The Rebel Butcher, Chicago’s Local Meat Man.

By Mark Wilhelms Contributing writer: Jeannie Boutelle

As I walk into Standard Market and forgot how beautiful it is. The place looks more like a sustainable outdoor market than a grocery store. Now I wonder where I am suppose to meet Ben Harrison, Standard Markets Master Butcher? The Standard Market butcher shop is the back section and a real showcase for Good Meat. Chi-town lives up to its reputation as the city of Big Shoulders!! I have heard that Ben Harrison, is one of Chicago’s young “rock star butchers” and I have come to find out why. I look around, and see a friendly guy with a cap on sitting at the coffee bar, looking at me, as I scan the faces at the tables. It must be him!

Ben Harrison Standard MarketComing from a line of butchers, Ben Harrison puts his heart, soul and passion into offering good meat to his customers. Ben Harrison is no newcomer to the fine tradesman art of Butchery. His earliest memory of butchery, is “hanging out as a little kid, sitting on the bone can” watching his father cut the meat at an IGA in Mahomet, Il with the noise of the machines filling the air, surrounded by cleavers, saws, hooks and rails. Back then, everything in the bone can, bones, stock, and trimmings, would be sold and used. He made visits with his father to the farms where the animals were slaughtered.  Ben’s siblings are involved in science and academics and basically they are all brainiacs. I immediately sense that Ben is no slouch either, his IQ is high, his wisdom is beyond his years. Yet he is committed to learning as much as he can and imparting that knowledge about good quality meat to his customers. Even his email address “rebel meats”  indicates that he is not going to be satisfied with the “status quo” in the meat system.

After high school, when Ben went back to the business, it was all about boxed beef, choice and prime, the issue of the animal, where it came from, had disappeared from the conversation. From his childhood experiences, Ben knew that there was a lot more to butchery and he wanted to learn about it. He wasn’t interested in conventional, industry meat and he wanted to be more knowledgeable and be able to ask the hard questions to producers, farmers and to make consumers more aware of what good meat is about. He went back to school at The University of New York Cobleskill, where he learned the A to Z of the meat business: what humane slaughter means using a captive bolt, air bullet, evisceration, skinning, cutting, packaging, sanitation, processing and inspection, inspection, inspection and cleanliness. At school, the USDA inspector would take the cutoff head and examine the tongue and glands. Quite frankly, Ben sounded more like he was talking about surgical procedures rather than food processing.

Ben represents what was old is new again: a new generation of butchers in Chicago conveying “old school ideas”, people who care about humanely raised animals, where they come from, how the meat is cut. He supports the local meat movement and continue to teach its values with the 100’s of customers his meat counter services everyday.

JB: What is a good butcher?
Ben: “A good butcher, cares about the animal, he doesn’t want it to be under a lot of stress before it is killed. If there is a lot of adrenalin in the tissues, the tissues will be flabby and susceptible to bruising. The meat just tastes better when it is humanely killed.  The less adrenalin means I can utilize the whole animal from nose to tail to jowl meat.  A good butcher has respect for the animal, physically and spiritually, how it was raised, what is was fed and how it was slaughtered.”

JB: I did wonder, what is the butchering type, what kind of personality?
Ben: “Butcher’s tend to wear their heart on their sleeve. They are very sensitive yet have gravel in their gut and spit in their eye. It’s not easy work, on your feet, a lot of heavy lifting and the job is not pretty.”

JB: What is your favorite cut of meat and why?
Ben: “A Bone In Strip. It has a nice, rich flavor when it comes from a grass fed animal.”

JB: B You’re a strong advocate of grass fed beef but he wasn’t always that way. In my sustainable food path, “grass fed” is one of those buzz words I hear over and over, yet I asked Ben, “why grass fed?’
Ben: “Grass fed beef just tastes better. Grass fed and pasture raised is a more natural environment and the meat just tastes better. With grass fed beef the fat renders out easily and seals in the flavor. Corn fed, when cooking the meat, it can be rare in the middle and too well done on the outside.”

JB: What question from customers drives him absolutely crazy?
Ben: “Is it good? There are hundreds of different cuts of beef and customers constantly question is it good? Each cut tastes different and different cuts require different cooking methods. It is all good, if you source your meat well!”

JB: Which cut is the stepchild to the consumer and gets over-looked?
Ben:, “Top Sirloin, People wonder why it is cheaper and don’t get so excited about it I love it, it is a lean, tender cut with rich flavor and a great price. There is an old butcher’s tale, that King Henry XIII loved the cut of meat so much that he dubbed the cut, “Sir Loin”.

JB: Why should someone get to know the local butcher?
Ben:” A good butcher can make you a better cook. Ask the butcher about the cuts and how to cook them. Customers sometimes come back and tell me the meat was dry but it usually is they used the wrong cooking method.

JB: If you were on a desert island and could only eat one cut of meat what would it be?
Ben: “I would eat rabbits and make rabbit stew, rabbits multiply so I would have plenty of food”. (Gosh, he not only cares about the animal but pretty practical too! JB)

Ben Harrison lives up to his name as one of Chicago’s Master Craftsmen, local meat evangelist and the “Rebel Butcher!”

Its a great story!

Mark Wilhelms is the Founder of Red Meat Market. You can find Mark on and Twitter