Yves Marie Le Bourdonnec is a butcher. He has a three shop empire and he is famous, often called the ‘bohemian butcher’ or the ‘king of butchers’. A complex and outspoken figure, he is adored by some and hated by others. In 2012 Le Bourdonnec was expelled from the French Butchers Federation because he claimed that British cattle breeds produce the best beef in Europe. His shop in Paris as well as his social media accounts are targets by animal rights activists. They have splashed his shop with fake blood and put up slaughterhouse images. At the same time his clients include such names like Mick Jagger, the late Johnny Hallyday, Michelin chefs Alain Ducasse and Guy Savoy.
Le Bourdonnec is no ordinary butcher. In the last 15 years, he has worked to cross 19th century French cattle breeds with British stock. His ambition has been to raise the perfect cow. This has been no easy task, trying to shift opinion from grain fed animals bred for their mass against a new strain created to be both succulent and well adapted to local environment. These animals, envisioned Le Bourdonnec, will revolutionise not only French butchery but the entire French beef industry.
Le Bourdonnec was raised by his uncle and aunt on their farm in Brittany. There, a butcher came once a year to slaughter one animal for the family. Bourdonnec was hooked. Fascinated, he defied his aunt and uncle who wanted him to study and pursued an apprenticeship in butchery. By 18, he took over the first butcher shop which he now owns.
Le Bourdonnec embraces every aspect of being a butcher, from working with his producers up to making the sale. He believes he has an obligation to educate consumers about meat. As he tells audiences in his Ted ex talks, the typical French client will ask for lean beef, but they don’t really want that. What they want is meat that is tender and tasty, ‘tendre et gouteuse’. Tenderness requires low collagen in the animal, which means it should be slaughtered young. Taste comes from a balanced fat profile which is largely genetic. That is why Le Bourdonnec has been striving for the new breed of super cows. In France cattle were originally bred for labour so they were slaughtered at the end of their working lives, full of collagen, that shrinks when cooked and results in meat that is tougher. British cattle have been bred specifically for their meat for generations. Therefore, quickly seared steaks taste better. No wonder the French Butcher Federation kicked him out, calling him a paid-up supporter of British farmers!
Le Bourdonnec’s passionate quest for the perfect cow began 15 years ago because French breeders didn’t have what he sought. He had to rethink the entire production chain, from farm to table. He went directly into business with farmers to show them how to raise the meat his customers wanted to eat. He crossbred French cows with British bulls. Today, he has 6 suppliers raising hybrid cattle to his specifications.
Le Bourdonnec , always the controversial figure, has even managed to create his own movement, which includes a training programme to form butcher-entrepreneurs like himself. He has 5 sons, two of which already run his butcher shops. Among his often-repeated mantras, is to ‘eat less but better’ meat, the benefits of grass feeding cattle and the necessity of caring for the economic wellbeing of the farmers but also about the quality of life of the animals.