Leighann Smith told her parents she was going to open her own restaurant by the time she was 35. She’s 33 and has already opened Piece of Meat Butcher Shop and Restaurant with Daniel Jackson in Mid City in late April last year. The two share the 2018 Eater NOLA Chef of the Year award.
Originally from the San Francisco area, Smith dropped out of high school because, she says, she always hated school. She didn’t hate learning, though. She started working in restaurants, first as a dishwasher at the Lark Creek Inn when she was “a wee lass” and moving her way up to the lead line cook position over time.
Eventually she made her way to New Orleans: There was only one place she wanted to work: Donald Link’s pork dish destination, Cochon. “I wanted them to teach me what they knew. And they did.”
That’s also where she met Jackson. He came in and applied for a job at Cochon Butcher (it was 2014) and she hired him.
“I didn’t have a plan on how or where or when I was going to open my business until we started working together and I was like, oh, this makes sense...he was the other half to the dream coming true,” she told Eater.
The two spend more time together than most married couples (except, of course, those who open businesses together). After working together all day, they head home to apartments on the same street just a couple houses apart. As Smith puts it, “We also don’t have any friends anymore because we own a business so we hang out together. It’s unfortunate for him.” She laughs.
Smith and Jackson are opposites in many ways. Of the two, Smith is the more gregarious. Jackson, on the other hand is calm, the type of person who rarely gets mad or flies off the handle. (Smith says she’s only seen him get angry twice. Both times involved someone doing something that he’d already calmly corrected.)
A Tulane graduate, Jackson was a glass blower before he went into butchering, landing a job as a retail butcher at Whole Foods.
At the time, he wasn’t necessarily looking for a butchering job; just something different. But, the job was available and Jackson had just recently read a story in Esquire about a guy who apprenticed at Kincaid’s, an old-school butcher shop in Indianapolis. “I was like, that’s cool. I can do that.” He also likes barbecue, and that was enough to convince him it was a good fit. After four and a half years, he left to work at Cochon Butcher, his first restaurant job.
Jackson’s mom and grandma both bought their meat from a butcher shop in Buffalo, New York, where he grew up, for nearly 40 years. Smith’s dad was a hunter. Growing up around “whole animal” stoked her fascination with butchering.
“It’s fascinating that no matter how many times you cut up a pig you learn something — every time. You can do a thousand different things with one animal and each animal tells you what you’re going to do with it. So, when you cut the head off a pig and it exposes the coppa muscle [located right behind the back of the head, at the top of the shoulder], you’re looking for the marbling and the quality of meat because that’s how your rack is going to be. We’re not gonna sell pork chops off a pig if there’s no marbling or if it looks shitty or whatever: We’ll just roll it and make a porchetta. So, each animal kind of tells you and guides you through what you’re going to use it for.”
She’d always wanted to cut meat, so she begged Stephen Stryjewski to let her be a meat cutter at Cochon when she worked there. He said no. She asked why not. “‘Because it pays $9 an hour and it’s a waste of your time.’”
She didn’t care and continued to beg him until he let her. Soon she was the head butcher at the award-winning Warehouse District favorite. And that’s where she hired Jackson, a decision she considers one of the defining moments of her career.
It’s not that things were happily ever after. They’ve been through some stuff together. A stint at Dryades Market that barely lasted two months. “They were trying to make it more of an upscale Winn-Dixie and I was like, ‘Yo, I’m not gonna buy Tyson packages of chicken,’” she says.
They also faced construction delays. “I learned that you should pay more for less time rather than pay less for more time. We ended up firing him and finishing it ourselves.” Employing friends at Piece of Meat when they opened was another lesson learned. “Never hire your friends. Never ever, ever hire your friends. Especially when you’re hella stressed out, not sleeping, and working 90 hours every week.”
And of course, the day-to-day struggles of their restaurant, like keeping the salami room full. And those boudin egg rolls. Kind of awesome, but a daily struggle to create, really.
Smith had her first boudin egg roll at a gas station in Opelouses, Louisiana. They’re a fairly common snack in Cajun Country, where they are regularly found at gas stations, tailgates, and hunting camps. Considering it the “greatest idea ever,” she decided that New Orleans deserved some boudin egg rolls too.
Smith and Jackson planned on switching off boudin dishes at Piece of Meat: egg rolls one day and boudin nachos with cracklins, loose boudin, cheese, and candied jalapeños another day. “But I’m pretty sure like the two times we ran out of egg rolls, people got real fucking mad at us. So we don’t run out of them anymore,” she says.
“Egg rolls it is,” Dan adds. It’s one thing to make 15 orders a day, but Piece of Meat goes through between 50 and 70 each day. They take a lot of prep time.
“I’m really proud of what we do, of the way that we’ve set up our team: Everyone from the server to the dishwasher gets paid exactly the same. Everybody shares tips based on the hours that they work in a day. The cooks are getting paid better. The servers are getting paid what they’re used to. The dishwasher is getting like…” She pauses, “Max is the most expensive dishwasher in the whole city at this point. Everybody gets paid well so everybody has to work together. We’re so small that if anybody didn’t want to work as a team it just wouldn’t work. And we’ve built a really good team of people.”
Their dishwasher recently trained to become a prep cook. There’s room to advance at Piece of Meat, just as Leighann did at Lark Creek Inn.
Located between between two popular grocery stores in Mid City, it’s not as if there is a lack of meat-buying options, but people choose to stop at Piece of Meat. “I think it’s the education thing. I think it’s like we’re willing to talk to them, give them options, and we will cut just about anything that somebody wants as long as it’s within reason,” Smith says.
Smith and Jackson can tell the customer where an animal came from, when it was killed, how long it’s been at Piece of Meat. They can tell you pretty much everything up until the animal’s name. There aren’t many places that can or will do that.
“Integrity is super important to us — personally and in the business. You can’t really cut corners doing what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to keep everything sustainable and just educate folks as much as provide them delicious things,” Jackson says.
- Take a First Look Mid City’s Piece of Meat Butcher Shop and Restaurant [ENOLA]
- New Orleans’ Eater Awards Winners 2018 [ENOLA]
- Butcher [ESQUIRE]
- All Piece of Meat Coverage [ENOLA]