By Jan Norris
Photography by Felipe Cuevas
The bushy-bearded Walter Apfelbaum is big, burly and bald. His meaty hands wield a menacing cleaver. The rubber apron he wears, held up by rugged brass snap bolts, has bloodstains on it.
Yet he wants you to rest assured.
“I need you to trust me,” he says. “I’ll make sure you have the best meal possible.”
Apfelbaum is the head butcher at NYY Steak in the Seminole Casino Coconut Creek, where he works side by side with the chefs. He’s been with the restaurant since it opened in 2012 and is responsible for cutting steaks from whole cows, slicing through bones and muscles to get the choicest parts for diners here. On a busy night, he could cut anywhere between 600 to 1,200 pounds of meat. There’s the typical menu of steaks: porterhouses, New York strips, bone-in rib-eyes and filet mignon, all of which Apfelbaum talks about with passion and knowledge.
“The more you know about your foods—and about animals, where they come from, how they were raised, where they were pastured, and what they were fed—the better they’ll taste,” he says. “If an animal’s fed from food made
in a plant, you’re not going to get that great flavor that comes from it eating natural foods.”
He’s 41 and has spent the years since he was a young teen learning about meats and the lives of the animals—from the hoof to the butcher table.
“We had a local butcher,” says Apfelbaum, who grew up on the Jersey Shore in a German household. “When you grew up in these communities, they didn’t have grocery stores in every neighborhood. It was like when you live in Europe—you have a butcher, you have a fishmonger, and we had a cheese guy and a bread guy.”
He became friends with the butcher, “an old-school German butcher,” and started hanging around his shop after high school. Apfelbaum would ride his bike to watch the man cut up and package meats into steaks and chops, break down a loin and set aside the offals. From the butcher, Apfelbaum learned about the animals when they were alive, what they ate, how they grazed, how they were born and, eventually, fattened and slaughtered.
“The better they are taken care of, the better meat they are,” he says. “It’s not about dumping them full of hormones and steroids.”
The old butcher urged the high schooler to apprentice with the nearby Hilton hotel butcher, where Apfelbaum learned to work for an institutional kitchen needing mass quantities. He apprenticed with a kosher butcher, too. He learned from anyone he could. Along the way, he learned to hunt and take care of his kills, as well as ensure the freshest of meats. Finally, he wound up going to school at the Culinary Institute of America in New York and was the only professional butcher to come from his class.
Refrigeration and supermarkets killed butchering as an art, he says. Supermarkets that once had butchers went to pre-packaged meats and no longer needed those artisans to break down a whole or even half a cow stored in big meat-aging rooms.
Stores are getting smaller, doing away with butcher shops on site, and now they hire people to cut already butchered parts. “They think they can train anyone to do it,” Apfelbaum says.
He laments that in all this, something’s been lost for the cook and the diner. “A lot of people have problems deciding what they want,” Apfelbaum says. “They don’t know what to ask for; they don’t know the cuts. That’s where I need you to trust me.
“Don’t ever be afraid of the butcher. We’re big guys, wearing suspenders, covered in meat juices. But we’re not just the guy behind the counter. Talk to us so we can kind of get an idea of who you are. For us, it’s not just about cutting a steak; it’s talking to the person, finding out what they like. Maybe they want a thicker piece of meat, or a larger strip or smaller rib-eye.”
Today, Apfelbaum says, it’s all farm-to-table. With beef, “It may not be local farms, but coming right from the farm, I’m cutting it, and it’s going out. I’m doing the best I can to respect the animals and making sure I’m picking the right meat for each person.”
Sometimes that means gently guiding the diner to try something new or cooked to a proper temperature—usually no more than medium-rare, if Apfelbaum has a say.
If the meat is quality, the only kind he works with, “You don’t need to cook it to death. A good steak is medium-rare, so it’s still got the sweetness you can taste from the acorn the animal was eating.”
He personally loves all meats and seafood. He was a vegan for more than a year, eschewing all animal-based foods—only to return to his beloved beef. “I don’t discriminate with food. I went on a raw vegan diet a couple of years ago and lost 200 pounds. I was tired of being fat. But I just started really missing proteins and meat.”
Walter Apfelbaum on…
Butchering filets mignons: I hate the filets. I get asked about filets all the time. It drives me crazy! It’s the only muscle on the cow that goes right to left. You have to cut it with a band saw because it’s very soft and tender.
Being a vegan: I did it for over a year, just to see the whole other side. I felt really good. Then I just got lazy, and it was easier to make myself a steak or fish.
Modern-day butchering: It’s a dying art. There aren’t a lot of us out here.
Educating people about cooking meat: Steak people are steak people, and they remember the way they had meat cooked at home by a grandma. It’s a memory taste. But this is not your grandma’s cooking. She cooked meat to death. I hear, “Mom said this is medium.” But it’s actually well done.
Trusting him: Let me show you the way to cook the muscle properly. I need you to trust me. Once I get diners to try it, and once they’ve tasted real meat flavor and what it should be, they love it. They come back and ask for me. Some won’t stay to eat if I’m here.
Originally appeared in the Winter 2016 Issue.