It's 6 am and a husband and wife wake up and begin their morning routine. But unlike most people that put on a shirt and tie or a dress, carry a laptop or a messenger bag and head out for their commute, Nathan McCall and Karen Yoo are doing something entirely different than most married couples. Instead they are putting on their chef coats, grabbing their knife bag and walking out together for work. They are on their way to one of Los Angeles's newest culinary-related business, their very own McCall's Meat and Fish Company located right in Los Feliz.
McCall and Yoo both did not intend for this to happen in their lives. Nor did they know that they would ever fall into cooking, and that it would bring them high regard on the Eastside.
Hailing from Fresno, McCall was pressured to find a job right out of high school and found himself at a local restaurant as an expediter. He then had the option of staying with the 'front of the house' or going into the 'back of the house', otherwise known as the kitchen. He took the latter and the next thing he knew, he found himself drawing inspiration from the French Laundry book. He then enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena (CSCA) and eventually worked at Cafe Pinot, Sona and various kitchens throughout Europe.
Yoo was a web designer from UCLA that wanted a way out of the corporate world. In a leap of faith, she enrolled in the pastry program at Le Cordon Bleu with virtually no interest in cooking and soon found herself working at places like Campanile and Sona, as the head pastry chef.
At David Meyer's Sona, they met and later on got married and moved to NYC to work at Daniel Boulud's "Daniel". With plans to open up their own restaurant, they decided instead to take a genius turn in their career path and open a much needed boutique meat and seafood shop in Los Angeles.
On an early morning, I decided to photograph them both during their morning routine. I knocked on the window of McCall's and was greeted by Nathan and Karen. It was 7:30 am and they were looking extremely sharp in their chef gear. Right off the bat,I knew they were serious and passionate about what they do.
When I first walked in here, I was immediately reminded of a painting done by one of my favorite painters, Mark Ryden. A strange man that has a penchant for painting meat and sausages with famous figures. But if you like to cook as much as I do, McCall's will give you the feeling of being in a candy store again.
And from a design perspective, you know that Yoo hasn't lost her touch. They both have done a great job of making you forget that you are in a butcher shop, but rather in a "meat boutique". I've been to many butcher shops and the common denominator is that white ceramic tile in morgues and the chemical smell used to abate the smell of meat and blood. Possibly old meat. And I think a lot of people are intimidated by butcher shops because of the smell and sound of large buzzing bone saws. But at McCall's, all the 'dirty work' is done before you've even stepped in the store.
One thing chefs pride themselves on is cleanliness and presentation. Working in a restaurant, you're either cooking, cleaning or getting your ass kicked by the head chef verbally. Sometimes all at the same time. Because it is so true that good food comes out of a clean kitchen. I watched Yoo put out these beautifully manicured lamb racks. Was it bizarre to crave some nicely seared lamb ribs this early in the morning?
It's now 8 am, and they've got three hours to make everything look shiny and new before the first customer swings that door open. With Blackalicious blasting through their speakers, and on another occasion Bone Thugs n' Harmony, they both grab their knives and do a quick run-through on the sharpening steel. I grab my camera, step back and watch the two butchers go to town.
There's nothing more beautiful to me than watching a fish being filleted. McCall grabs a black cod by the deep eye sockets and checks out both sides of the fish to make sure it looks good. He then lays the fish gently down on the cutting board. McCall is completely focused, more so than Daniel-san from Karate Kid doing his Crane Kick. With a few swift moves, the black cod is halved and without a head.
He tells me that the Black Cod is really an ugly fish, but tastes so good. I add that the Chilean Seabass (aka Patagonian Toothfish) is even uglier and that actually doesn't belong to the bass family. It was a clever marketing plan to sell the fish that is tied for first in the annual ugly pageant with the evil Angler fish. Warning: you are about to see the true meaning of ugly. Speaking of the Angler fish, I'm surprised it is still a surviving species based on its looks.
McCall is finished with five Black Cods in a matter of twenty minutes, with nice fillets placed on a tray like freshly baked goods. He immediately brings out a container of sanitizing solution and cleans up the mess from the Black Cod. I told you good chefs pride themselves on cleanliness. He pulls out a tray of sashimi-grade Salmon that he had already cut up. But he goes through them once more to make sure that everything is cut neatly. He then cuts me off a piece of the belly (toro) - so good.
I've always wanted to buy a block of Salmon and go to town on it with nothing else but soy sauce - eating it like a sandwich. But that would be a very expensive sandwich ha.
My mom traumatized me with the canned Sardines she used to eat over rice. I remember the sound of the lid being popped open and right then, terror would ensue. That stench would send my sister and I running for the hills. But when you've eaten fresh Sardines, maybe lightly battered and fried with an aioli, it's a different thing. Yoo assures that they are anything but fishy because she herself cannot stand fishy fish.
I move over towards Yoo's prep table and in front of her, lay one of the most beautiful racks of pork. Kurobuta to be exact. In Japanese it literally means "black pig", but you may know it more by its Western term, "Berkshire" pork due to its provenance in Britain. Because of its particular farm feed and shortness in muscle fibers, you are rewarded with meat that is extremely juicy and heavily marbled. Basically it's the 'kobe beef' of the pig world. I feel really bad for these black pigs.
With a small paring knife, she takes off the main lid of fat on the outside of the rib rack. She goes in between each rib and cuts out a block of fat which I immediately asked if it will be used in hopes of getting some freebies. Those are simply flavor bombs and you may have seen some Korean BBQ places grease up the grill with some pig fat.
And finally, you've got your final product. Look at the marbling and Yoo's craftsmanship.
I follow McCall back to this walk-in fridge and he shows me yet another tasty addition: live spot prawns. He opens up a Styrofoam box with about 30-40 live spot prawns from Santa Barbara, sitting calmly. The second he grabs one, it's splash city. Yes, they are fresh! When you've got a smaller pool of shrimp, it's much easier to tell which ones may be weak and on the verge of death. At 99 Ranch, it's hard to distinguish that.
He puts the shrimp back and then smiles as he points to his blocks of dry-aged Angus beef, like a man showing off his hunting trophies.
We walk back out and Yoo is on to her next thing: cutting up the house-made sausages. They offer two flavors, pork-fennel and garlic-paprika and both are very nice.
For poultry, they offer already-trussed whole chickens from KenDor farms of Van Nuys, which is named after the owners, Ken and Doreen. Why is it better? If you were free to roam, ate feed mixed with grasses, seeds, grains, vegetables and olive oil, you would be very happy. I asked Yoo if the chicken would be tastier if it was fed bacon.
Yoo: "Okay that sounds delicious and wrong at the same time."
I look back and McCall is now working on a huge block of sashimi-grade tuna. Yes, I retouched the image but I did not add any red to make the fish look better – it was naturally rich in color and quality.
Yoo working on skirt steak with precision. This cut of meat can be fairly thin and easily "butchered". Mmm.
What I like about McCall's is the access to the same types of beef you would find at any fine dining establishment. You can get flat iron cuts, tasty short ribs, hangar and kobe beef by request. For me, the opening of McCall's is further proof that the culinary industry will never be out of trend because it is a breeding ground for the most passionate and creative people out there, who make it an exciting and dynamic career. While most people believe that becoming a chef is the only career out of culinary school, this proves to be a successful deviation from the norm. I think what McCall and Yoo have done is more than offer a resource for good food, but they've also inspired people to return to cooking.
McCall tells me that his business plan is about providing only the best ingredients as any fine-dining establishment would, only in an uncooked form. You walk into McCall's, pick your protein, throw down some white table cloth, candles and Cheesy & Sleazy, and your minutes away from your meal. It's not that you couldn't get the same thing at Whole Foods, which does sell good meat as well, but I prefer the opinions of two chefs that have worked at reputable restaurants. It is what they would serve at their own restaurant. On top of that, you don't need to look up any recipes online, instead you can simply ask either McCall or Yoo what to do with that kurobuta pork you have in your hands. The pricing is on the same level as Whole Foods, but if you care about what you put in your body and respect the hard work and detail put into their business, as I have seen, then you'll understand.
I have to add that when asked what their favorite restaurants are. They replied, "We have no time. Sometimes it's Rick's Burgers over in Silver Lake. People are shocked that we have all this good food in front of us, yet we have NO time to even cook it at home." I thought chefs didn't eat fast food!
On another occasion, I couldn't help myself and ran home with two Kurobuta pork chops. I stared at it like I was receiving my first $100 bill. I asked McCall if I needed to brine this and he just looked at me. "Why? It's already the juiciest pork out there." Okay sorry Chef!
Are you like me when it comes to Salmon? I only like it raw versus cooked. When it's cooked it takes on this new flavor and taste that isn't very appealing to me. If I had to cook it, I think poaching would make it most edible for me. But man, McCall was kind enough to give me the belly section only (toro). Jeni isn't into Salmon sashimi and she devoured this.
Skillet-Seared Kurobuta Pork Chop with Roasted/Curried/Creme Fraiche Cauliflower and Sauteed Garlic Kale
McCall was right, it was so tender. When it comes to high quality meat, you don't need anything more than Kosher salt and fresh black pepper. I cooked it to medium as I like it slightly pink. With better quality meat, you run a smaller chance of acquiring trichinosis, so go ahead and make it a little juicier.
Thanks for reading and say hi to Nathan and Karen.
McCall's Meat and Fish company
2117 Hillhurst Avenue
Los Angeles, California 90027