Raising the steaks: The Bulgari of butchers

Celebrity packed opening parties, sausage-shaped door handles and a lovingly restored £14,000 flywheel slicer... Australia's Victor Churchill is the Bulgari of butchers. Terry Durack talks to the father and son team putting heart and soul into nose-to-tail dining
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Indy Lifestyle Online

You would think that the opening of Australia's first Topshop last month would be big news, but no – everyone is talking about Victor Churchill. Sydney's fashionable eastern-suburbs crowd are flocking to the new store as if magnetised, drawn by the chic ambience, the ever-changing window displays and the designer packaging. Oh, and the meat.

Calling Victor Churchill a butcher shop is like calling Kate Moss a single mum. I've heard it described as the Bulgari of butchers, the Prada of providores, the Tiffany of traiteurs. At its three official August opening parties, a throng of celebrity chefs, society dames and media magnates sipped champagne and demolished canapés prepared by three of the country's finest chefs, Bistro Moncur's Damien Pignolet, Quay's Peter Gilmore and Shannon Bennett of Melbourne's Vue du Monde.

You see what I mean? Celebrities... opening parties... and hanging carcasses of dead meat? Australia's favourite cook, Bill Granger of the famous Bills Café, currently scouting around London for a new restaurant site, couldn't believe his eyes. "That opening night was like the club openings of my youth," he says. "Lots of hard, shiny surfaces, beautiful people, the buzz of the new, and a vibe that says the ride will be fun."

The son and grandson of butchers himself, Granger is only too aware how local butchers have had it tough for the past 20 years. "It is brilliant to see meat being put on a pedestal again, literally," he notes. "It reminds us all of how special really good meat is."

With a cool £1m refurbishment, Anthony Puharich, the go-getting 36-year-old co-founder of Vic's Meats, Australia's biggest quality-meat wholesaler, and his father, veteran butcher Victor, have transformed Australia's oldest butcher shop (Churchill, founded in 1872) into the brave new face of global meat marketing. It starts at the door, with a link of bronzed sausages as a handle. Inside, you are met with a wall of bronze-plated surveillance cameras all trained on a single, slim plinth bearing the product of the week, a rib of beef, under a sparkling glass dome, the images transmitted and repeated on a series of security monitors. Walk on and find Victor, a svelte and salt-and-peppered 58-year-old, and two other well-seasoned butchers busily trimming cuts on three perfectly cylindrical, bespoke butcher's blocks fashioned from European beech. Behind a wall of glass, a number of carcasses hang from slowly moving motor-driven rails, swinging past in a macabre carousel. Behind them, a wall of Himalayan salt bricks sends out a soft, mellow glow, not only helping purify the air but infusing the meat with the clean sting of salt.

The father and son team first opened a butcher shop on Sydney's Oxford Street in 1996, but the site was problematic (rows of pink offal just don't appeal to the city's gay community, apparently), and the business wasn't going well when high-profile local chef Dietmar Sawyere from Forty One walked in and asked if they could supply his restaurant. The retail shop closed and the wholesale business was ' born. Today, Vic's Meats supplies practically every major restaurant in the country, and has ventured abroad to establish wholesale operations in Shanghai and Singapore.

So why this sort of shop? "Call it unfinished business," says Anthony Puharich. "We knew there was an opportunity to do something special in meat retail. I really believe Australia has the best meat in the world, and we have the best meat in Australia. But really, I just wanted to do it for my father."

Puharich and Michael McCann of Dreamtime Australia Design had a lot of fun putting the place together, installing some serious toys for the boys. Sitting in the middle of the store is a fetching, Ferrari-red, traditional flywheel Berkel slicer, which took two years and £14,000 to restore. "The great thing about the Berkel is that it doesn't generate any heat," says Puharich, "so it doesn't damage the meat." He cites the Boqueria market in Barcelona, London's Harrods, the Tsukiji fish markets in Tokyo, and the famous Peck food store in Milan as design influences, but in truth something completely original has arisen from the great artisanal craft of butchery, ably assisted by Sydney's love of a good show.

There are rows of precisely tailored and trimmed veal shanks, grain-fed squab, fat marrow bones, Tuscan-style bistecca (T-bones), farmed whole white rabbits, and the prized local rare-breed Kurobuta pork racks. And there is Wagyu. A lot of Wagyu. Vic's Meats is the country's biggest suppliers of the highly prized, locally reared Japanese beef, and Sydney has taken it to its steak-loving, barbie-grilling heart.

Wagyu has single-handedly given Australia a new benchmark, returning flavour and tenderness by way of well- distributed fat to the steak eater. In the UK, Wagyu on a menu means prime cuts only, in order to justify the price of importing it. Here, where it is bred and butchered, it means the whole beast can be turned to good use – the flank, the tongue, the skirt and the giant, free-standing ribs, with offcuts ground into burgers, patties and charcuterie. Of course, there are prime cuts here, too, namely breeder David Blackmore's full-blood Wagyu, graded nine-plus on the marbling scale, which pretty much means there is just enough glorious red meat to hold the skeins of rich fat together. That's democracy for you – Wagyu for all, starting at £1.70 for a Wagyu burger and going to £106 per kilo for sirloin.

Then there is the Labesse Giraudon rotisserie, upon which revolves an entire suckling pig and more than a dozen golden chickens. "I did it to have that enticing smell of roasting meat throughout the shop," says Puharich. "When I asked my mum and other women what they disliked about going to the butcher, they all said the smell of blood." He has even rigged up a system that pipes the aromas out to the street, causing passers-by to suddenly have an irresistible craving for roast chicken.

The window displays are also getting their own fan club. One week it's spring lamb, perched on springs, the next a queue of Barbie dolls in the sand to launch the "barbie-queue" season. But one of the real secrets of the success of Victor Churchill lurks towards the rear, where in-store chef/charcutier Brittany-born Romeo Baudouin bustles around the rotisserie, filling porcelain pots with huge patés, terrines and parfaits, piping pomme purée on top of pies, gently cooking duck legs in duck fat for confit, and preparing a range of stocks, "ready meals" and pretty little puddings. "What is wonderful is that I can use the correct cuts of meat rather than offcuts, and a range of fats," he says.

None of this would be too impressive if the quality wasn't there, or if Victor Churchill priced itself out of the high street. But the great thing about Australia is that good food is never too elitist. Because Churchill does whole-carcass butchering on the premises, and because Badouin is there waiting to work his magic, everything is used, nothing is wasted, and the value is as red-blooded as the meat itself.

As for the quality, it's in the eating. I have raided the gleaming glass-fronted, brass-shelved refrigerated cabinets a few times now, and never have I had so many raves about my cooking. "It's not me, it's them," I protest when friends rave about my Wagyu shabu-shabu, or the tender little lamb racks, or the pappardelle with duck ragu. "I accept on behalf of my butcher."

At the end of each afternoon, the shop fills with curious schoolchildren, fascinated by the cameras, the rotisserie and the knife-wielding butchers. One little girl can't take her eyes off the revolving carcasses. Expecting grimaces and the usual litany of yuks, I can't quite believe what she says next. "Mummy," she pleads, "can we buy something here to take home to eat?" It makes Victor Puharich smile. "Watching the kids' faces is the best thing about working here," he says.

The last word goes to Fergus Henderson of London's St John, in Sydney recently doing his nose-to-tail thing for the Sydney International Food Festival. "Cor blimey!" he exclaimed. "To know that London is losing its butchers, then to see this celebration of meat here in Sydney, is just fantastic. It is original and aspirational. It knocked my socks off."

And you know what? Sydney deserves Victor Churchill. This mad mix of high glamour, blood, kidneys, designer rotisseries and boutique chic couldn't happen anywhere else. This town is crazy about its food and drink. Its chefs grow their own heirloom vegetables; its sommeliers crush grapes for their house wines, its bartenders make their own vermouths, its young chefs bake their own bread and make their own butter.

Australia itself has gone through something of a produce revolution, with Wagyu beef, home-grown truffles and rare-breed pigs in the vanguard, and an associated charcuterie and salumi industry bringing up the rear. Victor Churchill rides into town on the zeitgeist, so every hip city dweller can toss a Wagyu burger on the balcony barbecue ( every balcony in Sydney has a barbie on it) and settle in for the night. Dear England, I've just gone to Sydney. I may be some time. n

Victor Churchill, 132 Queen St, Woollahra, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, www.victorchurchill.com.au

Ten ways to Wagyu in Sydney

Sirloin 28-day, dry-aged, wood-grilled, 200g/7oz nine-on-the-fat-scale Wagyu sirloin at Neil Perry's Rockpool Bar & Grill (£60)

Flank steak Rangers Valley 400-day, grain-fed Wagyu flank steak with cauliflower purée and globe artichokes at Luke Mangan's brassy Glass brasserie (£27)

Meatloaf Sean Connolly's housewifely Wagyu meatloaf at Sean's Kitchen in Star City is a clever rendering of sirloin, chuck, skirt and brisket spiced up with smoked paprika (£19)

Burger Justin North's organic grass-fed Wagyu burger with caramelised onions and that all-important and very Australian pickled beetroot at Etch (£12)

Sichuan David Blackmore's Wagyu hotpot, with wild bamboo pith, tofu, organic bamboo shoot and lup cheong (£25) at Neil Perry's Spice Temple

Cured Corned Wagyu silverside with sauce, carrots, cabbage and mash (£18) at Damien Pignolet's Bellevue Hotel

Tongue Pickled Wagyu tongue with seared scallops, cabbage and celeriac salad (£11) at Elvis Abrahanowicz and Ben Milgate's Bodega

Japanese Wagyu beef with lime and wasabi (part of £110 fixed-price dinner) at Tetsuya Wakuda's Tetsuya's

Bolognese Daniel Hughes' spaghettini with Wagyu Bolognese, green peas, marjoram and lemon (£14.50) at Manta

Ribeye 400-day, grain-fed, aged- and roasted-on-the-bone Wagyu ribeye, 800g/28oz for two, with fennel salad, savoy cabbage, chilli, aioli and lemon (£92) at Robert Marchetti's Icebergs Dining Room