Lobel’s: Butchering the competition
ASPEN For the first 19 years of his life, Evan Lobel resisted entering the family butchering business, threatening to end a five-generation line of butchers that extended back to a cattle farm in Austria. Instead, Lobel tried his hand at jewelry, pottery and glass-blowing. So it’s little surprise that when Lobel did join his father, Leon, at the Lobel’s shop at 1096 Madison Ave., it was the hands-on aspect of the work that appealed to him.”What I really loved was working with my hands, and talking to people,” said the 51-year-old. “When I start out with a big chunk of meat – that’s my palette. My dad told me, make it different from what everyone else does. Be an artist.”
There are a lot of busy hands during the Food & Wine Magazine Classic, the 25th edition of which runs through Sunday in Aspen. There are the hands that clean the thousands of wine glasses, those that clean up the streets after the feasting is done, the hands of celebrity chefs shaking those of their fans. But in the first round of Grand Tasting on Friday at Wagner Park, no hands were busier than Lobel’s. Lobel and his company were serving up a new product: fully cooked barbecue beef brisket, on a bun with a side of cole slaw; additional vinegar sauce optional. The treats under the tent were abundant, from Australian lamb to Colorado honey wine to the one-two punch of snapper ceviche and pork wraps at the Puerto Rico exhibit. But the Lobels’ exhibit created a blockade of barbecue fans, and as far as I could tell, Lobel’s hands didn’t stop slicing for an hour and a half.That didn’t leave much time for the other half of the job that Lobel loves – interacting with customers. “If they can talk to one of the people that cuts meat, who also owns the company, that’s great,” said Evan, who runs the business with his two brothers, David and Mark. “In today’s world, with Wal-Marts and megastores, you’re talking to a blank slate. We’re trying to buck that.”
Lobel’s, which has had its Madison Avenue location since 1952, and before that, on Manhattan’s West Side, has turned its back on another trend, toward expanding the brand. It doesn’t sell its meats to any restaurants or in other stores.”We could have sold out in many ways. We’ve had people come to us with business opportunities,” said Evan Lobel, whose father died a year and a half ago. “But that would have spread us too thin. We wanted to maintain the integrity of the brand. So the only places you can get Lobel’s products in at lobels.com and at 1096 Madison Ave. So there’s a certain mystique about what we do.”Lobel’s launched its internet presence in earnest in 2001, and Evan Lobel has expended a considerable amount of energy ensuring that the customer service available on the Upper East Side extends to carnivores in Fresno. The new brisket, for instance, is dry-rubbed with a marinade, then cooked for 14 hours – first with mesquite wood, for a sweet, smoky flavor, then with applewood for a mellow finish. All the while, it is mopped with a vinegar-based sauce. When it is shipped, it is still fresh; like all Lobel’s meats, there is no freezing involved.
Grand Tasting Tent visitors should be warned that Lobel plans on switching things up at his booth this weekend. But this shouldn’t cause alarm. Also in the rotation are braised short ribs, and wagyu beef, from a breed of Japanese cattle, which Lobel likens to fois gras.For those who must have the barbecue brisket, it’s on the menu for Saturday’s 11:30 Grand Tasting.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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