Leighann Smith and Daniel Jackson are two of the most talented butchers in town. They are also cooking some of our favorite food right now
The story of the best new butcher shop in New Orleans, which is also the story of one of the best new restaurants in New Orleans, starts someplace else entirely, very far away in Marin County, California. Leighann Smith, the head butcher in charge at Piece of Meat, which you will find on a leafy block of Bienville Street in New Orleans' Mid-City neighborhood, steps away from Neyow's, a Creole spot for red beans and rice on Mondays, and shrimp po' boy's every day, moved to New Orleans from Marin County, not all that long ago.
Fairfax, California, the mostly very charming, extremely unaffordable town where Smith grew up, is the type of place a certain type of person spends a lifetime trying to get into. Smith, whose resume up until the point of her departure included washing dishes at the county's iconic, dear departed Lark Creek Inn, as well as a stint as an Oakland Raiders security guard, was dying to get out. Dying, to the point where she finally just got in her car, waving goodbye to a boyfriend and a job, neither of which she was too terribly sad to see the back of, and drove to New Orleans, with no plans to return.
Forever having dreamed of opening her own restaurant, Smith had one specific restaurant in mind, where she thought she might like to work, where she would be able to learn. This restaurant happened to be Donald Link's Cochon, one of the most sought after in New Orleans at the time of her arrival. So she applied, and she applied again, then again, and on and on it went, until she was finally given an opportunity to interview.
First, it turned out, she'd have to convince the interviewer—Link's partner in the business, Stephen Stryjewski—that she wasn’t just another flake from someplace nice, there to temporarily live her New Orleans dream. Stryjewski was skeptical, and he didn’t mind letting her know. Did you leave San Francisco for a dude, he asked. No, she said. Did you leave San Francisco for a lady. No again. Surely, this couldn't be—she really hadn't followed somebody down here? No, no, and no—this was home now. She was hired.
If you were a frequent visitor to Cochon Butcher, the lively, casual café and butcher shop next door to the more formal Cochon, from just around the beginning of the present decade, up until a couple of years ago, you will perhaps recognize Smith as the one they'd refer to as the "Meat Mama." She'd ended up in charge of Cochon's charcuterie and butchering operation, and working there brought Smith to a realization. Restaurant, sure, great. Now, however, she wanted her own butcher shop. And then she met Daniel Jackson, who everyone calls Dan, unless they call him the Reverend, because he's an ordained minister. (Actually, they both are.)
Jackson came to New Orleans from Buffalo, to attend Tulane University, where he studied English and Philosophy. Smith hired him at Cochon Butcher, back in 2014. He had nice eyes, Smith recalls. She didn't even read his resume.
There were a lot of things that they learned, together, at Cochon Butcher—most importantly, says Smith, there weren't enough opportunities for people in New Orleans to buy sustainably raised meats—an issue close to her heart. Piece of Meat began as a pop-up, serving food, with the hope of eventually building a true neighborhood butcher shop, something people would come to from around the corner, or even miles around.
"We were driving around with a smoker at that time, doing pop-ups," says Smith. "I knew I didn't want to work for anyone else, and we met the people who own our building, and they got super excited way too quickly, and a year later, here we are."
Piece of Meat opened on April 21st of this year—"That's when our business partner said was astrologically favorable." Smith smiles from behind the counter, where she is hustling along with her well-organized crew, whipping things into shape for the day's lunch service.
Apparently, there was something in those stars, because the shop very quickly became a focal point for the neighborhood, not to mention an almost irresistible lure for meat lovers from all over the city. With a good amount of comfortable bar seating, half of it facing straight toward the busy chopping block, Piece of Meat is a dream hang out for carnivores, for small bites and big meals and carefully composed boards of technically perfect (and delicious) house made charcuterie, the perfect accompaniment to the live action floor show. And then they pick up more meat to take home.
The shop is of modest size, but it is far from modest—the aesthetic is bold, modern eclectic, with brushed concrete floors, subway tile on the walls, antique meat grinders fashioned into light fixtures. An L-shaped cooler is filled with steaks and chops and paté, there are smoked ribs, there's brisket, piles of chicken, there are rows of hanging meats, curing behind glass.
"Most of our meat is from The South," Smith tells me. "Our pigs come from Home Place Pastures, up in Mississippi—those guys are rad, they inherited their grandfather's farm, it's a bunch of kids in their twenties, and they've got a full-blown abattoir," she says, admiringly. "Those dudes are on the farm all day, every day, and they're bringing it back to the way animals should be raised." Lots of their beef comes from 1855 Farms in Georgia. Wagyu-style beef comes from people over in Lafayette—she has to order the entire cow, a month in advance.
"I’m incredibly protective of animals, and I think they should be raised properly and treated respectfully, even after they die—we use everything. I have a freezer full of feet right now," says Smith. "One time, I stole a pig from some hipsters that had him tied to a fence. To a fence! Someone called me, saying, hey, Leighann, there are some people that have a pig tied up to a fence, and I went over there in my pajamas, and the guy was like, hey, you can't take my pig, and I told him to go ahead and call the cops." (He did not.)
Smith and Jackson see themselves not only as butchers, but as a meat concierge team; as many new breed meat purveyors find, you are not only hawking better rib eye, but in many cases, you're selling a lifestyle change, and change isn't always easy, even if it's for the best.
You can't just sell a chuck roast, Jackson says. "You have to be educators, you have to tell someone how to take that chuck roast home and do it, in order to be successful at this."
Smith and Jackson encourage customers to call into the store and ask for help, if they get home and find themselves stuck. On one of a handful of recent visits, Smith is outside talking technique with a customer, out on the corner where they set up a water station every morning for waiting patrons and the odd passerby ("It's New Orleans, it's hot," she says).
Not that you need to do any of the work yourself, because there is food served here, and if you are wondering what to order, the answer is pretty much everything, but you should begin with the charcuterie board, a generous selection of five different meats, with pickles, mustard, almonds and toast points, for just $22.
More of a sausage person? There's a sampler board of three, for $18. Order a plate of beautiful St. Louis style ribs, far superior to what you will find at most places in New Orleans known for their barbecue, along with a red potato salad, for $14. Sandwiches are exemplary, every single one—there is smoked brisket and hot pastrami, the latter dripping delicious Thousand Island; the steak of the day sandwich, with balsamic red onions, red pepper aioli and arugula on an onion roll, is worth the $15 splurge. This is fun, accessible, quality food, the stuff you want to go back to, again and again, and people do.
"We had a guy who came in by himself and ate a full meal, and then came in with his wife a few hours later, pretending he hadn't seen us earlier that day," remembers Smith, recalling another couple who came in, bought a jar of pickled pigs feet, sat down and went to town.
What they sell a lot of, however, is the most stoner-friendly dish on the menu, the boudin egg rolls. Inspired by something similar Smith saw at a gas station in rural Louisiana, they are ridiculously simple, at least in theory—house boudin, with everyday pepper jack cheese, rolled up in a wonton skin, fried crispy, cut artfully in half and served with a creamy sriracha dip.
You pay $7 for two of them, and they have sold roughly 5000 orders of them since opening, probably more by now, and you'll see why. Order the refreshing tomato and watermelon salad, with crumbly feta, chili, red wine and vinegar on the side, just to balance out the whole experience. Then go away, come back, and do it all over again.
On a typical day, Piece of Meat runs like a well-oiled machine, like an establishment that has been around a lot longer than a summer and change, doing a brisk business in brisket, and everything else. Not that success was assured—Smith and Jackson were as nervous as any other new business owner would be, but the duo's obvious talents did not go unnoticed, and the support was there from the start.
From day one of Turkey and the Wolf, one of Food & Wine's Best Restaurants 2017, Smith was making the bologna that went into Mason Hereford's signature sandwich, and she started out making it in Cochon's own kitchen, with the blessing of Stephen Stryjewski. The very first morning they opened, Stryjewski was in line with everyone else, buying bacon. "I was like, Stephen, you have your own butcher shop—you can get bacon for free," Smith laughs.
"We had multiple contingency plans, if the meat didn't sell," Smith gestures around the shop like the host of one of those house-flipping shows, showing what she'd get rid of, in order to turn a profit. Essentially, she says, they could just turn all of this into a restaurant, and sell a ton of those egg rolls. So far, they've been able to have it all. So far, so good. Very good, in fact.