Master butcher Serge Caillaud wrote the book on Parisian butchery, literally. Over coffee and wine, he tells us how he sparked a farm-to-table meat movement in France, and the world. Oh, and he invented the tartine.
I know Serge from visiting the covered food market of Saint-Germain, where I often take my food tour clients. My husband and I sometimes take our bulldogs there and chat with the vendors as we nibble our way through the 30-odd stalls. Serge’s Au Bell Viandier happens to be the dogs’ favorite stop, since they know he’ll let them dance for chopped raw steak, the French favorite for everything from tartare to hamburgers. (We’ll get to that below.)
Depending on the season, you’ll find his cases filled with humanely-raised cuts of heritage veal, pork, lamb, rabbit, wild boar, beef, and venison. Then there is the poultry, magnificent yellow birds that are truly free-range, fed the richest grass and grain diets, and are easily some of the juiciest and tastiest in the city. Which is why when you ask Serge how to prepare one, he keeps it simple: butter, tin foil, oven.
In over 50 years serving Paris, Serge’s reputation has earned him regulars like former President Jacques Chirac and British icon Jane Birkin (whose English Bulldog also loves Serge’s chopped steak). The King of Morocco is a fan, too, especially of Serge’s version of the north African spiced-meat dish kefta, so he flew Serge in to train the palace staff.
The quality of his sourcing, his cuts, and his commitment to artisanal butchery has earned him status so legendary that in 2015, the French government honored him with a knighthood.
I join Serge one morning at a café on the edge of the market, where I set out to learn what he thinks about the rise of the hamburger, now officially the most popular sandwich in France, and to see if he has any tips for making one just right.
What starts as a few straightforward questions over coffee turns into an entire morning in which Serge retraces his life from a farm kid in post-war France, to a young man in the rambunctious days of Paris in the 60s and 70s, to his iconic status today.
As we talk, we are repeatedly interrupted by customers who come to shake Serge’s hand. Head bowed, they all say some variation of the same thing: “Master Serge, it’s an honor to see you.”
An hour into our talk, Serge looks at his watch. I assume he has to run off to one of the meetings or functions he seems to endlessly bounce between. Instead, he points at his watch. “Veronica, it’s 10 AM. . . We should order some wine, no?”
It’s only on our second glass of wine that I notice I am seated beneath a big glossy photo of Serge surrounded by the smiling waitstaff, glass of red wine in hand.
The Original Organic
“The taste of beef disappeared. There was no more flavor. No juice.”
Like so many other French artisans, Serge was raised in his craft. His grandmother’s first husband was a butcher. After he was killed in World War I, she took over the family business. She was the one who taught Serge the art of la boucherie.
Born in 1945, Serge came up as post-war industrialization was propelling a turn towards mass-produced food, even in France. But his grandmother kept up the old traditions. Together, they’d butcher two pigs a year to make the sausages, pâtés, and other charcuterie that would see them through winter. The key was to use every bit of the animal.
At 13 and a half years old – Serge is particular on the half – he began to apprentice at his uncle’s boulangerie. But he got tired of working midnight to 7 AM and not seeing anyone. So, when he heard a local butcher was looking for a “second knife,” as apprentices are known in that world, he jumped.
“My teacher is still very proud,” he says coyly.
Next was a stint at his brother’s white-glove restaurant in Nice, followed by required military service, during which he tended bar in Tahiti for 17 months. “It was a dream.”
As a young twenty-something, Serge arrived in Paris, where he cut his chops at the legendary Les Halles food market that once dominated central Paris. (Zola’s The Belly of Paris captures the unrelenting energy of this place, which was torn down in 1969.)
By the 1970s, when Serge was managing a boutique butchery on the tiny rue Cherche-Midi, across from the famous Poilâne bakery, chemical-free meat had all but disappeared from French markets. Serge says the shift came when France began mass-producing low-quality veal who are force-fed concentrated feed to make them grow faster.
“The taste of beef disappeared,” he says with disgust. “There was no more flavor. No juice. It was white instead of red.”
Serge determined to push back. He promoted what he called “natural meat,” free of hormones, antibiotics, and preservatives, and sourced directly from farmers raising heritage French breeds.
Decades before France initiated its system of organic and Label Rouge certifications to inform consumers about a products’ quality and origins , Serge included a fact sheet alongside every cut of meat to tell customers what breed of animal they were buying, where it was raised, what it was fed, and when it was slaughtered.
Serge still keeps a pile of papers near the counter where you can learn about each animal featured in his case.
“De la terre jusqu’à la table,” he explains. “From the farm to the table.”
Becoming The Knighted Butcher
Serge’s commitment to non-industrial meat was such an anomaly that he attracted the attention of journalists and, eventually, the Minister of Culture. His reputation exploded from there and high-end restaurants around the city came calling, especially for his capon (castrated rooster – yes, that’s a thing, and it’s very tender).
Accomplishments and accolades poured in – he was invited to debate the Minister of Agriculture; founded France’s first and only Professional Butchery School; made a film on butchery in west Africa; served iconic chef Joël Robuchon his first côte de veau (roughly, veal rib steak); and contributed to five books, including Le Larousse Gastronomique, the Bible of French cuisine.
Finally, he was given the highest honor the French government offers, le médaille de Chevalier de l’Ordre national du mérite, the knighthood of the Order of Merit – known in English as a Legion of Honor – which is awarded to those who have reached the pinnacle of military or civil accomplishments. (Though there have been some rather flagrant missteps.)
The Birth of the Tartine
“We didn’t live as long, but we lived better.”
As Serge recounts his accomplishments, we are joined by Jacques Dominico, one of Serge’s friends from the old days at Les Halles food market, who later worked on food policy for the European Parliament.
They remember “the good old days” of a more bacchanalian Paris. “Life got worse after ’74,” says Jacques. “We really lived. Today, young people order a planche [cheese or charcuterie plate], a bottle of rosé, and they’re done by 7:30. We were just getting started.”
Those were the days when Serge and his friend, Pierre Poilâne, who still ran his eponymous bakery, could decide on a whim to throw a block party and convince the police to promptly close down the street for an impromptu day of revelry.
“We didn’t live as long, but we lived better,” Jacques adds as he flips through an old photo book of Les Halles, part of his research for the museum that is being built to remember what was once the biggest food market in the world. Serge is working on the project, too.
It was during these days, when Serge still worked across the road from Poilâne, that Serge had the idea to grill a piece of Poilâne’s signature miche sourdough and top it with mayo, mustard, and roast beef. Serge shared the idea with Poilâne and soon nearly every nearby bistro was serving the tartine as a lunchtime staple, as they still do.
Voilà, the tartine takeover had begun.
As he tells me about it, Serge waves over the waiter and orders “his” tartine. No explanation needed. A few minutes later, Serge’s original open-faced toasted sandwich arrives and he pushes it my way. Then he orders another round of wine.
How a Legendary Butcher Likes His Burger
Finally, as we sip our third glass of wine – stil before noon – we get around to the hamburger. So, what does this master of meat think about the American phenomenon?
“I like a good burger now and then,” he tells me, nodding his head. Though when it comes to McDonald’s style fast-food burgers, he’s only had one once – and that was enough.
“Too much bread. I took everything off. And too fatty,” because of the hormones, he explains. “That doesn’t interest me.”
His secret to a perfect patty?
First, choose lean chopped steak over fatty ground beef. Even better if you can use meat that is actually chopped instead of ground. Mix in herbs and egg yolk.
Next, the most important part – the cooking – which people get wrong all the time, he tells me. Hands down his favorite preparation is on a plancha, or grilling tray, over the barbecue, greased with fat to prevent the patties from sticking.
The trick is to let the flame cover the meat so that it burns the outside, 3 minutes per side.
Of course, for a French butcher there’s only one ideal cooking temperature: bloody, nearly-raw bleu.
“Nothing else interests me.”