It’s when he’s addressing the subject of why, exactly, he chooses to pack his prosciutto in a mixture of salt and sodium nitrate that Morgan Maki starts to show his true colors. The explanation takes over 10 minutes and does two things: (1) it reveals on a molecular level how the nitrate turns to nitrite and bonds with the iron in the pig’s hemoglobin in order to prevent oxidation and preserve color, among other things, and (2) it impresses upon me that, lest there be any doubt, here is a man who knows his shit.
Morgan Maki is a butcher and charcutier of Bi-Rite Market. He populates his counter with freshly cut, farm-sourced meats and delicious salamis, bacons, patés, terrines, and more that are prepared in-house. But as Morgan’s voluminous knowledge implies, this is no mere job; it is his calling. Born in New Orleans, raised in Missouri, schooled in Vermont, mentored in Montana, and now having come into his own in San Francisco, Morgan was working with food even before he decided to forgo college for a gig in a kitchen.
Perhaps this same, limitless enthusiasm for his work, which at times blossoms into full-throated, protein-based zealotry, convinced Morgan to let me tag along with him on a typical Thursday. That, or maybe he knew I’d be happy to shoulder the weight of a day’s scut work.
It’s 10 a.m. and here I am at Bi-Rite. Morgan is already ensconced in his corner of the kitchen, which features two gleaming work surfaces, numerous sharp implements, and the cool functionality of an abattoir. After being introduced around the kitchen as “the writer,” to the great enjoyment of all, I am kitted out in my very own Bi-Rite apron and pin-striped shirt.
Morgan puts me right to work. I chop up a great knuckle (leg) and clod (shoulder) of beef and feed the chunks into an electric device that whirs with murderous intent. Morgan tips his head toward the diabolical machine, smiling. “That’s the hardest working meat grinder in San Francisco.”
When big pieces of meat are fed into a grinder like this, they slide into the blades with an obscene, sucking flutter and then emerge moments later as tiny shreds. Morgan effortlessly demonstrates the preferred style of presentation for ground beef, an appealing undulation he’s dubbed “the meatwave.” My first few attempts fall well short, resulting in something much closer to “meatwad.” Luckily, I have time to practice as Morgan receives a delivery and discovers that the price per pound of beef has been raised without notice. “Which means they get a phone call,” he mutters, heading back toward the meat locker.
Despite watching far too much of the Food Network during senior year of
college, my actual experience in a professional kitchen is functionally
zilch. So I am delighted to stay mum in my corner, listening as the
constant chatter about food mixes with a never-ending, bilingual game
of the Dozens, played with great relish by the tight-knit staff. Morgan
particularly revels in his banter with Sergio, the charmingly insolent
sous chef who can curse in two languages simultaneously. As we drop our
meat-covered tools in the sink next to Sergio, Morgan reveals his
friend’s Achilles’ heel: silence. “Just ignore the sarcastic comments
and he’ll get so pissed,” he confides. We do and sure enough, Sergio
appears near our station moments later, fuming and spewing filth.
I finish with the beef and move on to grinding pork, mixing in spice kits heavy on sage and cayenne. We are making sausages and, clichés be damned, I’m happy to report that you would be delighted to watch. Once it’s ground up, paddled in an enormous mixer and loaded into a hand-cranked extruder, the pork is fed into prewashed lamb and hog casings (aka intestines) to become breakfast and andouille sausages.
Both casings come floating in liquid to keep them fresh, and when submerged, the gnarly cilia on the hog are very apparent. Morgan laughs as he remembers once ordering casings au natural – over the salesman’s objections. The resulting delivery had to be “squeezed out,” bathed with bleach solution, turned inside out, and scraped with razors. “It was awful,” says Morgan, slowly losing his smile. “ But it was a good experiment too. I’m never doing that again!”
The prosciutto I mentioned before is the result of another, decidedly less-disgusting experiment. After being packed in the salt and sodium nitrate mix for one-and-a-half days per pound, five pig legs are hung in a makeshift “aging room” for 14 months. The outside of the haunch is heavily mottled beige with green and white, like an aerial photo of Greenland. But inside, the flesh is a deep, lush pink of salty, porky paradise. Morgan examines the result with his boss, Bi-Rite owner Sam Mogannam, as they try to determine the proper price point. This leads to a tangential conversation about a vein near a pig’s lymph node and an awl-like tool Sam has seen Italian butchers – “the real-deal guys” – use to remove it. Morgan knows exactly where the vein is, but this is the first he’s heard of the tool. “I want one!” he declares, with a child’s desire for a new toy. Sam nods, simpatico.
Once the sausage is done and we have loaded the smoker with pork belly that is about to become bacon, it is time for the main event. Two full lambs are delivered by Don Watson of
Napa Valley Lamb
, which Morgan discovered while working in the kitchen at Quince and declared to be “the best I’ve ever had.” Morgan befriended Don –“a rancher who takes it start to finish” – so now Bi-Rite is Watson’s only retail vendor in the city, going through three lambs a week.
And that’s just because Morgan cuts up the animals himself. I clear off one of the tables and Morgan sharpens his implements while our photographer Gene sets up. Sergio cruises by and rolls his eyes at the proceedings, no doubt delighted at this new wealth of material on Morgan.
Regardless of whether you are a vegan, eat according to halal tradition, or subsist on baleen, it is an objective fact that Morgan breaks down a lamb with a skill that verges on artistry. First he uses a large knife and a hacksaw to separate the 42 pounds of animal into four “primal” cuts: shoulder, rack, loin, and leg. These are then further processed with a dizzying display of knife work as Morgan slices in deep, then “pulls back” on the blade for precision. Morgan can even butcher with his bare hands, tearing sections of the animal apart at seemingly invisible seams and performing “gravity” cuts that let meat fall away from the bone. All the while, he delivers a running commentary that contains explanations of technique, little known tidbits of physiology, and suggestions for preparation. Soon the big lamb has disappeared, replaced by an orderly stack of appetizing cuts ready for the table.
At the end of the day I am surprised by how quickly time has passed. I bring a pan of freshly butchered lamb into the walk-in and realize that the beef I ground earlier has been moved into the case out front. The cycle is complete, at least for a tourist like me. I shed my Bi-Rite togs, shake hands with my new friends, and head out into the night smelling like bacon. Morgan remains at his post, breaking down the last of the prosciutto and ordering more product for tomorrow. He smells like bacon too.
How much Morgan do you want? Head on over to the butcher counter at Bi-Rite and ask for him – he’ll be right out if he’s there. Ask questions too, the man is ready. More? Contact Bi-Rite’s catering service and your next event can feature some of that same prosciutto, along with any number of other delicious things Morgan might whip up. Still more? Check out Bi-Rite’s community food organization, 18 Reasons, where Morgan cooks for special events and teaches butchery classes. And please remember, Sergio really can’t stand it when you ignore him.