Temple of Meat
Nestled in Sydney’s tree-lined eastern suburbs sits a shop which has been receiving carnivorous pilgrims since 1876. takes a butchers.
Marbled wagyu steak and an Italian marble floor. A shop window with chunks of rich red flesh artfully arranged atop an altar of illuminated ice. A door handle made from a string of sausages, cast in solid copper. I can safely assume I’ve found the right place. I am a carnivore in Sydney, so I’ve made a pilgrimage to the world’s finest butcher’s shop, the Holy Grail of hocks and haunches: Victor Churchill in Woollahra, a place that has been a magnet to the meaty since 1876.
Extensively redesigned in 2009, “Best of the Year” winner at the International Interior Design Awards in New York in 2010, Churchill’s is a temple of tempting corpses, a chapel of chops, a sacristy of sausages and steaks.
Hung with shoulders and legs, ribcages and rumps, it’s a place that might provoke post-traumatic stress disorder in a vegetarian but induces in me hunger, fascination, a deep internal yearning bordering on love.
I am not alone. Notoriously sniffy British food critic the late AA Gill, once noted that Churchill’s was the perfect place in which to celebrate Sydney’s “dribbly, bloody love affair with steak”; an extravagantly theatrical butchery “that looks like a Tom Ford boutique”.
And New York chef Anthony Bourdain reckoned it is “the most beautiful butcher’s shop in the world”, then went further still, declaring Churchill’s “the best food shop I’ve ever seen”.
Me, too. After gliding in the door, I’m met by Renee, who agrees to show me around. There’s a surprising amount to see. Halfway down the store, three tall, round chopping blocks sit beneath spotlights behind a wall of polished glass: a stage-set for the celebration of butchery as performance art.
For many years, just inside the door, another display area mocked our media-saturated age with 20 wall-mounted video cameras all focusing down on to a single spotlit plinth where the day’s instore special – a plump chop from a chestnut-fed Corsican pig, perhaps, or a rillette of wild rabbit – sat beneath a gleaming bell jar.
It was a cunning little art-prank, says Renee, and customers loved it, but it took up too much room, so they’ve taken it out now to slap in a couple more elegantly back-lit fridges heaving with bits of beast.
It ain’t the meat, it’s the motion. In another glassfronted room, sides of beef circle endlessly in the “dry
ageing” zone, hanging from a revolving chain. Like myself, these dangling slabs of protein are in the business of getting more relaxed and tender as they get older.
They hang in front of a wall of backlit bricks hewn from Himalayan salt which flavours and purifies the air, the mix of glowing white wall, glass vitrine and revolving carcasses recalling the work of British artist Damian Hirst.
In the charcuterie counter nearby, there’s a jostle of artisanal meats from all over the globe: Jamon Iberico de Bellota, duck prosciutto, French regional terrines, assorted game birds who squawk no more.
“Make a magnificent piece of meat the centre of your meal” suggests a little sign. I always do, I think to myself, even when I’m eating a salad, alone. But enough about me.
Agreed. But all this carefully choreographed meaty theatre just makes me wonder: what is out the back? I am not only an enthusiastic meaty tourist, but also a journalist, I say. I came all the way from New Zealand to check this place out. What’s the chances of having a butcher’s at the private bit the public never gets to see?
Renee narrows her eyes. Should she issue a backstage pass?
The answer appears to be yes. We push through swinging doors into the staff smoko room, the usual bowls of half-eaten tucker arrayed around a long table, sink full of coffee cups in the corner, a drab domestic space compared to the wonders of the main room.
But the real revelation is the hallway; the whole area is a giant blackboard, festooned with the graffiti of passing international chefs.
“They come out here to talk to the boss,” says Renee, “and want to leave their mark.” There are chalky scrawls from Anthony Bourdain, David Chang, Heston Blumenthal, Ben Mendelsohn, Kylie Kwong.