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We’re late by at least an hour and Jorge, my driver and fellow culinary adventurer, seems totally chilled. He calls his English speaking friend George (I doubt it’s his real name) for directions and to ask him to tell me to calm down. I sit in the back calling Renzo Garibaldi - Lima’s hottest young butcher - who, when he eventually answers, laughs at my apologies. “Don’t worry”, he chuckles, “you’ll probably be the first one here, this is Peru, nobody’s on time.”
We’re about 40 minutes out of Lima on route to Osso - Garibaldi’s small butchers shop in La Molina. The busy streets of Lima city have been left behind as we pass late night joggers and large residential buildings with their guards. It seems crazy to be driving to a butcher’s shop at 8pm in the evening but Osso is not your ordinary walk in, grab a piece of meat, sort of place. In fact, when I met Renzo the night before and he explained the concept, his secret room, his love for butchery, and how every now and then he hosts special dinners for no more than eight guests with specially aged cuts, a huge open fire, wonderfully blood thick red wines and no forks allowed - a meat sweat formed almost instantly on my forehead. Renzo must have noticed this because he quickly invited me to what can only be described as a marathon of meat - quite possibly the only type of marathon I’m psychically capable of competing in.
Walking into Osso it seems like any regular butchers except more suited to funky hipster street of Brooklyn than the outskirts of Lima, I guess that’s the point. Renzo is bringing the trade of butchery, something widely disregarded and undervalued in Peru, to a modern, even cool, level. After just a few minutes chatting with him it’s obvious this is entirely deliberate. “The fact we can sell 650 soles a kilo steak and at the same time sell 8.50 soles hamburgers and have those two world’s collide in the same store and drink the same beer together, it’s amazing.’
He thanks Gaston Acurio for helping bring this culture to Peru, it was also Gaston who forced Renzo’s hand in starting the Butcher’s Table Experience. As he explains: “It started with Gaston. I had this idea, had this dream and then Mistura came and he just started recommended people. We had to start the menu because people started calling. We didn’t have nothing - no cutlery, no chairs, no plates - just a table because that’s where we cut. People started calling making reservations and we were saying: 'Sorry, wrong number, no reservations, no restaurant’. Then someone called and said: ‘Look, I talked with Gaston and he said we should come here so could you take us in?’ Renzo looks at me, of course I couldn’t say no - “When do you want to come? ‘Tomorrow at noon’.”
And that was it, Renzo and his team quickly hashed together a dining space and the Butcher’s Table was born. What is now one of the hottest bookings in Lima with the likes of Acurio, Massimo Bottura and Daniel Humm all attending Renzo’s legendary dinners. At tonight’s feast, Diego Muñoz, head chef at Acurio’s Astrid y Gaston restaurant and Luis Garcia, ex-manager of the Ferran Adria’s elBulli restaurant, will take a seat at what was, just hours a earlier, a working butcher’s table.
As guests slowly drip into the front of the shop, marvelling at the wide array of products - homemade sausages, rows of dry ageing meats, perfectly smoked bacons and Osso’s mascot, a chubby pig butcher. Renzo, at way over 6 foot, commands the room. His eccentric moustache gives him an immediate air of circus master. Assuming the position of tonight’s raconteur, he shows off our delights - wagyu, kobes - cuts I’ve never even heard of - Jorge, my local Peruvian barometer, says he’s never seen anything like it, he can’t quite hide the bewildered look on his face, he's shocked it even exists. Renzo continues, explaining how each cut differs, how each offers a different flavour and how the ageing process - sometimes well over a 100 days - helps to change the complexity of the flavour.
It’s this deep understanding of how connective tissue breaks down during ageing that helps Renzo turn even the toughest cuts of Peruvian cattle into wonderfully juicy pieces of pleasure. He explains there are a number of farming problems in Peru, first being that cattle is often killed way too young to form the great flavours found in older animals. It’s not all a matter of cost, “our big problem is the breed - we have cows that are beautiful for milk but not so good for meat.” He's changing this by working closely with the local farmers to rear stronger breeds and employ more energy and pride into the work of raising brilliant animals.
All the meat, hanging, sitting, just waiting there for us, puts a strange blood lust in the air. That look you see in wolves just before they devour their catch, I notice it in us all, I feel it in myself. It only increases when Renzo announces that "it’s time" before taking us into the back and revealing the waiting table. High with large seats, all the fuel needed to power the feast provided by huge open fire at the head, a paper place mat and single knife rests on the wooden butcher’s. Cold cuts and salumi have already been set and Renzo, with huge grin in his ’Meat to Please You’ T-Shirt, wastes no time in rustling up some tartar - tartar to be scooped and eaten directly with the hands. Honestly, the only thing that could make it more caveman would be live dinosaurs roaming around outside.
Perfect mini burgers, one cut of meat aged 28 days, another at 45, wonderfully deep wagyu at a massive 160 days - like some sort of fine whiskey tasting. Every time a new cut has kissed the flames, we’re presented the meat fresh from the fire on large a wooden board. Some use their hands, others prod at chunks with their knife, the releasing sounds of ‘mmms’ ‘noms’ and ‘arghhs’ quickly fill the air, wine is poured, shared and savoured while blood drips to the table.
All the time Renzo smiles, he’s happy to serve but more so, he’s happy to show off what he’s done - not in a braggy way - but in a positive, look at what we can do for the future, kind of way. “People need a chance, something to be proud of, the idea that if they keep doing what they’re doing they’re going to get somewhere. We’ve been very lucky because we’ve found farmers that are willing to work with us if we’re willing to pay the price… Now people come to visit us, to speak with us, ask advice and see what we do - we’re very proud and happy about this. Now we need more little producers, more people specialising in what they do and doing it with a lot of passion, someone who makes cheese. Please! Someone in Peru who makes really amazing cheese where you can smell the love that they put into it. Hopefully we'll see more butchers shops and all of us emphasising that the product means more than anything else.”