A “Rare” Find: The Good Kosher Steakhouse
How did Dominique Courbe, a non-Jewish, second-generation butcher from Normandy end up behind the counter at the only kosher French brasserie and butcher shop in Manhattan, Le Marais? And how did his boss, Jose Meirelles, a former banker from Portugal, … Read More
How did Dominique Courbe, a non-Jewish, second-generation butcher from Normandy end up behind the counter at the only kosher French brasserie and butcher shop in Manhattan, Le Marais? And how did his boss, Jose Meirelles, a former banker from Portugal, end up owning said restaurant?
Ironically, these two men are changing the landscape of kosher meat in New York City, offering high-quality, aged meats and a diverse selection that is virtually impossible to find in other kosher establishments. I spoke with Courbe and Meirelles about their decidedly unorthodox career paths, the inspiration behind what they do, and the "meat alchemy" that goes into making a kosher filet mignon. Read on. Jose, what was your inspiration to create an upscale kosher brasserie like Le Marais? Jose: I used to own a similar restaurant – that was not kosher – called Les Halles, and some of our clients began pushing us to open up a kosher version. [Here, in New York] there were lots of situations where, at business meetings or family gatherings, someone in the group keeps kosher, or someone has started to take keeping kosher more seriously than before – and they had no place to go. There weren’t really any good restaurant options – maybe a few delis, but nowhere they were proud to take their family or business associates. So they said to us, "Why don’t you guys take this restaurant which is wonderful and do it kosher?" At first we hesitated because, how can you make a cassoulet without pigs’ feet? And of course you can’t do pork belly or oysters or any of these things. A brasserie without oysters, you know, scandal! So why did you decide to move forward? Jose: We consulted with a rabbi to guide us through the rules of what it takes to open a kosher restaurant. At the time, the kosher meat available was very tough and not good quality. But we realized the reason that kosher beef was tough was because no one was aging the meat. Once we found out that there was nothing in kosher law that prevented someone from aging beef, we went to a couple of butcher shops, bought some prime ribs and aged it ourselves in our own refrigerator at Les Halles. At the end of four weeks of aging, the meat was as good as non-kosher. Why don’t kosher distributors age their meat? Jose: On the non-kosher market, every single seller has an aging room and they sell their meat aged. On the kosher market, it is not there. I guess it might be for economic reasons – it takes [a significant investment of] money. Still today, any kosher restaurant that wants to have aged beef, needs to do it themselves. That requires refrigerator space, and especially in New York City, that is difficult.
Tell me a little bit about your backgrounds – long before you ever even considered working in the kosher world.
Dominique: My father was a butcher, so I learned with him. I started when I was [almost] 12. It was summertime and my father went like this [makes a beckoning gesture with his hand] and said, "I need you." I remember my dad used to kill [the animals] himself. Myself, I’ve only ever killed rabbits. [As kids] we used to watch the killing – you know, bloody stuff. It is kind of gross, but as a kid [it is fascinating]. I trained in Normandy then went to Paris for a couple of years. Then I went to Djibouti and Switzerland where I worked in the meat department of a supermarket, and then I came here. I worked at a meat purveyor in DC before I came to New York in 1992. I started working over at Les Halles, the non-kosher restaurant. Then when Jose opened Le Marais, I came here. Along the way, did you ever think about another line of work? Dominique: At first I was studying to be a banker, but it didn’t work! Jose: That makes two of us! I grew up in Portugal and went to business school and worked in a bank. Then I decided to come in the United States and spend a sabbatical year to travel. I wanted to buy a car, do Route 66, the whole thing. In the meantime, I started to get odd jobs cooking because I needed to make money to go from city A to city B. I realized that my function in life, my calling, was cooking – even though I never cooked in Portugal and had never dreamed of being a chef. After I went to the French Culinary Institute, I started working in different restaurants in New York. At one point, I was working at a very popular restaurant that wanted to offer something that, in France and Portugal is very popular – the steak frite. Just a simple steak with fries, nothing else. After work, [my coworkers and I] wanted to go to a place like this, and there wasn’t one. There were plenty of great steakhouses, but it was not the kind of meat you wanted to eat at one in the morning. So that’s why I came up with the idea of opening Les Halles with a butcher shop in front – like a bistro or brasserie menu, which in Paris focuses on shellfish and oysters, but with meat. How does the relationship between your butcher shop and your restaurant work? Jose: We have the best of both worlds. We can have a beautiful display of meats in the butcher shop and also sell it in the restaurant through specials. I also learn a lot with Dominique because he knows his meats. My point of view is as a cook, but sometimes we get questions or requests from customers that, if I did not have a butcher like Dominique around, I could not do it – or at least not as well. What percentage of revenue comes from the butcher shop versus the restaurant? Dominique: 1 percent to 99 percent. Jose: No! [laughs] It is about 15 percent from the butcher shop. It is fairly good revenue – the butcher shop works very well. Dominique: The popular cuts here are the rib eye and the butcher’s cut is also very popular. And we offer Wagyu beef – it goes for about $90/pound for the rib eye, which is a good deal. The Wagyu hamburger meat at the butcher shop is about $8/pound.
Are there other butchers that work here with you? Dominique: I have two guys downstairs. Jose: But Dominique is the master butcher! As a French butcher, he has a different training then an American butcher. French training is really much more meticulous about the cut – they have the ability to go muscle by muscle to deconstruct a very large piece of meat. Each one has different textures and flavors. The American butchers tend to use much simpler cuts. At Les Halles, which also used to have a butcher shop, the business was always very little. People never realized that the meat case or the butcher was there. They never said, "Let me go to Les Halles to buy meat." Here it is different because it is kosher. There are not all that many options for good quality kosher meat, so people come here to order. Le Marais is known for offering several types of meat that are hard to find kosher. Besides well-aged meat, what do you offer and where do you get it? Dominique: Our 5-6 different purveyors are all in NYC. The meat mostly comes from the Middle West. They are all exclusively kosher purveyors. [editor's note: Le Marais rarely sourced meat from Agriprocessors, so the raid last spring and eventual closing of the plant did not significantly impact their work.] Jose: [Pointing to a large piece of meat] This is the mother cut – the rib eye. Most of the cuts we offer come from that. Dominique is able to take away the fat and creates this [points to another piece of very lean looking, rare red meat]. There is no real filet mignon in the kosher world because kosher butchers can only use meat from the rib to the neck [of the animal]. So we needed to create a cut that resembled the filet.
One of the things that is very well known, that everyone raves about, is the beef jerky. Do you make that here? How? Dominique: We use a type of meat like brisket. We smoke the meat here – we have a smoker upstairs [at the restaurant]. Then we freeze and slice it and marinate it in spices. Then we dry it and air-dry it. It is about a three-day process. Do you miss anything from your days working in the non-kosher world? Dominique: I miss eating pork, but I do not like to work with it – the texture of the meat is not great. I prefer beef or lamb. [In terms of technique], we work in the French way, so the technique for cutting the meat is pretty much the same. If you cut a rib eye here or in France, it is the same. Jose: For someone who is not Jewish, [working here] is great because there is incredible time off. I have most of the weekend off – that is unheard of! Even though I did not work seven days a week at Les Halles – you have days off – the restaurant would still be open, so my mind was always there. So now, for me, in the spring and summer time, we are only open on Sunday. There is a different piece of mind. Is there a growing sense of interest in good quality kosher meat? Jose: Absolutely. I see the suppliers are getting better and better – they are stepping up to the plate more than they used to. In the beginning it was a disaster. We used to send back half of the order sometimes because they would send you terrible things. There was no quality control. Now, it is rarer and rarer for us to send something back. They are sending much better quality meats – bigger animals, better marbleized animals. Some suppliers now try to sell only specialized and good quality meat. I think there was once a mentality from the suppliers that thought, "Well the kosher market is going to eat kosher no matter what – they don’t eat anything else, so why bother? They don’t have a choice." That has changed.
Are people willing to pay for better quality meat? Jose: I don’t know much about the market from before when I started this business about 14 years ago. But back then, people were paying more money for kosher meat without the quality. So now, they are paying more or less what the non-kosher market pays, but getting better quality. A lot of people now who keep kosher did not grow up keeping kosher. So they know what good meat should taste like. That segment of the market is pushing for a much higher quality of meat, and also everything else. If you know what a good steak tastes like, then you know what to expect. ——- Le Marais 150 W. 46th Street New York, NY