Being a butcher is hardly a glamorous job in any country — unless you are Hugo Desnoyer. No ordinary meat merchant, his business in Paris counts numerous Michelin-starred chefs among its customers, including Pierre Gagnaire, Alain Passard and Pascal Barbot.
Now he has opened a shop in Tokyo’s Ebisu neighborhood, his first move outside of France. It is a retail store with a “meat bar” tasting counter and a second-floor sit-down restaurant, all serving premium beef that he air-freights from France.
Shortly before opening on Nov. 4, he spoke with The Japan Times about his rigorous quality standards and his support for organic, small-scale farming.
This is your first shop outside of Paris. Why Japan?
Because this is the most difficult place to start a business — the paperwork, the hygiene standards, the high level of demand from customers. We felt we should aim for the very top. In Paris, we get many Japanese customers. They like French meat because it’s so sweet in the mouth. It’s not fatty, it’s light and nicely balanced.
How long have you been a butcher?
I started in the business at the age of 15½. And I opened my own shop at the age of 27 — it was on April 1, 1998.
Where do you source your meat?
We have 26 farmers who supply Hugo Desnoyer exclusively. They are all in France, located in various parts of the country: Jura, Vienne, Normandy and elsewhere.
You buy the calves and get the farmers to raise them. How old are they when they are butchered?
For my shop in Paris, the cows are normally 5 or 6 years old, after calving once or twice, maybe even three times. But for Japan, it is 28 months. We can’t do more. It’s the law in Japan — 30 months is the maximum age for imported beef.
What is special about the way your cows are reared?
All our cows are reared organically as much as possible. We don’t label the meat as such, but most of it is, just like (prestigious Burgundy wine) Romanee-Conti is organic, although nobody knows. We give the cows as much pasture as possible — one hectare per cow. It’s not intensive, we take time and the cows are happy. This is very important.
Over the past 30 years, things have changed. Before, people were healthy. Now everyone I know, they have the problem of cancer. It’s not coming from God — it’s coming from the food. In the U.S., you can smell the cow farms from 10 kilometers away. But in France a big farmer is one who has 30 cows. And he keeps them on 30 hectares of land.
What breeds of cow do you prefer?
I buy various kinds, such as Limousin and Normande. But I’m not interested in the particular breeds. Instead, I focus on the flavor of the meat. I have three categories, which I call doux (mild), rond (rounded) and corse (rich).
What is the difference between them?
The flavor comes from the fat inside the muscle. It all depends on the aging process. Normally, we refrigerate the meat for four weeks, but sometimes it might be five or six. For Japan, we dry-age for four weeks. But each cow is different, so we check the fat, bones, everything. We taste it each week, until it becomes doux, rond or corse.
What makes your famous beef tartare so good?
We offer two recipes: One is the basic tartare, which is very tasty, and then we have a seasonal version. Right now it’s truffle season and we have white truffles from Alba. I don’t want to serve anything that’s second best. We take only the best ingredients, without thinking about the price. Later we will have tartare with oyster or caviar. Also, we can do something very nice with black truffles.
Are you also bringing pork or chicken to Japan?
We can’t import pork from France, so we chose the best we could find here in Japan: Meishanton (a Chinese crossbreed) from Ibaraki. We do it the same way. We buy the young animal and raise it. We are starting here just with meat, so no chicken at present. But we may bring in some other items in the future.
No Japanese beef?
I have one Japanese farmer whose beef I tasted blind. I went to meet him, all the way to Aso (in Kumamoto Prefecture). It’s a wagyu style cow, but with not so much fat. I have not come to Japan just to do the same thing as the Japanese butchers.
What do you think of wagyu?
Personally I don’t like too much fat. And there is one big problem: the fat tastes of silage. It leaves an acidic taste in the mouth. They also use genetically modified soybeans from the U.S. and Brazil in the feed. It’s not allowed for human consumption, but it’s used for the cows — personally, I don’t like that.
The farmer we found in Kyushu grows his own non-GM soybeans and corn. He just crushes the corn but never ferments it into silage.
What do you think about being called “butcher to the stars”?
The stars are not the people — it is the meat itself. But it’s true, I sell a lot of meat to Michelin-starred restaurants, and many chefs come to my shop. But it’s the same anywhere — if you have a nice product, a lot of people come to you.
What makes Hugo Desnoyer’s meat special?
We have an ethic: the well-being of the animal. Happy cows, at the beginning and at the end. When the time comes, it’s the farmer who takes them in his own van to the slaughterhouse. I carefully choose my slaughterhouses: I need classical music, I need warm showers and the cows never spend more than three hours waiting before being killed. No stress whatsoever. There is less damage to the cows, so this also reduces the problems for us. I will never do it the halal way, because it’s not ethical to me. It causes suffering.
Hugo Desnoyer is located at 1F & 2F Aitrianon, 3-4-16 Ebisu-Minami, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo. For more information, visit www.hugodesnoyer.jp.