Is NYC's Favorite New Butcher Shop The Future? (God, We Hope So.)
Smiles and swine on the Upper West Side.
July 21, 2017 ● 5 min read
By Priya Krishna | Photograph of Erika Nakamura (left) and Jocelyn Guest by Eric Medsker
White Gold does not look like any other butcher shop in New York City.
There are no beefy dudes hacking through meat with heavy metal in the background. The shelves are covered with little cartoon cow and pig figurines. The utensil containers are old tins of Colman’s mustard. The chicken thighs in the case are arranged into a neat, latticed pattern. Nothing on the lunch menu costs over twelve dollars. The Big Little Lies soundtrack is playing over the speaker system. It’s all very pleasant.
This vision belongs to Jocelyn Guest and Erika Nakamura, protégés of April Bloomfield (to whose empire this restaurant belongs), who opened this cozy butcher shop and restaurant in the Upper West Side last year to universal critical acclaim. They worked for Bloomfield in the background for the past few years, developing her restaurants’ impressive sustainable, whole animal butchery program, but White Gold is the duo’s first major step into the spotlight.
The mission is simple but groundbreaking: make buying and enjoying well-sourced meat an everyday, approachable activity. Go figure, but in a lot of the opening press on the shop, their genders took up the most breathless coverage: Guest recounts several instances in which the two prepared to share their insights on meat, and instead fielded questions about being women, as if this were an outrageous hook. (Can women even like, lift meat??) Though the approach seems pretty straightforward, their dedication to solving it is the underlying engine of everything they do here.
“You walked in on a really good day,” Guest says as I enter the shop, with an enormous grin on her face. “We’re getting five pigs.”
Neither of their individual paths to White Gold was what you'd call direct, or predictable. Nakamura was a sculpture major, and a vegetarian fueled by animal rights. On a whim, she attended culinary school, got salmonella simply from cutting—not even eating!—chickens in class, and realized that our food system was more broken and irresponsible than she thought. But it wasn’t until she was kicked off the line at Blue Hill at Stone Barns (“because I kept crying,” she says) and getting stuck with bone marrow scraping duty as punishment that she knew butchery spoke to something in her.
“I loved working with my hands, doing detail work with a knife, repeating the same motions and getting faster,” she says. After Blue Hill, she decided she was going to be a butcher. A thoughtful one, with sustainability at her core.
In 2010, she opened Lindy and Grundy, an organic whole animal butcher shop in Los Angeles, with her now ex-wife. It was here that Nakamura would meet the two people who would be the keys to her future at White Gold: Jocelyn Guest, and April Bloomfield.
At the time, Guest was an apathetic comedy writer looking to make a career change. She had worked in kitchens, visited Lindy and Grundy a few times, and was curious about butchering. She asked Nakamura for an apprenticeship, which was tentatively accepted. She turned out to be a natural. “It was the physicality of the whole thing,” she says. “I feel like a lot of day’s work can be so intangible, like ‘I sent a bunch of emails.’ With butchery, your day is turning a whole cow into steaks. You can see that. It is satisfying.” Guest stuck around after her apprenticeship and became one of Nakamura’s most trusted employees.
Then April Bloomfield, looking to open a restaurant in Los Angeles, stopped by. “It was like Mother Teresa had just walked in,” Nakamura recalls. Bloomfield dug the focus on sustainability, and soon she and Nakamura had struck up a friendship. After the closing of Lindy and Grundy, that relationship turned into a job for Nakamura at The Breslin after she closed Lindy and Grundy, and eventually, a spot for Guest as one of the opening butchers at Salvation Burger.
The pair rose through the ranks of Bloomfield’s burgeoning empire, completely transforming its butchery program. You’d be surprised, they tell me, how many high-end restaurants still source their meat from irresponsibly run farming operations. They wanted to make The Spotted Pig, The Breslin, and Salvation Burger the exceptions to the rule.
As Guest and Nakamura’s whole animal vision proved a hit with diners, it soon became clear to Bloomfield and her partner Ken Friedman that there needed to be a separate outpost for the company’s butchering operation, where the excellent meat used in the restaurants could be available to all; and that these two deserved their own spot — and not just as the head butchers, but as owners.
“They were young and enthusiastic and just as invested as I was in our brand,” Bloomfield says. “I knew they would work equally as hard at finding the best product and would go the extra step no matter what.” By day, White Gold would be a butcher shop; by night, it would become a full-service restaurant, serving things like beef heart with spring onions and embodying the classic cool of every Bloomfield/Friedman operation.
Now, back to those pigs. The carcasses all hang up in the back of the restaurant like piñatas, and Guest is sliding on a pair of white gloves as if she’s about to perform surgery. She grabs a saw that is approximately half as tall as she is, and proceeds to slice off the leg of one of these pigs with careful precision. We talk casually about weed goldfish, Pandora playlists, and SoHo House, but I’m distracted by the fact that she is nonchalantly chopping up five pigs, Jason Voorhees-style, not skipping a beat as she quips about a failed Boomerang post of the very Instagram-friendly omelet at Bar Moga. Her cuts are perfect, meticulous, rhythmic. She tells me a story about how one customer once made a request to purchase eight cow eyes while she peels fat in one seamless rip off of a pig’s butt. In an hour, she and her coworker Gian Carlo break down all five animals.
Downstairs, Nakamura is teaching White Gold’s latest trainee on how to make sausage. She doesn’t do nearly as much butchering these days; she and Guest are slowly learning to step away from the meat, and take on their roles as leaders and mentors in the restaurant. They want to teach regular classes, make prices even more affordable, and take on apprentices to whom they can teach their unique approach to butchery. Nakamura dreams of turning White Gold into a scalable, fast-casual concept; Guest envisions White Gold bacon, hot dogs, and ham in supermarkets across the country.
“The point of the restaurant wasn’t for us to be butchering,” Nakamura says. “It was for us to have more oversight, and make sure things were running properly.”
They are remarkably adept at dividing and conquering, and in inspiring their team in two completely different ways — Nakamura is strategic and organized; Guest is empathetic and action-oriented. They are invested in this endeavor as deeply as it is possible to be: both facing business ownership for the first time, best friends, and partners in life as in the restaurant, which requires a balanced hand.
“I have been married before to my work partner, and I can see how that can degrade and wear away at a relationship,” Nakamura says. “My challenge has been how to preserve the good parts of our partnership and translate them into the work environment.”
Guest chimes in, “The likelihood of being friends forever is higher than a restaurant being open forever, so you learn to pick and choose your battles.”
As Guest finishes breaking down the pork and Nakamura readies the sausage stuffer, both covered in blood and flesh, the conversation turns philosophical. They are advocating for a practice that promotes animal welfare — but it all still ends in these creatures’ untimely deaths. Does that ever feel weird or paradoxical, I ask? What if it were their bodies on the butcher block?
If I had lived a happy and fulfilled life, they respond, wouldn’t I want my dead body to be used in a way that would bring joy and deliciousness to someone else? In a strange way, it makes sense. Food brings people such immense pleasure — perhaps we should, upon our passing, want to carry that forward.
When Nakamura heads back downstairs, I lean into Guest and ask her what dish she’d like to be made out of her body when she dies. She thinks on this for a while.
“I think I’d be a full braise,” she finally responds. “Maybe a coq au vin.”