Vermont livestock farmers deliver fresh flesh to New York
People spend millions of dollars marketing their wares in New York City, and it takes a lot to make the city that never sleeps look up and take notice. In that respect, Vermont Quality Meats has it all over The Gap on a busy weekday in Manhattan. Heads turn, traffic stops and cellphone conversations cease as two Vermont farmers offload whole animal carcasses from an unmarked truck on the Upper East Side. With a freshly slaughtered lamb in your arms, the city is at your service — or at least paying attention.
But VQM is causing a much bigger stir off the streets, in the finest kitchens of gourmet Gotham. With weekly deliveries direct from the Green Mountains, a year-old co-operative of 47 farmers is supplying about 30 top-notch restaurants with fresh veal, lamb, pork, goat, venison, sweetbreads, quail and eggs. This list includes such exclusive eating establishments as Lutèce, Daniel, Union Pacific, La Grenouille, Jean Georges and Chanterelle — a dozen are ranked among the top 50 in the Zagat Survey of New York City restaurants. Business is up more than 30 percent from last year.
“We like the fact that the animals are being raised properly, that they are not injected with hormones. It’s all that good, clean Vermont air,” says Tom Colicchio, head chef at Gramercy Tavern and recent recipient of the prestigious James Beard Award for best chef in New York City. “They are a little more expensive, but it is also better meat. And we charge a little more.” The Zagat Survey may have intended a double meaning when it wrote of Gramercy, “each meal is a new high.”
The economic trickle-down is making Vermont producers happy too. Meat mongering members of the co-op are getting about twice as much for their animals as they would through traditional commercial channels. By concentrating on quality establishments and delivering directly to chefs, the group has managed to make farming pay — more than enough to cover the price of the parking tickets it racks up on New York’s narrow side streets.
Even with a 16 percent commission for the co-op, which goes to pay delivery and administration fees, “it is a very good deal,” says Bennington farmer Jay Baily. “It is way better than trying to play wholesale with the big guys. And it feels good to me because I’ve been there and delivered, and I’ve seen the reaction of the chefs to the quality of our stuff. There is a big smile on their faces.”
The master behind the meat marketing is Lydia Ratcliff — an eccentric Vermont livestock farmer who is just as comfortable milking goats in mud boots as she is at chatting up chefs in French and Italian. A native New Yorker, she came to Vermont to “get away from the rat race” and eventually got into agriculture. But seeing the struggles of surrounding farmers, and “the appalling prices they were being paid for the quality of the product they were raising,” she went south, to Boston and New York, to sell her own animals. Eventually she began brokering meat for other local farmers as well.
Last year that loose association of livestock producers formally organized as a co-op, in part to qualify for state and federal grants. So far, it’s collected about $30,000 from the John Merck Fund, the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund and the Vermont Department of Agriculture. The money financed the purchase of a refrigerated delivery truck and other essentials, such as a fax machine and computer. The potential is enormous, Ratcliff acknowledges, describing the eastern urban market as “a bottomless pit. There is enough for everybody. We are doing what everybody should do.”
But the logistics of moving meat — from a dwindling number of Vermont slaughterhouses to the most discriminating customers in the country — are taxing for 66-year-old Ratcliff, who now suffers from emphysema. Even with the aid of an inhaler, she’s hard pressed to haul animals up and down the steep stairs that access the city’s culinary nerve centers. Members of the co-op have stepped in to reliever her, especially with deliveries, but Ratcliff is reluctant to hand over the reigns entirely.
You could call this lifelong bachelorette controlling — “the new dirty word for which I was raised to think was a good thing,” she notes. But the success of Vermont Quality Meats has everything to do with Ratcliff’s sales prowess, high standards and impeccable service. Colicchio describes her as “salt of the earth,” but she is no rube. Exuding a grumpy cool, she mixes well with the New York crowd. And knowing that the next 24 hours will be a sleepless marathon of hauling carcasses into countless kitchens, she states, “It’s a vacation compared to staying home.”
You’ve got to spend the night at Lydia Ratcliff’s Lovejoy Brook Farm in order to catch the early-morning gravy train south from Andover, a small hill town between Weston and Chester. The tractor is pulled right up to the front door when I arrive at 9 o’clock, and in the failing light I recognize the cries of sheep, cows and goats.
A graduate of Vermont’s ag-inspired Putney School, Ratcliff bought the 125-acre spread in 1965, after a stint in New York as a researcher at Time magazine. She spent the first 10 years on the farm ghost writing and editing Sylvia Porter’s Money Book, but gradually got into farming fulltime. A hand-written note on the kitchen door informs me she’ll be in the barn milking until 9:30.
It also suggests I make myself at home, but the room before me looks like a hurricane blew through it, and smells distinctly of meat. The kitchen table is piled high with papers — price lists, newsletters, checks, stud catalogues — and all the cabinet doors are open. An elderly farmhand descends from an apartment upstairs to warn me two goats are on the loose in the house. A newborn kid, still smeared with afterbirth, turns up in the living room looking for milk.
Ratcliff wanders in around 10. She is short and slightly stooped, with shoulder-length white hair. As she washes the muddy barn boots in the kitchen sink, I notice her hands are gnarled with arthritis. She is late finishing chores, she explains, because she was on the phone all afternoon confirming last-minute orders from chefs. Four more messages have accumulated since she stepped out, one from a prospective tenant. Ratcliff is desperate to replace her departing farmhand before the summer crunch.
Weary as she looks, Ratcliff still had miles to go before she sleeps — on the couch, in a sleeping bag I thought was laid out for me. First she reheats the morning coffee — boils it, actually. And after bottle-feeding the goat, she sets out to feed me, too. I am expecting something easy — maybe an omelette — but she whips up a fabulous dinner of sautéed pork shoulder and vegetables, green salad with avocado and a baked potato and rutabaga concoction mashed with butter, cream and parmesan cheese.
As we’re eating, she happens to mention that the olive oil on the salad is from her sister’s place in Tuscany. Ratcliff grew up in Palisades, N.Y. — “not New Jersey,” she emphasizes — but after her sophomore year at Swarthmore, her father moved the family to Italy. As a successful freelance writer for Reader’s Digest — author of the “I Am Joe’s Heart” series — he could live anywhere in the world.
Ratcliff spent her junior year in Paris, at the Sorbonne, making frequent forays to see the famiglia and later returning to the States to finish at Chapel Hill. Her sister now lives in Rome and is married to the British ambassador to Italy. She pulls out pictures of their palazzo — a colossal place staffed by maids, cooks and gardeners. She also produces a few shots of herself: on the tractor, talking with chefs, holding animals. The contrast is startling. Asked what her siblings think of her lifestyle, Ratcliff responds, “They think I’m killing myself, but I see it as keeping myself alive in many ways.”
A former alcoholic, Ratcliff concedes she suffers from depression. She also acknowledges that the farm “got away from her” last year because the meat business was growing so fast. I got a sense of her superb salesmanship when she calls Joe Bruno at Pasta Nostra in Norwalk, Conn., to let him know we’ll be stopping in for dinner there tomorrow. It’s the last scheduled stop on the route. “Is he very busy?” she asks the hostess courteously. When Chef Joe comes on, she is instantly animated, sprinkling the conversation with certos and ciaos.
Ratcliff clearly enjoys selling — and she’s very persistent, according to the chefs she serves. But farming is her therapy. “I have a theory about public ritual,” she explains. “For a good Catholic it might be going to mass every morning. For some people, it’s feeding the cats and dogs. For me, it’s milking goats. It’s entertaining, it has to be done, and you get a sense of satisfaction from it. It’s something to get up for.”
So, it turns out, is a truck that rolls in the next morning, loaded with fresh meat valued at $7500. Ratcliff coordinates whose and how many animals are needed each week, and the farmers are responsible for getting them to the Fresh Farms Beef slaughterhouse in Rutland, from as far as Fort Ann and Highgate. The process is complicated by the fact that the Rutland slaughterhouse operators are Muslim, and therefore do not kill pigs. Baby pigs are “processed” in Ferrisburgh and then transported to Rutland, where they are held in storage. Deer is done in Williston. Quail comes from Cavendish.
Ten years ago, Vermont had 14 slaughterhouses. Now there are eight, which forces livestock farmers to drive long distances at increasing expense to have their animals butchered. That worries Ratcliff — and many other meat producers in Vermont — who think the state should do something to ensure their continued viability. “It’s not like they’re making a hell of a lot of money,” says Ratcliff, noting a raft of new regulations could send the few remaining slaughterhouses, and Vermont Quality Meats, over the edge.
Everything comes together in Rutland the night before the New York run. Loading the truck — and making sure it matches all the orders — is a critical and complicated undertaking. The carcasses are weighed, inspected and marked, but in the end, the sizes and styles have to match up perfectly with what Ratcliff has scrawled on a single sheet of paper by the phone. The better organized the truck, the faster she delivers.
“If it’s the wrong size pig, or the wrong color pig, it’s useless,” says Ratcliff, who coaches the slaughterhouse crew over the phone. “If they want an 18-pound lamb, not a 19, we do our best to get it for them.” Although it is not always identified as “Vermont” raised — “I don’t use the menu as a geography lesson” Colicchio says — most of the Green Mountain meat ends up on the specials, or “tasting” menu, because there is not enough to supply a permanent dish.
VQM farmer and bookkeeper Carol Brodeur is first to show up the next morning, at six, with 30 dozen eggs. The chef at San Domenico — described as a “Central Park South celeb stomping ground,” — buys as many as Brodeur can supply for Sunday brunch. Soon after, Bailey brings up the rig from Rutland, and we are rolling south. The first and only stop in Vermont is the Four Columns Inn in Newfane. Before breakfast, we saunter into an empty and unlocked kitchen with a 37-pound lamb and a bag of sweetbreads. At $3.50 a pound, the bill comes to $129.50. Smaller lambs fetch as much as $5 a pound, including heads and hooves.
Bailey and Ratcliff debate the merits of volume discounts as we power down I-95 to the flesh-eating capital of the Northeast. It’s clear from the conversation that Vermont Quality Meats is experiencing some growing pains. Ratcliff wants and needs more help, but is resistant to standardizing her systems, claiming she doesn’t have time. She pooh-poohs sales projects, internet ordering and other advanced business practices. Although speaking openly about VQM “outliving” her, it’s clear that Ratcliff intends to hang on until the end. She confides, “I foresee being deathly ill and having someone in the kitchen and coaching them in a raspy voice.”
It is after noon by the time we arrive in New York. Baily and Ratcliff are less impressed by the sight of Sigourney Weaver hailing a cab than they were by a couple of pro-farm bumper stickers we spotted on the road in southern Connecticut. By the time we’re negotiating one-way streets, Ratcliff has all the invoices written out and stacked according to our delivery route, which starts on the Upper East Side.
The crowd at Payard Patisserie is classic vieille riche. Well-preserved women gossip at tiny round tables, surrounded by confections that look more like opera sets than food. Wearing all white, Ratcliff strides up to the hostess and announces, “We’ve got a lamb from Vermont.” Puzzled, the pouty-lipped woman relays the message to the maître d’ — in French. But before they can get conspiratorial, Ratcliff repeats herself, this time in their language.
French also comes in handy at the next two stops: Café Boulud and Daniel, both owned by Chef Daniel Boulud, whose formal classic French cuisine is “acclaimed for its creative perfection,” according to Zaget. Bearing three lambs, we are on the elevator en route to Daniel’s subterranean kitchen when Ratcliff suddenly eyes the animal I am holding like a Pietà. “I’m not crazy about this lamb,” she barks, stopping the elevator mid-floor to feel its flesh beneath the plastic.
Bailey weighs in, and the animal is rejected. Cursing everyone involved — the person who packed the truck, the slaughterhouse and the farmer who sent the anorexic lamb — Ratcliff dispatches me back to the truck for a healthier specimen. When I get back to the kitchen, she’s worrying over a second carcass. That one is also rejected, in a dramatic display of perfectionism that fits right in with the cuisine culture around us.
With dour Daniel presiding over the madness, the kitchen looks like a scene from “E.R.,” but with food instead of medical emergencies. Dozens of young, hip, bespectacled sous chefs of all ethnicities rush by each other, speaking only in French. Daniel picks up the phone to call his “meat man.” The fellow shows up instantly to handle the incoming. But instead of checking the vitals, he spreads open the cavity and smells it. “Bon,” he confirms, and we are off again, with Ratcliff on a temporary tear about quality and customer service. The customer is always right, apparently — especially when he is a French chef.
Ratcliff guards her list of kitchen contacts like plans for an atomic bomb, and she is always on the lookout for new recruits, both on the street and in the trusty Zaget. Although opulence runs counter to her thrifty Yankee spirit, she won’t approach a restaurant that charges less than $35 for entrées — “otherwise they can’t afford us,” she says. Along with quality of food and volume of sales, she favors spots that are easily accessible.
It’s a whole new experience going to a restaurant as a delivery person — especially in New York. Kitchens tend to be above or below the dining room, which almost always assures a maze of less-than-appetizing corridors, and plenty of stairs, between the truck and the walk in. Further, not every restaurant has a service door — or one of those metal storm cellar jobs that open on the sidewalk. At a restaurant like La Grenouille, the deliveries come in the same door as the diners. And that can be a problem, especially when, after crossing E. 52nd Street carrying a 40-pound carcass, you find a gaggle of digesting grandmothers blocking the door.
Conveniently, the opaque plastic body bags in which the whole animals are wrapped are not sealed at the ends, so the hooves and heads can be positioned to startle, if necessary. On some carcasses the teeth are bared, or the tongue is hanging out. “Is that a baby lamb?” one woman inquires with equal parts horror and fascination as I move toward the group clutching my bloody charge. “Yup. Fresh from Vermont,” I inform, cheerfully. “I knew it,” she exclaims, as though she’d just wrapped up the Times crossword puzzle. La Grenouille Chef Richard Pommier rewards us with three chocolate custard desserts for our trouble.
There is no agreed-upon decorum concerning the delivery of dead animals in New York City — just as there is no consensus on the merits of black versus pink pigs. At Da Silvanos, on 6th Avenue, the Italian owner is as happy as his customers to have a carcass hoisted over their heads. “Hey, what’s for dinner?” they yell good-naturedly. At Eilli Ponte the pig in plastic is definitely a no-no. “These are Wall Street people, mostly,” the chef scolds, as if that should explain everything.
Ratcliff is as sensitive to these subtleties as a mother goat is to the cries of her kid. It’s what sets her delivery service apart from the “tractor-trailer driver with a 5 o’clock shadow,” she puts it. Colicchio speaks for many of his colleagues — and Ratcliff’s customers — when he says, “Buying meat should be more personal than calling someone up who is going to come with a truck loaded with stuff from a feedlot somewhere.”
He says a lot of top-notch chefs are making the connection between family farming and fine dining. They are wiling to make “the investment” in a vendor as a way of supporting humane agricultural practices. Ratcliff recently got a call from Babbo, a top ranked restaurant in the Village, because they were being picketed by animal rights activists for serving veal. The chef asked Ratcliff to write a letter explaining how young calves are raised in Vermont. Ratcliff obliged, even though Babbo is not yet a customer, explaining that the animals are neither confined nor pumped full of antibiotics, “because some damn Dutchman decided what veal should taste like.”
Chefs are also pro-family farm because they want to be certain that high-quality products continue to be available, many of which are not particularly efficient or economical to produce. A restaurant in Noho has approached Ratcliff to ask if any Vermont livestock farmers would be interested in setting up a sausage making operation. The chef at Il Buco has offered to bring Italian meat cutters over from Europe to set up a sole U.S. supplier of authentic “Italian” sausage within striking distance of New York.
The concept is no more farfetched than premium ice cream, and could impact Vermont agriculture in comparable ways. Like Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, Ratcliff has been perfectly positioned to understand both sides of the ag equation, in this case it relates to meat products: what her customers want and how much they’ll pay for quality; and how much her producers can supply for top dollar. To chefs, Ratcliff is the real thing — straight from the slaughterhouse. To her fellow farmers, she is a gourmet go-between.
“The only thing I don’t like,” says Josh Eden, a sous chef at Jean Georges, “is we can only get a delivery once a week.”
Is it feasible to add another meat run? Probably not — yet. Although demand is outpacing supply at Vermont Quality Meats, the board of directors is well aware that growing too fast could spoil everything Ratcliff has cultivated. Even if they work out the logistical kinks — getting different people to handle sales, procurement, loading and delivery processes, instead of just one — “You can’t just send somebody south with a truck full of meat, even if they know the city,” Ratcliff says.
The producers are cautious, too. “If we said, ‘Oh, we’ve got to produce a lot more, because the chefs want more, the co-op could fall apart,’” Bailey says. “It could get too big, too fast and lose quality to boot.” This is one ag entity that holds fast to its small-is-beautiful image and believes it, too.
Heading north from Norwalk at midnight, with full stomachs, Bailey asks rhetorically, “You know which restaurant is my favorite?” Without a pause, he answers, “Home.”