It evokes the idyllic nostalgia of a European artisanal shop — one where the butcher knows everyone's name and can recommend something for an upcoming dinner. This personal experience is exactly Gambrel & Co. chef-owner Benjamin Robert's intention, one that is informed by his small-town upbringing in rural Vermont, years working in the food industry and time spent living and working with butchers in Italy and Spain.
"It's almost like we are your personal sous chef — we order your products, we tell you what to do with them and if you need other advice and inspiration other than that, we're willing to provide that, too," he said.
The majority of the products that Robert offers come from either California or directly from Italy. With the exception of the Wagyu beef, the meat comes from Marin Sun Farms in Point Reyes, where all of the animals are organically raised in pastures.
"Literally, there's three people who have manipulated your meat before you get it from this shop: the guy who slaughtered it, the delivery driver and myself or Brad (Bain)," Robert said, referring to his fellow butcher.
Robert pointed out that while many shops receive pallets of boxes of broken-down, vacuum-packed meat, at Gambrel & Co. they break down most of the animals themselves.
"The beauty of breaking down a whole animal is all the different byproducts you get from it," he said.
Gambrel & Co. makes its sausages in-house and makes pre-marinated meats like smoky chicken wings, dry-rubbed tri-tip and pork tenderloin.
Robert said he remembers visiting the local butcher with his parents. In his small hometown (population 800), the single butcher shop was where most people bought their meat. The supermarket, a phenomenon Robert didn't experience until he went to college, was "very far away."
"The butcher's name was Cliff; he was always back behind the counter, and he would always give the kids little slices of bologna or ham or something like that, and he was just always really nice," Robert recalled.
Robert entered the food industry himself at the age of 14. He worked at a pizza joint and became the manager by the time he graduated from high school.
While earning his degree in botany at the University of Vermont, he worked as a sous chef at a "little white tablecloth restaurant" to pay for his degree. Because of his minor in sustainable agriculture, Robert visited a number of farms and brought this experience to his position as executive chef at the same restaurant when he graduated. This was when the farm-to-table movement started taking off, he said.
After working as executive chef in Vermont, he moved to San Francisco, where he was a sous chef and then executive chef at now-shuttered restaurant Bar Bambino, where he learned about "whole animal butchering" as well as cheese through the restaurant's extensive cheese program.
When the restaurant closed in 2012, he bought a one-way ticket to Italy and, within two weeks, he found a job at a butcher shop in the countryside of Le Marche, the province to the south of Umbria. He worked there for a year, living with an Italian family and immersing himself in the culture of "what it meant to be a butcher and kind of a steward of good meat-buying," he said.
After more travel between the U.S. and Europe, he returned to California with plans to be an executive chef. An associate of his (now his partner) approached him about needing a butcher to run a shop that he'd built in Redwood City.
"Instantly when I walked through the door, I fell in love with the shop itself," Robert said, adding that having never visited Redwood City before, he immediately started researching it.
He said that when he discovered that it was the second fastest growing city in the Bay Area, with a demographic of tech entrepreneurs and a budding food scene, he decided that "the timing was really perfect." He opened Gambrel & Co. in February 2015.
Robert also puts his experience as chef to good use by making sauces to go with dishes like pasta, potatoes, polenta and risotto. On a recent afternoon, the shop served pork ragu. Robert also makes dishes like Hungarian beef goulash, pork curry, beef bolognese sauce and chicken andouille gumbo. The shop also sells cheese, beans, rice and other kinds of sauces.
The small, craft butcher shop differs from a supermarket in several important ways, Robert noted. Because it's a small business, it doesn't mean that people can expect to find what they're looking for at any given time. It does, however, mean that everything is always cycling through the shop, ensuring a level of freshness that is not guaranteed at larger markets.
You also get the owner's expert advice. The day he was interviewed, Robert recommended taking a Langherino cheese, wrapping it in prosciutto and baking it on a low temperature until soft and squishy. When you slice into it with a knife, the molten cheese oozes out, making it an ideal dipping sauce for the crispy prosciutto.
Robert said he will be teaching butchering classes in January, which he intends to offer once a month. The 12-student class will go over how to butcher different animals, identifying the muscles and cutting techniques, and breaking down the animal into "primal" pieces (larger pieces, like a leg) and "subprimal" pieces (smaller pieces like the top round, bottom round, and shank). Students will get to take home meat when class is over.
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