In a world of convenience, where buying meat is often reduced to staring down a sea of plastic-wrapped foam trays, it’s refreshing to meet someone like Chef Karen Bell, who seeks to bring a personal touch – and the assurance of sustainably raised meat products -- back to the world of butchery.
Bell is the ownver of Bavette La Boucherie, the recently opened butcher shop and café at 330 E. Menomonee St. in the Third Ward.
After earning her culinary degree from Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC), Bell studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and then broke her culinary teeth in Chicago where she worked as head line cook at Vong Restaurant, and pastry cook at Charlie Trotter's. After working for three years at San Francisco's Farallon, she ventured to Madrid, Spain where she eventually opened the California-inspired restaurant, Memento. Upon returning to the Milwaukee area, Bell remade the menu at Café on the Plaza to include more local, seasonal dishes before venturing out on her own to open Bavette.
But, despite the end result, opening a butcher shop wasn’t necessarily Bell’s end goal. She knew she wanted to do something related to food, but she wasn’t exactly certain what it would be.
It wasn’t until an early summer visit to Publican Quality Meats, a traditional-but-contemporary butcher shop and restaurant in Chicago, that something clicked.
"That’s the moment when everything came together in my personal and professional life," she says. "And I knew what I wanted to do."
The name "Bavette" was just one on a list of names that Bell contemplated as she thought about what she’d call her new venture. The name refers to a cut of meat, similar to flank steak, which is commonly found in European butcher shops.
"I had a long list of names," Bell says. "I like names that don’t necessarily tell you exactly what it is, and leaves a bit up to the imagination. Bavette… I really liked the way it sounded. It’s very feminine sounding. It’s also a foodie word."
Despite the opinions of friends and family, the name stuck. And so did the butcher shop concept.
Bell staged at a couple of different butcher shops in Chicago including The Butcher and Larder. She spent a great deal of time reading and studying and practicing her techniques. She was also lucky enough to make the acquaintance of Bill Krauchmeier, a long-time butcher whose resume included work at Grasch’s, Groppi’s, and his own shop at the Milwaukee Public Market.
"It’s great to have Bill here because he has so much knowledge," Bell explains. "We were able to merge our recipes. He is more old school, and I’m more into fresh garlic and herbs. I anticipated hiring someone fresh out of culinary school, but this has worked out great. If it weren’t for him, I’d be here late at night butchering."
Bell says her inspiration for the boucherie came from her increasing interest in food politics, and her interest in assisting Milwaukeeans with reconnecting to their food.
"I saw lots of people shopping at the farmer’s market and being concerned with where their vegetables were coming from. But, there wasn’t a lot of talk about sustainably raised meat. So, I thought it would be a good way to connect people with farmers producing that sort of meat."
Her experiences in Spain had given Bell an intimate appreciation for charcuterie and cured meats and cheeses.
"Spain is really well known for its modern, molecular cuisine, but also really simply prepared quality products," she recalls. "They use the Iberico pig for the ham, but they eat the rest of it too. It’s some of the most delicious pork you’ll eat."
Bell was also inspired by the Spanish peoples’ connection to their food, as well as their practice of using the entire animal, with little going to waste. She cites the "matanza," an event during which area Spanish villages would gather together to butcher their pigs, and divide up the tasks of making sausages.
Her goal in opening Bavette was to bring a bit of that experience to Milwaukee. Bell carries a full complement of sustainably raised pork, beef, and lamb, as well as house-made sausages and seasonal offerings such as venison, game, or rabbit. In addition to popular cuts of meat, Bell says the shop will carry everything from cheeks, to oxtails, to marrow bones. And since her emphasis is on "nose to tail" butchery, Bell will offer numerous "off-cuts," from hearts, livers and kidneys to delicacies like pig ears and trotters.
Although she hopes to begin carrying poultry soon, she hasn’t yet found a reliable source for pastured chickens.
"Sourcing the poultry has been the most difficult thing. I can’t find anyone who will bring it to Milwaukee," she says. "I did find one farmer who said he would raise them just for us, but he’s actually moving out of the business because it’s more expensive to raise pasture raised poultry."
Bell says that controlling costs is a big factor, but that educating the consumer about why her prices are higher than what you’ll typically find at an area grocer is a big part of what she plans to do.
"People need to get used to the actual cost of foods. We’re so out of whack with all the subsidies, etc. I’m very open to having that conversation," she says. "The reality is, I might get the beef for $4 a pound, but with waste and labor, that drives up the cost."
Fortunately, data suggests that American consumers might already be getting the message.
According to a study conducted earlier this year by the Organic Trade Association more than 80 percent of more than 1,200 parents surveyed across the U.S. said they buy some organic products. And almost 90 percent of those parents are buying organic meat.
"There is a movement for consumers to choose meats that are produced without the use of antibiotics," said Association spokeswoman Barbara Haumann, whose group represents about 6,500 U.S. organic companies.
Bell says she hasn’t heard any complaints about her pricing so far, and she feels that there are a number of factors which will keep customers coming back.
Quality is number one. Meat procured from a butcher shop is typically far more fresh than meat purchased from a traditional grocery store. And Bavette will be no exception. Aside from the beef, which Bell ages for at least a week to enhance its flavor and texture, most meat is no more than a couple of days old.
Personalized service is also an aspect of the shop that sets Bavette apart.
"We want to have a relationship with our customers, to be able to give advice as well as a different experience. We can offer personalized attention and a vast pool of knowledge about the product."
For instance, Bell and her staff can advise regarding which cuts of meat are most appropriate for certain preparations, as well as trimming cuts of meat to a customer’s specifications. If the meat you think you want is not available or too expensive, Bell can also offer alternatives, allowing consumers to save money in the long run.
For those whose appetites stray beyond steak, or who are looking for multiple pieces of popular cuts, Bavette will also offer the advantage of special orders.
"If people are looking for specific cuts of meat, they should call ahead," Bell suggests. "Special orders take a week at most to arrive, and we can get just about anything someone is looking for."
In addition, Bavette promises something that very few larger grocers can provide: traceability of every meat product sold.
"I can tell you not only the farm where the meat came from, but also the specific animal," she explains.
And if you sit in the Bavette café over the lunch hour on a Thursday or Friday afternoon, you’ll be able to see what she means first-hand.
Prime quarters of beef and sides of hog parade through the café as they are being delivered. Meanwhile, cuts are broken down on a butcher block table in the midst of the shop, in full view for those sitting behind the café bar. Although the scenario might feel uncomfortable for some, it’s exactly what Bell is going for.
"I want things to be transparent," she says. "I want people to see what’s going on."
As in the butcher shops of old, she says it’s important that consumers have a birds’ eye view of the nature of her work. For, despite its graphic nature, it’s a piece of the picture that’s missing for so many people who take for granted that their meat comes neatly packaged behind a gloss of cellophane.
Although Bell says that she always wants the butchering to be the main focus, she is also invested in expanding the offerings at the butcher-side café, which is open during regular business hours.
Currently the focus is on soup and sandwiches.
"We want to keep things fresh and change it daily," Bell says. "We will be getting our liquor license in the next few weeks. My sister, Jessica Bell, will assist in picking out the wines. We’ll have two wines on tap and 12-15 wines by the bottle which can be purchased and consumed with a minimal corkage fee."
The café also plans to expand its offerings to include "patio appropriate" fare. Currently, Bavette carries a variety of Wisconsin made cheeses, as well as locally made charcuterie from Bolzano Artisan Meats and Underground, Smoking Goose out of Indianapolis, and Iberico ham imported from Spain.
"I’m either local or Spanish," Bell says with a smile. "It’s all about balance."
She anticipates expanding her charcuterie offerings with some house-made products, including a variety of terrines and pates, which patrons can enjoy with a cheese plate or a glass of wine. The hope is that guests will enjoy a seat on the patio in the throes of summer, sip their wine, and enjoy a bit of food.
"I’m making tallow and lard. Also house-cured bacon and lardo," she says. "I would also like to start producing more charcuterie, which will be sold at the shop and served at the cafe."
Bell also hopes to begin offering butchery demonstrations and classes, starting later on in the summer.
Bavette is open 10 a.m.-7 p.m. daily, noon-5 p.m. on Sundays, with future hours to be determined based on consumer demand.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.