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Getting Schooled by a Modern Meat Maven

It was 6:30 in the morning when I found myself double-parked outside of Standing’s Butchery on Melrose Avenue. The streets were empty. The city was still asleep. But we needed a sheep carcass, and Standing’s was one of the only butcher shops in LA that could hook us up.

“Any idea what Adam has planned with this today?” the storeowner asked as he loaded the sheep into a jumbo cooler.

“Meat workshop,” I replied, still unsure of what exactly that entailed.

“Nice,” he shot back. “You’ll have to tell him I said hey.”

A Meat Celebrity of Sorts

In the world of butchery, people know the name Adam Danforth.

He’s a best-selling author. He consults for big-name restaurants. He’s an ambassador and board member for organizations such as Chef’s Collaborative,Butcher’s Manifesto and the Good Meat Project. And of course, he conducts these workshops.

Any way you cut it, Adam Danforth is a badass butcher with a laundry list of credentials. To be perfectly honest though, when I arrived at the workshop venue with our meat in tow, he wasn’t exactly what I expected.

"It's always been a situation where I don't really embody the stereotype of a butcher. I often don’t look like what people think they look like. I don’t dress like one. I don’t talk like one."

Adam Danforth, as it turns out, is not the burly, bearded dude in a bloody apron we’ve come to expect when we think “butcher”

Slender, clean-shaven, and lacking visible tattoos, Danforth slashes the archetype that’s plagued meat culture for generations. But it’s not just Danforth’s appearance that sets his craft apart from most butchers.

“My workshops are formatted a little bit differently, because I try to teach the why rather than the how,” Danforth explained. “I work to change people’s perceptions of meat, looking to help them better understand how what they eat impacts them, the world around them, their memories, and their emotions.”

At that moment, I realized today was more than some barbecue photoshoot. This was Danforth’s passion – this was his life.

As he proceeded to trim away various muscles from the sheep carcass in preparation for the workshop ahead, I couldn’t help but stare completely mesmerized. It was violent, and precise, and undeniably awesome.

"I can teach people how to trim a certain way, but if they don't understand why cuts come from certain areas taste different than another muscle, they won't really have the underlying knowledge to have the versatility to create their own style of butchery."

Let the Schooling Begin

Adam’s workshop consisted of two parts. The first half was largely informational. He introduced and broke down a wealth of foundational knowledge that helped we common consumers better understand meat as a whole. We covered a ton of information, but here are 5 key takeaways that stood out to me:

  • #1 – Fiber, fat, and fascia (fah-shuh, the connective tissue) are the three materials that make up all meat.
  • #2 – Intramuscular fat, often referred to as “marbling”, tends to coat the mouth and block taste receptors. When this happens, it becomes difficult to taste the meat’s true flavor.
  • #3 – There’s an inverse relationship between tenderness and flavor. According to Danforth, just because it melts in your mouth doesn’t mean it’s delicious.
  • #4 – The more a muscle works, the more flavorful it is. That’s why cuts from an animal’s legs and abdomen are often so flavorful.
  • #5 – Flavors create memories through a phenomenon known as retronasal olfaction. Textures, on the other hand, merely play a supporting role.

Bonus Takeaway: Adam’s least favorite cut of meat is the all-popular tenderloin. When he mentioned this, the room collectively raised an eyebrow. But Adam was quick to explain.

“It’s the least working muscle in the body and it doesn’t offer you very much in the way of flavor or texture. It’s easily overcooked, so I often recommend to people, skip the tenderloin. Find something else.”

Fair Enough. Let’s Eat!

"I sort of bring it all together with a blind tasting for participants who are there, in which we do several rounds of two different cuts where people get to compare and contrast muscles that have different functions, different tastes, different experiences, different flavors."

While Adam continued to trim muscle from bone before an engaged audience, someone wheeled in a Evolution Infrared Plus 5-Burner Propane Gas Grill. My mouth was watering at this point. And good thing it was.

The second part of the workshop involved multiple rounds of blind taste tests. Adam would grill up two different muscles, cut up samples for everyone to try, then, with all our newfound knowledge on meat, we’d make our assessments as a group.

The first plate of samples made its way around to me, and using a couple of toothpicks, I speared two chunks of meat, one from the left side of plate labeled “A”, and the other from the right side of the plate, labeled “B”.

I then looked around to see if we were waiting for everyone to get their samples before eating. Turns out, we weren’t. So, I shrugged and popped sample A into my mouth.

My first thought was, this is an active muscle I’m eating right now. Because man, was it flavorful. It was a bit tougher than most cuts of meat I’d grill at home or order at a restaurant, but Adam’s logic certainly checked out. More flavorful = less tender. I took a sip of water then proceeded with sample B.

This one, again, was flavorful and slightly tough. Perhaps not quite as tasty as sample A, in my opinion, but that very well could’ve been because I was so hungry.

Once everyone had tried both samples, Adam asked us what we thought.

Someone from the audience said, “Delicious!”

“Kind of gamey!” another chimed in.

Adam was quick to jump in and explain how the word gamey wrongfully holds a negative connotation.

“All it really means is different from beef, pork, and chicken,” he said.

After a few more minutes of discussion, Adam revealed which muscles we’d just eaten.

adam danforth best tasting meat

Bingo. The round is located at the rear legs of the cow, which means it indeed is an active muscle.

I felt like I’d learned something.

Bringing What I Learned Back to the Nexgrill

adam danforth butcher butchering beef cuts

"What it all ends up coming down to for me is sharing these stories and really empowering people to respect the animals more, waste less, and create incredible memories around their experiences of eating."

There were a few more taste tests, we passed around the paddywhack (an elastic ligament found in the neck of most livestock), said our thank you’s, and then commenced clean-up.

Adam stuck around for a little while longer.

“This is essentially what I do at home for my family,” he told us.

He urged us to reach out to him if we had any questions, or even if we just wanted to keep in touch. We shook hands, and Adam was gone. It was 5:00pm and he was headed to LAX to catch a flight to his next workshop.

When someone asked what to do with the leftover meat, we decided, without much deliberation, to hand it off to the nearest restaurant that would put it to good use. Just trying to be as nose-to-tail as possible, as Adam would say.

As for me, I decided to swing back by Standing’s Butchery. Now the streets were bustling. I was wide awake, and as I sat at a stand-still on Melrose Avenue, I considered what I may pick out to grill that night.

I thought about how tasty the round was, how sub-primal cuts tend to be vastly underrated, and how Flat Iron steaks pack tons of flavor while still retaining plenty of tenderness.

I wanted to try it all. The popular cuts, the off-the-beaten-path cuts, the tender, the gamey, the raw, the tough. Learning more about our food sources and the process by which we prepare food had turned me on to a whole new world of responsible, respectful meat consumption.

When I finally arrived at Standing’s, I still hadn’t decided what to choose. I was certain of only one thing.

It sure as hell wasn’t going to be tenderloin.

shot of workshop audience

A huge thanks to Adam Danforth for coming out and showing us how it’s done.

And to Standing’s Butchery for being LA’s number one spot for ethically raised and sustainably sourced meat.

Let’s be friends!

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