Thursday, August 1, 2013

Teachable Tasks

Butcher?? In the old European systems of teaching this and other trades, students were immersed in
the craft as apprentices. They spent their time helping with the very basics, never touching the very expensive end of the craft. Time was spent cleaning, prepping, or simple tasks that wouldn't require much skill. There was always lots of repetition, doing a task many, many times to achieve accuracy.  It took a few years to move from apprentice to journeyman where the student was considered competent and could move from job to job with their craft, knowing they brought a specific skill set. They would continue learning, observing various styles that their own original master may not practice. Finally the journyman could become a master by showing their skills and passing tests in front of their peers. Once a master, they could start their own business with an understanding by creditors and customers that this person has the skills to succeed.
 In many restaurants or in many modern meat cutting situations it certainly does not require the skills of  the old style master butcher. The old masters were versed in live animal selection, slaughter techniques and offal cleaning. Those skills today wouldn't be necessary in most artisanal shops or a restaurant that purchases entire carcasses. A smaller shop that buys full carcasses would need a complete skill set to know how to maximize the yield and what to do with each cut. A restaurant that buys the whole animal would require someone that knows how to make it work into quality portions. A modern day "master" may be someone who understands butchery and cutting skills and has a complete knowledge of all of the bone structure and natural seams. They would understand the yield possibilities of the entire carcass.
 But in the modern era of meat being cut into subprimals, or even further, into pre-portioned cuts, back at processing plants, what skills do we still need to teach? What reasons are there for a retailer or restaurateur to cut any meat? Does it make sense to spend time valuable labor on something that can be purchased already done? These are questions chefs and retail managers need to answer for themselves. I have my own views on this subject but mine are tainted by the fact that I already have the skills and have been breaking down full carcasses for years. So here are some pros and cons of cutting in house as opposed to buying pre cut.

  • Labor costs 
  • Space to produce the product
  • Space to store all the cuts
  • Skill level of staff
  • Equipment required
  • Food safety
  • Cost savings
  • Whole muscle cuts
  • Custom creative options
  • Advertised on menu or price list
  • Teachable tasks
An example of a teachable simple task would be cutting a boneless 0x1 striploin into portion steaks. I never understand why any restaurant would purchase these as portion cuts. It takes no more than 10 minutes to trim the fat, remove some connective tissues and slice the individual portions and the typical savings by doing this in house are 10 to 20 %. The same goes for beef tenderloin. Very basic fabrication and not only that, a lot of tenderloin pre-cut portion cuts are bonded together using transglutiminase so they aren't true whole muscle cuts. The task of trimming basic sub-primals into portion cuts not only saves money in many cases but also creates a sort of pride by the cutter. The chef that cuts their own steaks will have more pride in that product.
 So what about the whole carcass? Is breaking down an entire beef side a teachable task? This is more debatable. This requires a lot more skill and some serious time. Beef is the most difficult when it comes to whole carcass use. If no band saw is present it requires a lot of difficult handsaw work. We do the side of beef in class and "bench break" the entire thing on a table but it is no easy task. Beside the physical work involved, there is also the matter of a lot of extra fat and trim that needs to be used in balance to the valuable steak cuts.
 Pork on the other hand is much more logical for in house butchery. A half hog can be broken down in just minutes. All of the parts can be used including the fat and many cured products can be made. Even if some errors are made during the breakdown, extra trim can be used for sausage or terrines.
 A lamb carcass is relatively easy but again the use of each cut must be balanced. There is a lot more leg and chuck meat in comparison to the rack and loin chops.
 A lot of the cutting tasks we might consider are visible on You Tube. I've used many clips as a study guide in class and the fact that you can show someone how to do a cut over and over is very helpful.
  All considered, there are many teachable meat cutting tasks that are ignored in many restaurants and retail stores and if the chef or manager would apply them they may find an increase in value.