Food producer, retailer, advocate

From butcher’s boy on sawdust duty to master butcher supplying some of the world’s best. 

In Gary McBean you find the culmination of three generations of butchery – and the gateway to the fifth. McBean’s dad, Ken, was the grandson of a butcher, and did his first butchery in 1955. Gary first picked up the knife in 1970, opened his own business at Prahran Market in 1984, and Gary’s daughter, Ash, started on her path to carrying on the family trade in 2006.

“I started when I was 15, and I’m 60, so I’ve been a butcher for 45 years,” McBean says. “Possibly 50 if you count those five years of washing dishes and raking the sawdust off the floor.”

It’s a remarkable achievement, and for decades now Gary’s Quality Meats at Prahran Market has had the loyalty of a legion of customers. They’re drawn to Gary’s Quality Meats for its mix of personal service and professional polish. McBean puts a lot of work into the careful sourcing of the animals he buys, and takes the time to get to know each of the farmers that supplies the shop personally. He buys whole beasts, and is just as painstaking in their handling as he is in understanding their provenance. His creativity, precision and the hands-on skills he has honed over the decades ensure that nothing on the carcase goes to waste. He has mastered the art of dry-ageing over many years, and his commitment to his craft is an inspiration.

"Gary McBean is as dedicated a professional as I know,” says Attica chef and co-owner Ben Shewry. “Taking in all the incredible people I’ve worked with from all over the world in my life and Gary is right at the top of that list.”

McBean, says Shewry, has spent his life quietly working to elevate the craft of butchery, and the public of Melbourne are all the better off for it. “Whether it be the dry-ageing of meat, whole-beast butchery, sourcing of sustainable and ethically farmed meats or value-adding through charcuterie and the use of all parts of the animal, Gary is at the absolute forefront in Australia. He still puts in very long hours with knife in hand and his engagement with his customers is second to none.” There’s even a tribute dish on the Attica repertoire named for McBean: Gazza’s lamb pie. But, says Shewry, all of this takes second place to McBean’s community spirit, and what he calls the “extreme kindness of the man”.

“Gary is as big hearted and generous a person as you are ever likely to meet and has given an incredible amount to charity and community causes over the years. I’m fortunate to call him my friend and collaborator.” 

They’re sentiments that are widely shared. Food writer Dani Valent speaks of his generous, steady and committed presence at the Prahran Market. Everything he sells, she says, has been carefully chosen, its provenance considered “and you can feel the pride behind every cut”.

Gary displays a generational depth of knowledge and extraordinary knife skills, as well as a continual commitment to innovation. He's able to expand customer horizons while responding to people's needs. He offers a great retail experience and a brilliant human connection too. It's also so exciting that his daughter Ash is his apprentice, so shopping at Gary's Meats doesn't feel nostalgic, it feels like you'll be on the ride for life.” Basically, says Valent, “it's a pleasure to spend money at Gary’s Quality Meats. And the product always exceeds expectations”.

For his part, McBean feels blessed to have work that brings him satisfaction and pleasure, even when times are tough. “I turn up for work today and everybody’s happy,” he says. “There might be 10, 15, 20 people at the counter and we know everybody. We know their first names, they’ve come for a chat, so it’s actually really good fun to turn up for work. It’s really rewarding to have that in your workplace.”

Photography and video: Kate Shanasy.