourced granola and small-batch anything became the norm in Brooklyn, N.Y., Jake Levin was calling the borough home. But, the man, now known as The Roving Butcher, wasn't involved in the burgeoning craft food scene.

"I had moved to New York with the idea of living in the art world. It was my first time living on my own. I had moved there after graduating [from Wesleyan University with a bachelor's degree in studio arts and art history] in 2006," he said during a recent interview.

But he would soon find himself "disenchanted" with working in the art world and began seeking alternatives.

"It was poisoning my love for art," he said. He began applying to graduate schools and exploring a shift to the food world.

"The current food movement there was just starting to take off," Levin said. "I knew right away that I didn't want to be a chef. I don't have the right temperament. I'm not a night person. The intensity of the environment doesn't suit me. I knew I loved retail and that I loved working with my hands."

At the time, a new nose-to-tail butcher shop, Marlow and Daughters (part of the food empire built by Andrew Tarlow and Mark Firth), had just opened down the block from his apartment. He found himself drawn to the shop, almost daily, even when he wasn't in the market for meat. He took a few workshops there and learned from the head butcher that the place to apprentice was Fleischer's Grass Fed and Organic Meats in Kingston, N.Y. When he finally chose to attend the M.F.A. program at Bard College, he did so knowing that Fleischer's was close by and the program's nontraditional schedule would allow time for an apprenticeship. After completing his first summer session at Bard, he entered an apprenticeship at Fleischer's, with no expectations.

"I immediately loved it. I was suited for it. I never really looked back," he said. (He did go on to earn his master's of fine arts in sculpture.)

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In 2012, after a stint at Eli's Manhattan, Levin returned to the Berkshires, with his wife Silka Ganzman, to work as the head butcher and shop manager at The Meat Market in Great Barrington.

His culinary journey, he said, is rooted in New Marlborough, where he and his brothers spent summers at the farm next door, riding cows and playing with pigs. In the fall, the animals would be harvested and in the winter, they would be eaten. It's where he grew up with a family that loves food and where his professional culinary journey kicked into high gear.

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After The Meat Market, Levin joined the Berkshire Food Co-op as its produce manager and later, as manager of the meat, seafood and cheese department.

"It was a great job to do, but I knew that I would miss working with meat. I started the Roving Butcher, as a way to assist farmers by going to their farms and assisting them with the slaughter and breaking down of their livestock," he said. "At first, I went all over in the Berkshires, Pioneer Valley, in to Vermont and Connecticut and New York, helping, mostly homesteaders, who were curious about learning and understanding the process. I began teaching workshops at the Northeast Organic Farming Association and at the Livestock Institute of Southern New England."

When not teaching workshops on animal butchery, Levin continues to work in the field, including Jacuterie, in Ancramdale, N.Y., where he managed the production of sausage, bacon and dry cured meats. Currently, he serves as the lead butcher at Hudson Valley Charcuterie/Raven and Boar Farm in East Chatham, N.Y., and sits on the board of directors of Berkshire Grown and the Berkshire Food Co-Op. In April, his book, "Smokehouse Handbook," was published by Storey Publishing.

He'll demonstrate smoking and curing methods and speak about the importance of buying local, pasture-raised meat during the next installment of Hancock Shaker Village's Food for Thought series at 6 p.m. Saturday. Before the butcher and charcuterie expert speaks at Hancock Shaker, he answered a few of our questions. His answers have been edited for clarity and length.

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Q. Why are so many people intimidated by the practice of smoking meat?

A. There are a lot of reasons, but in this age, there's a sort of disconnect between people and cooking techniques. Just two generations ago, smoking meat was a common practice. It didn't take long for the disconnect to take place. Smoking meat is alchemical and mysterious; smoke can be a little scary and the temperatures need to be controlled. With the industrialization of meat, people only know a few cuts of meat and a lot of people don't understand what it means to braise pork.

And a lot of people are afraid to fail. Failure is really important and that's something I wrote about in my book, how often I failed smoking meat and when my brother and I were designing and building my smokehouse. I understand that people don't want to waste a $50 brisket, but you can start by smoking a duck breast, pork chop or filet of salmon. You can fail, and at the most, waste $15. I started with a stove-top smoker. You can start small and do it in a short-time period without buying anything new.

Q. Why is it important to buy local, pasture-raised meat?

A. It's better for the environment. It's better for your body. It has a better taste. It supports the local economy.

The best way to explain is with my own example. My family is very fortunate. We live on a sort of family compound ... three families on 30 acres. A lot of the land is pastured. Growing up, we had it hayed. When my wife Silka and I moved to the Berkshires, our friends Sean Stanton and Tess Diamond, of North Plain Farm, started pasturing their cows on our family land. It's amazing to see the way the field has changed in the last five years. It's no longer covered in multiflora rose [an invasive species]. The grass is greener. Fossil fuels are not being used to manage it. And, instead of eating beef brought in from Texas, Brazil or Argentina, this beef barely leaves the county. It's brought over to Eagle Bridge, N.Y., where its slaughtered and broken down. Then it comes back here and we eat.


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