For conscientious chefs in the city, whole-animal butchering has become the new model for moral meat: an entire creature used from head to tail in a single kitchen. But some restaurants are just too small to have a cow.
The solution: steer-sharing arrangements in which two establishments share the carcass without sacrificing standards.
At Bark's three locations in Brooklyn and Manhattan, patrons use biodegradable forks and drop food waste in composting bins. But buying a locally raised steer in full—750 pounds of meat or more—would have far outstripped the need for beef.
Co-founders Brandon Gillis and Josh Sharkey made a deal with their butcher, Jake Dickson of Dickson Farmstand, to go splits on a steer each week. "It's a symbiotic relationship," Mr. Sharkey explained.
Mr. Dickson keeps the pricier cuts for retail customers at his butcher shop in Chelsea Market, and Bark takes the brisket, top round and other parts to grind for its hamburgers and chili.
It works out well for purveyors, too, with a guaranteed taker for less popular parts. "We don't have a big enough retail market for the ground beef and stew cuts," said Mr. Dickson.
Their pact is one example of trading that goes on as chefs devise creative ways to work with the region's small cadre of ethically focused meat suppliers.
For Peter Hoffman, owner of Back Forty and Back Forty West in Manhattan, commodity beef from large feedlots isn't an option. He dismisses "$2-a-pound meat" of unknown provenance that "might not come from a single animal." Instead, he gets half of a grass-fed steer each week from DeBragga in Jersey City, N.J., and the supplier sends the other half to the Brooklyn restaurant Flatbush Farms.
A steer-sharing solution isn't without drawbacks. Using a single specimen means "you only have one set of everything," said Casa Mono chef Andy Nusser. That can work out to fewer prime cuts than a chef wants.
And then there are subprime parts, like organs. Mr. Nusser believes the whole-animal concept includes honoring a steer by using everything. "You have to get really creative," he said.
Diner, the popular restaurant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is the acknowledged pioneer of whole-animal butchering in the city. Owners Andrew Tarlow and Mark Firth started ordering by the steer about five years ago when their butcher, Joshua Applestone, convinced them to simply sell the unused cuts.
In 2008, the duo opened a whole-animal butcher shop, Marlow & Daughters. It now supplies their three restaurants as well as retail customers. "We had to create new systems," Mr. Tarlow said, because the meat distribution system "was broken."
Mr. Applestone, who with his wife Jessica owns Fleisher's in Kingston, N.Y., and Park Slope, tells chefs that butchering is good for them: "A peak experience," he says, "that's very hands-on, visceral and primal." He offers butchering classes.
But even chefs open to working with a side of beef can find the experience overwhelming.
"To be honest, it's quite daunting," said Tomas Curi, chef at Corsino in West Village. "It's a race against time, and a test of all I can do with this animal."
Mr. Curi bought a 30-inch butchering saw last week so that he could break down a 350-pound half-steer. He ordered from Brooklyn-based Heritage Foods USA, and the supplier found three other local chefs to share a two-steer shipment.
"It took a good three eight-hour days to take it all off the bone," Mr. Curi reported.
Lia Forman, pit master at Fort Reno in Park Slope, tackled her own half-steer and confessed, "I really did struggle with it." She worried she didn't "do the animal justice" because she split the brisket, a rookie mistake.
"It's not for the faint of heart," Ms. Forman said.