Saturday, July 18, 2009

Artisan Butchers, all together now!

Recently I've been reading articles about artisan butchers. Younger men and women who choose to carry on the craft of butchery are becoming noticed by some food writers and there has become a certain prestige for a restaurant that buys whole carcasses and breaks them down. Buying locally produced meat typically means buying the whole and using it all. But are these "new" butchers the only ones carrying the craft into the future? As more and more supermarkets trend towards pre-cut meats, the butcher or meat cutter's skills are focused on simple steak and chop cutting. Most stores are buying pre-trimmed sub-primal cuts that don't require much skill. Not that there isn't any skill involved but it isn't the same as breaking a whole carcass.

With thousands of meat animals being harvested daily aren't there a lot of butchers who understand the process of breaking down a carcass? Most meat processors hire with the intention of teaching one or two specific cutting skills to the employee and have them repeat it in an assembly line type production. But who teaches the new hires? There are those managers in the meat processing plants that understand the breakdown probably better than any other modern butcher. They understand speed, efficiency, yield and waste. It is not artisan nor does it involve the skill that a chef might consider applying but it is certainly a high level of skill. I often tell my teaching assistants that they should tour a modern meat processing plant to see how it is done on a large scale. This is not to "dis" all of the artisan butchers out there. Bravo and Hooray! I am glad to see my craft being celebrated but there are lessons in efficiency that can be learned from large processors. For instance: How long should it take a chef/butcher to break down a market style half hog into primals? 15 minutes? How about breaking down a primal beef rib? 7 minutes? I've toured a few large plants and I always learn something new. Granted a chef/butcher will not have all of the equipment that the large companies do, but there are tricks to be learned. If your operation decides to process a whole carcass get everyone involved. It may make sense to set up a mini- assembly line in the kitchen. If rendering pork fat, teach the prep people or dishwasher how to skin off the fat back. Trimming and cubing are simpler tasks that other staff can do. Line cooks that are involved in some aspect of the butchery will be more likely to respect the product if they are part of the process.

To me artisan meat cutting is like great writing, you first need to know the language and study the grammar, spelling, sentence structure etc and then use the words to create what you really want. When looking at a meat carcass with a creative eye you first need to know all the basics and then how to get it done.