Interview: David Samiljan, Artisanal Butcher

Malcolm Slight

Meet David Samiljan, a butcher who once worked at a circus, can taste the difference between corn-fed and grass-fed beef, and occasionally follows a vegan diet.

A gregarious soul, David offers an honest and humor-filled look at his life as he talks about growing up in New York and his route to becoming a butcher.  Along the way, he learned what feeds his soul as he learned to feed others. “I was a terrible employee,” he says candidly. “I do better working for myself.”  

David, 51, trained at the Culinary Institute of America in New York and began working in restaurants and catering. A serendipitous encounter led to a job at a butcher shop, and he later honed his meat-cutting skills during a stint with Niman Ranch. He then jumped at the chance to open an artisanal butcher shop in Alameda.

But not everyone was excited about having a butcher shop in the neighborhood.  

“When I moved in, some people were angry. I get it,” he says. “But I believe that animals are living, thinking, feeling creatures that we kill and eat. They need to be killed humanely. As humans, we need a certain amount to get the nutrients we need.”

The new business required long hours. “There was nothing I wouldn’t do to keep the shop running.” The hard work paid off.  About 1,600 customers line up each week at his butcher shop, Baron’s Meat & Poultry. David opened the shop in 2005 and named it for his grandfather’s butcher shop in Brooklyn. About 700 people visit his sandwich shop, Baron’s Eats, each week, which opened in 2013.

David met his wife, Shirin, in 1989 when he was on the ring crew and she tended horses for the Big Apple Circus. They married and moved to San Francisco in 1994. The couple settled in Benicia with their three children in 2002.

What initially sparked your interest in becoming a butcher? I get to the Culinary Institute and the first couple of blocks are basic education. Then I had a butchering class. I loved it. It was these old union butchers who had worked at hotels and grocery stores and broke beef for a living. These were pot-bellied, ham-fisted guys.  … So this guy cut the meat off a leg and the bone was clean. It was beautiful.
    
Then I took a charcuterie class, and that was it. I wanted to make sausage. I absolutely loved it.

I enjoyed meat the most. Meat cutting, sausage making—that’s the stuff that stuck with me. But I rarely cut meat now. I’m busy running the shop.

What is it about cutting beef that appeals to you? It’s a hands-on, cathartic experience. There’s something about knives and meat cutting, there’s something about it that I enjoy.

When I worked at Niman Ranch, I would cut literally tons of meat a day—literally tons. I would have my hands on a ridiculous amount of meat all day long.

How did you get your first job as a butcher? I was working as a caterer, making chicken satay all day long. We’d go down to Burlingame for these wine parties, and I’d think, “This is what I went into debt for? To make chicken satay for the overly rich?”  It was soul-sucking.  

One day I ended up in Oakland with my daughter at a shop that made bagels New York style. It was a kosher butcher shop, and I turned to my daughter and said, “Daddy’s grandpa used to be a kosher butcher.”

The guy behind the counter said, “Really? Do you know how to cut meat? Do you need a job?” So I said, “Yeah, I’ll take a job.”
    
While I was working there, I found out that I really enjoyed the customer service part of it.

Were you always interested in food and cooking? I always liked food—I always liked to fiddle around in the kitchen.
    
I used to watch what limited cooking shows that were on then, mostly on PBS. The foodie revolution hadn’t begun quite yet. California cuisine was starting with Alice Waters at Chez Panisse and Jeremiah Tower.  But in New York, there was no architectural plating. You had your meat on the bottom, the starch on one side and the vegetable on the other. …
    
At 21, I moved out into my first apartment in Queens.  I had to figure out how to cook. But my idea was to keep cooking food, so I ended up with a lot of overcooked stuff.  I made stir fry with boneless, skinless chicken with Uncle Ben’s rice. I didn’t know anything else. That was my first foray into cooking.

What types of food did you eat growing up? I had a genuine Jewish grandmother who made things like matzo ball soup.   When I was growing up, ethnic meant either Italian, Jewish or Chinese. Living in Staten Island, we had really good red sauce Italian and really good pizza.  Every Friday we went out for Chinese food, and every Saturday we had pizza from Joe and Pat’s.  It wasn’t until I was in my 40s that Joe & Pat’s Pizza was on the list of best pizza in New York. I’m a bona fide pizza snob. I know what I like. …
    
When I lived in Brooklyn, I was right next to the Brooklyn Cement Factory. On the weekends, there was a guy who roasted his own coffee, and someone else made homemade ravioli and there was a place that made their own sausage, a cheese and parsley sausage that I make now and is still my favorite. I reverse engineered it.

What did you learn during your years in restaurant kitchens and as a caterer? There’s a big difference between cooking at home and cooking professionally. It’s certainly not like what you see on TV, any more than a romance novel is like real life. I’m a good cook. I can prepare you a meal and you will leave full and praise it. But professional cooking is day-in, day-out cooking the same dish. Even if the restaurant changes it menu every day, there’s a repetition to it. …

In a professional kitchen, it’s all rush-rush-rush and then it’s done. There are more personality disorders in professional kitchens than in any other profession—and I worked at a circus, so that’s saying something.

When you’re eating a steak, how can you distinguish what the cow was fed? When I eat a steak, I can taste the feed—the corn, the barley. It’s like a good wine guy can taste a French Bordeaux and say it’s this much cabernet sauvignon, this much something else. I tend to look at things the way a wine taster would—I’m trained and I have confidence.  If I taste overwhelming sweetness, I know that’s corn.
    
When it’s been fed on green grass, it tastes good. But most grass-fed beef is fed on hay and alfalfa pellets, and I find it has a greasy mouth feel and tastes like wet hay.

What’s been the biggest surprise since you opened your shop? How difficult it is to manage the human resources, how much business work there is—so much paperwork! Payroll takes hours, paying the bills, entering the bills takes so much more time than I considered. Just managing the people takes more time than I imagined.

Why do you occasionally adopt a vegan diet? I’ve been a vegan on and off for the last couple of years for health reasons. I’m diabetic and that helps bring blood sugars down.

What do you do to relax? I’m married with children, so there’s no time to relax (laughing).  

I ice skate. I go to the gym a lot. About 3 o’clock in the afternoon, I go over to the ice rink in Oakland and skate for an hour, or I go to the gym.   

If you weren’t running your butcher shop, what would you be doing? I don’t know.  There was all this serendipitous stuff along the way—what if I’d not taken the job at the kosher butcher? What if I’d not worked at the circus and met my wife? What if my grandfather hadn’t had a butcher shop? What if someone hadn’t given my name to Alameda Marketplace when they were looking for someone to open a butcher shop? What if I hadn’t said yes when I got the call?
    
That’s all the road not taken, and I took this road.

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