Lydia Shire has been a force to be reckoned with in the Boston culinary scene since the 1970s, when she worked her way up to head chef at Maison Robert. Several decades and acclaimed restaurants later, she focuses on Scampo nowadays, an Italian restaurant in The Liberty Hotel. The award-winning chef and restaurateur comes from art roots, which she thinks is partly responsible for her skill and interest in butchering.
For The Five Days of Meat, here's Shire on butchering — and on a few meat-related things that drive her a bit crazy.
You've said that if you weren't a chef, you could be a butcher.
Not to be a boast or anything, but it's something that I'm pretty good at. Both my parents were artists, and I went to art school when I was young. I think those qualities help you when you butcher; you get a sense of how to cut, because you envision things. I have always liked it.
I've trained quite a few butchers — for instance, John Restrepo, who's been with me for 22 years now. He's a great butcher, and I taught him how to do that. And my husband, too [Uriel Pineda] — I taught him how to butcher, and he's a butcher right now at The Tip Tap Room. It's just something that I've always loved to do, and I do think it kind of has something to do with the fact that I came from artist parents. Some people are maybe clumsier and don't see what I would see. That's just my theory.
Do you have a favorite animal to butcher?
Nope, I love all meat and fish. I have an interesting, beautiful way to do chicken wings that was taught to me by a Japanese chef, and there's a ribeye steak that I do that's very interesting; most people don't think of doing it that way. I've developed certain stunning pieces over my life, and it's just something I love to do with all meat and fish.
Something funny happened to me once. I was working at Harvest, and this fisherman who was a friend of the owner brought this giant striped bass in one summer. I'm sure it weighed 30 pounds or something. I went to cut it, and at one point I reached into the stomach, and what was in the stomach was a baby fish, but not that baby — he had just swallowed a fish that was probably 10 inches long, and I thought to myself, "Oh my God, this fish is having a baby." And then it dawned on me, "You idiot, he just ate the fish...fish lay eggs. They don't have fetuses inside their stomachs." It sort of freaked me out, and I pulled my hand out and kind of screamed, but that was just a silly moment; it was funny at the time.
Do you remember the first animal you butchered?
Not really, but maybe it was something in the beef family — I loved steak, and I love knowing what to do with steak. For instance, one of the biggest no-nos that I see are when chefs take a skirt steak, and they cut off the fat that's on top of the skirt steak. That fat very readily melts when you sear the steak, and it creates a juicy skirt steak, so it kind of drives me crazy when I go into a supermarket or when I see chefs trim off that little bit. I just think to myself, "My God, what a waste." They haven't figured it out yet. Things kind of drive me crazy at times.
If someone's going to a supermarket and looking for good cuts of meat, what's something that supermarkets don't tend to ruin like that?
I would advise people first and foremost to look at the marbling, because if you see a piece of meat that's all red with no white lines, chances are it's going to be kind of tough. Fat is important. It's very important. I think that when you're cutting a sirloin, you should leave a little fat along the edge, and when you cook it, most of it will melt away, but some stays, and that's good.
Do you have a favorite under-appreciated cut of meat?
Well, skirt steak is one. I can tell you one that I don't like: I don't like tenderloin. I think tenderloin of beef is boring, and it really drives me crazy when chefs and restaurants serve tenderloin for beef carpaccio. I would never do that, because once you cut it so thin, it literally turns into mush in your mouth, so I always serve sirloin. I don't buy a prime sirloin because I don't think you need to, so I buy a top choice, and I sear one side — the fat side that has that gristle that runs down. We sear it in a very hot pan and then take it out, so nothing cooks; it's just that little edge gets that nice seared flavor because we put lots of pepper and salt. Then we put it in the freezer until it gets super chilled (not actually frozen), and then we slice it thinly on a slicer and lay it out on the plate. That little bit of black edge is so tasty, and the sirloin itself is such a great cut for carpaccio that once again I don't understand when people don't think that out.
Have you seen diners' meat preferences change over the years?
No...I love cooking in Boston because I think generally speaking, Bostonians are adventurous eaters, and they will have rabbit — we make little rabbit racks, which are so tiny, and we cook them very quickly, and Americans love it. Thank goodness I'm not living in Los Angeles, where I think the tastes are a little more plebeian at times. Of course I'm not making a general statement, but I'm just saying I think out there in California people get in a rut and just want their skinless, boneless chicken breast, which drives me crazy because once again, there's not much flavor there. I like cooking in Boston because all the times we change our menu and put on squab or rabbit or boar or whatever, people like it.
What meat dishes are you most excited about on your menu?
I think that Scampo could possibly have the best pork chop in the city of Boston. We buy our pork from Heritage Foods USA in Brooklyn, and they source their Berkshire pork from special farmers around the country. I have never seen quality like this. We leave all the fat on it. Our pork chops have a nice cap of fat running around the back, and of course we grill them, so there's time for the fat to melt. Then we cook them for literally 10 minutes in the oven, and when they come out and rest, it's absolutely the juiciest, most delicious pork I've ever tasted. I think good quality pork is just a marvel. The fact that now in America they're growing pigs that are bred for their tenderness and fat content and flavor is a bonus for Americans, so that's probably what I'm most proud of.
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