Steve Dawson’s life was changed by a piece of meat.
It wasn’t even a good piece of meat. It was a Buffalo steak that he found at a farmer’s market outside of Washington, D.C. But it was interesting.
“It was like, super tough; it wasn’t good,” says Dawson. “But there was something about it and it made me think … the fact that I knew the farmer, I shook his hand that day, and was like, ‘local tastes better.’ Even though it didn’t at that time! It intrigued me, and I wanted to try and find more local locally sourced things.”
Now, Dawson has his own butcher shop in Lawrenceville — Fat Butcher. It opened a few doors down from what was once Foster’s Meats, which sold kielbasa to generations of Pittsburghers. But getting there was a journey.
Dawson is a trained geologist who worked in environmental remediation for the oil and gas industry. He always kept one foot in the kitchen, though. Eventually, he walked into Underground Butcher in Madison, Wisconsin.
“I found out that they were getting all their animals locally, and they had a pig head in the case,” says Dawson. “I was like what, ‘What do you do with that? How much?’ And I was like, alright, I’ll buy it, and I just brought it home. Cooked it, and it was pretty good, actually.”
He volunteered at Underground Butcher at first, then was hired. Next, Dawson went on to break down whole animals for James Beard Award-winning chef Tory Miller at his Madison restaurant Graze.
When Dawson’s wife got a job at the University of Pittsburgh, he ended up in a city that he decided needed a butcher shop.
“In 2017, my younger brother passed away,” says Dawson, a Westmoreland County native. “I felt like a strong desire to go back home to be with family. I wasn’t sure what I was doing at the time, but I just knew that I wanted to make it happen.”
Pittsburgh has had a number of butcher shops fall by the wayside in recent years, including Butcher on Butler, DJ’s Butcher Block, Heritage Craft Butchers and Block 292 — although places like Salem’s Market and Grill, Strip District Meats, Thoma Meat Market and Tom Friday’s Market serve Pittsburgh’s non-vegetarian foodies.
Clearly, it’s not an easy business to be in. But that doesn’t deter Dawson at all.
“I really loved the vibe of a butcher shop as opposed to a restaurant, or working behind the bar,” says Dawson. “I like getting to talk to people about how they’re gonna cook, and how I’ve cooked things, and listening to other chefs. And, like, getting to be a part of someone’s meal or party.”
Dawson’s philosophy towards butchery is to avoid waste and use every part of the animal possible.
“It’s whole-animal butchery; you’re utilizing every single cut,” says Dawson. “We’re taking all the bones and roasting them and making stock; we’re making demi-(glace). We’re making beef bacon, pork bacon. We’re making lots of different sausages, smoked ham and turkey and everything else.”
The meats at Fat Butcher all come from Pennsylvania farms.
“We talk to the farmers every week,” explains Dawson. “We go to the farms and talk about foods that animals are eating, the breeds of animals. Like Birch Creek (in Burgettstown), we have a Kosher King Chicken that will fly downhill and hunt bugs and is very hard to catch. They have a half-Berkshire, half-Mangalitsa pig; in the winter it gets really fat because it lives outside.
“The first cow that we got was a Devon from Rolling Hills, a heritage breed of cow that was brought over to the United States by the Pilgrims in the 1600s. … We got in a whole animal from Pasture Perfect up in Grove City. They have a Black Angus crossed with a Scottish Highlands, which makes them a little bit smaller than a Black Angus, but with much better temperament. The cows live a very good life. They’re very happy when you walk into the barn, and you have to lower your voice to keep the environment calm.”
Dawson originally looked at the former Foster’s Meats space a few doors down, but it wasn’t in great shape. He did get a wooden bench from Foster’s, however, which now holds charcoal in the front of Fat Butcher.
So far, people seem pretty enthusiastic to have a butcher shop back in the neighborhood, says Dawson.
“A lot of people are asking about kielbasa,” says Dawson. “I was making a jalapeño cheddar smoked kielbasa, but I didn’t know whether to call it ‘kielbasa’ or not … but I’ve come to learn that kielbasa is just a Polish word for ‘sausage.’”
A part of the job he relishes is explaining the nuances of different cuts to the public.
“Everyone’s always asking for ribeye,” says Dawson. “And we’re always trying to tell people that some of our favorite steaks are the teres major, the petite tender, the chuck eyes. I think part of our job here is just sort of educating people on some of those different cuts that don’t normally make it to a grocery store.”
There are a lot of chances to try new things, and Dawson is intent on taking them all. But some things are just really fun to make.
“I love making meatballs,” says Dawson. “I love smoking brisket. I have a good pastrami recipe that I’ve been working on for a few years, Montreal smoked meat-style.”
Fat Butcher also features a takeout menu that includes a smash burger, a meatloaf sandwich and corned beef.