by Tim O'Rourke | Mercury News
It started in the kitchens and dining rooms of Oliveto, the College Avenue culinary fixture in Oakland where Aaron and Monica Rocchino were working in the early 2000s.
He was a cook, fresh from the Culinary Institute of America in New York. She worked the front of the house, smitten with the fresh-faced guy from Pennsylvania.
He was learning about the slow-food movement, fast knife skills and how to respect the customer by respecting the animal and its meat. She was learning how to stay persistent when a cook with a girlfriend wouldn’t say yes to a date.
Many dinners, a few years and one gutsy decision later, the couple are running The Local Butcher Shop in North Berkeley, carving out a niche in the Gourmet Ghetto.
“We thought about what wasn’t in the area,” Monica Rocchino says. “It was hard for us to find locally sourced, high-quality, sustainable meat unless we brought it home from a restaurant.”
Once community staples, neighborhood butcher shops began losing favor a few decades ago, a victim to the popular plastic-wrapped cuts offered by white-floored supermarkets. Today, they’re making a comeback in gastronomic hubs — and places such as Brooklyn’s Meat Hook, San Francisco’s Olivier’s Butchery and Santa Cruz’s el Salchichero are finding success by focusing on meat from sustainably raised animals.
But the return to chic wasn’t what enticed the Rocchinos into the flesh-and-bone business.
It was a much simpler desire.
“We were on opposite schedules,” Aaron Rocchino says.
“We wanted to see each other,” his wife adds.
Aaron had been working nights and weekends at slow-food mecca Chez Panisse. Monica was running an event-planning business and working at Paula LeDuc Fine Catering in Emeryville with a more typical schedule.
They missed each other, but realized their industry pedigree afforded them an opportunity to start up a place of their own — a butcher shop, with cow, pig and sheep carcasses hanging from gleaming metal hooks in a refrigerated room about a block from Aaron’s famous former employer.
“(Aaron) is just the kind of thoughtful and trustworthy soul I want as my local butcher,” Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters wrote in an email. “His store has quickly become a fixture of the neighborhood, a place where you can look the butcher in the eye and be certain that the meat is not only delicious but comes from a quality farm.”
Today, the Rocchinos work with ranchers from within 150 miles of their Berkeley shop to “get restaurant-quality meat into people’s homes,” Aaron says.
The ranchers appreciate the arrangement, too.
“Ever since (they opened), we’ve been selling them beef. It has been an awesome relationship,” says Loren Poncia, owner of Stemple Creek Ranch in Tomales. “It’s the perfect sustainable relationship for the rancher. Hopefully more butcher shops follow them and open up sustainable shops.”
The Rocchinos buy only whole carcasses from the ranches, which means they get creative when, for instance, a run on short ribs forces them to find uses for the meat from the rest of the animal. Bones? Those are used for stock. Trim? Sausage. Fat? It’s rendered.
It’s a place they want to become “an anchor of the neighborhood,” Monica says. And it gives the couple the most important thing: “Quality time with each other.”
Follow Tim O’Rourke at Twitter.com/timothyorourke.
The local butcher shop
What: Monica and Aaron Rocchino’s butcher store in Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto
Where: 1600 Shattuck Ave., Suite 120; 510-845-6328, http://thelocalbutchershop.com
Photo: The Local Butcher Shop intern Mark Dessert holds a platter of Stemple Creek Ranch beef at the shop in Berkeley, Calif. Thursday, April 26, 2012. The Local Butcher Shop specializes in quality, locally raised meats, only buying product directly from farmers located within 150 miles of Berkeley. (Kristopher Skinner/Staff)
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A diversified family farm located in Nicasio, Marin County, within California’s North Coast region, produces rabbits, pigs, sheep, premium wine grapes and asparagus for retail customers and direct sales to high-quality restaurants. Sustainable, humane agricultural practices are utilized, organic whenever possible.
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