There is no question that Jack O’Shea knows what he wants. And he is determined to get it. With the Brussels Jack O’Shea Chophouse finally open, he is now focusing on growing the business to turn it truly global.
A long-time proponent of nose to tail cooking and with the intention of wasting nothing, he is now leading by example having opened his first restaurant. “I have always loved cutting and selling meat. But ultimately you never have control of what happens to the meat when it leaves your butcher shop. The ultimate position would be to have your own restaurant and control how the meat is served, to make sure that it is cooked to perfection or as good as it can be,” Jack tells me when I met him at the Chophouse in Brussels recently.
But the restaurant has also given him the economies of scale he needs to not only follow his philosophy of wasting nothing from the animals but also to grow the business. “What the Chophouse will do is help me to centralise and stabilise my business. I expanded the butcher business to be able to use the full animal and now with the restaurant I will also be able to eliminate all my waste from the butcher shops.”
Just over two months ago, Jack lost his father, the ninth generation of butchers in the family. “I told my father that now that I am completely mobile and want to grow the business. I want to eventually end up in Hong Kong,” he tells me.
“My father worked in the shop. He knew his clients inside out but he never ventured outside the shop and the business,” Jack tells me. The family has been in this business since 1760 and Jack is the 10th generation.
I immediately connect with him when he tells me the reason why he decided to leave Ireland. “Ireland was too small for me. The village had 2,000 people. I needed a stage and I needed to get out of there.” Competition in Ireland was tough because good meat was available but there was also price competition because the Irish tended to be price conscious. “It was not fun. There was good meat everywhere and you needed to be inventive with gimmicky price offers. I needed a niche market for people who wanted good quality. I needed a place where I could add value.”
That decision must not have been easy for his father. “I would not have done what I have done without the knowledge I learned with my father. You also learn a lot subconsciously. I can say that I learnt even the things that I was not really interested in knowing. We had our own abattoir in Ireland and that really got me into close contact with the meat,.”
He tells me that nowadays most abattoirs immediately deep-freeze the meat after the animals have been slaughtered. They do not wait for the meat to cool down naturally and then to start the process of age drying the meat to make it lose moisture.
I ask why he decided to open Jack O’Shea Chophouse in Brussels. “Brussels is where I learned all about food. I also have Brussels and Belgium to thank for increasing my knowledge of butchery. There are incredibly knowledgeable butchers in Belgium. Their methods and their preparations are excellent and I have learnt so much here,” he tells me.
But it was not always easy. “It was difficult at the start. I spent 3 years in Rue Franklin, Brussels waiting for people to walk into the butcher shop. I started there with another employee until it finally worked. Some days were better than others. And then suddenly people started to get to know us and it went on from there. Now we have 42 employees,” he tells me.
“I’ve always had this dream of opening a restaurant. Men crave a fire. No matter where you work, a fire to cook with is what we crave for. Most boys love meat and a flame,” he tells me with a smile. “So the aim of the Chophouse is to keep it really simple. It is the same spirit we have in the butcher shop. We do not do fancy cooking. He try to keep it extremely simple. We do not try to be clever but just discreet and simple.”
You cannot fault this philosophy when you know that the quality of the ingredients he is working with is exceptional. “We do not ask customers how they like the meat to be cooked. If it is a bit too rare for them when it’s served we will ask them if they would like it to be cooked a bit more.”
It might sound arrogant in an age where we are told the ‘customer is always right’ but who knows best how the meat should be served than the butcher who has followed the process from start to finish.
The Brussels Chophouse could end up being the first of a number of Jack O’Shea restaurants. “I already have offers to open in London and Dublin. But for the time being what I am interested in is to get the formula right. So far we have had a soft-launch and there are still many things that need to be sorted out. But it is great that we finally opened. The delay was frustrating. At one point it was taking so long that we shifted our focus on opening a shop in London. But it was frustrating,” he said.
The Chophouse will become central to the butcher shops. “We will be using many parts of the animal which we otherwise would not be able to use. We can prepare ready made meals, we can get the chefs to cook stews which will be used in our pies. “Now that we have economies of scale it starts to get interesting. We want to be able to do slow cooking and to get people working in the butcher shops to come and train at the Chophouse and to learn certain skills here,” said Jack.
Jack O’Shea is today considered to be one of Europe’s leading butchers whose expertise in butchery, range of meats and extensive knowledge of produce has won him critical acclaim and a large following within the food industry.”That’s a big statement,” he tells me though it comes with the knowledge and first-hand experience of the quality of his meat .
After opening his first butcher shop in 1998 in Brussels, he ventured to London in 2006. He is famous for his take on old school cuts and particularly the grass fed and grain finished Angus beef which is naturally marbled and of exceptional quality.
He tells me the secret to his quality meat. “I firmly believe that happy animals produce great meat. We find the right animals, they are all grass-fed in Ireland and we also feed them on local grains at the end of the process “We give them a mix of grains because heavy cereal is not good for the animals. Cereal is good for the fat in the meat. An animal with a full stomach is a happy animal.”
Jack has set his sights on expansion. Having announced the opening of a third shop in Uccle, Brussels as a tribute to a poultry butcher who died tragically, (see previous post), he will also be opening a butcher shop in Germany later this year. “I took part in a TV programme in Germany last year which was widely viewed. An opportunity came in Heidelberg and I will be opening there.”
He has also tried selling meat online across Europe. “The infrastructure is amazing. You can be selling meat in Berlin without the need to have a shop there. In future, everything will be driven by marketing and PR. But it is not as easy as it seems. The logistics, particularly when it comes to delivering meat is not easy.”
After facing problems with his logistics company, he has now moved the distribution centre from London to Brussels and it is now going smoothly so the online business will be relaunched in the next few months.
Jack is now managing the business which means that he does not necessarily put his butchery skills to practice often. “I am constantly on the move going from one place to another. I am constantly on the go. Given he has mentioned Hong Kong, I ask him if his next target is to open in Hong Kong. “No the next target is to open in the United States now that the barrier to Irish beef has been lifted. There are great family traditions and lots of Irish so it would be great to open in New York or Boston.
Is it a trend for butchers to open their own stores or for farmers to sell directly? “We need to take the power away from the supermarkets. Farmers are at the end of the chain. If they sit back and don’t fight, things will remain the same. People might be busy, have three children, a job so it might not mean that everyone shifts from supermarkets. But it is good for farmers to be accessible. I always tell them they don’t need to open a shop and open every day. They just have to keep it simple, do it cautiously maybe through a farmers market,” he said.
He is one of those who have fought back. “I have been watching the steakhouse trend frustratingly for 10 years in London. There are lot of amateurs in the business. I tell you that you are better off going to McDonald’s then eating some of the ‘gourmet burgers’ on offer in London. At least they get the meat right.”
Jack sees I am pretty shocked. “They would love me to say this but it is the truth. There is probably less bacteria and if you are stuck it is not going to kill you. God knows what goes into the burgers in some of these gourmet burger places.”
Jack O’Shea Chophouse is open for lunch and Dinner from Thursday to Monday. It is closed on Tuesday and Wednesday.