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The Butcher's Craft

Marissa Guggiana, Tia Harrison / May 14th, 2012

Meet (and meat) The Butcher's Guild: Co-founders Marissa Guggiana and Tia Harrison share their expertise with Food Arts on breaking down animal butchery.

The Butcher’s Guild, a fraternity of meat professionals, has put a bellows to the definition of butcher to include chefs and charcutiers who employ the skills of whole animal butchery. We are Cutters, Curers, and Creators [butchers, meat curers, and chefs]. Many of our members are cooks who have discovered that buying whole animals from local farms means they work to develop their carcass knowledge to honor every ounce of the meat and profit from every pound. We will be delving into their wisdom to give you ideas about unusual cuts, profitable preparations, and, of course, the culmination of cutting and cooking.

For our first post, we went to a butcher who sources and custom-cuts animals for select New York City chefs. Adam Tiberio of Tiberio Custom Meats is currently working on opening a USDA–inspected meat processing facility in Manhattan. In the meantime, he is a journeyman consultant for restaurants such as Sauce, which has a meaty menu and a small butcher case in the dining room. They have realized the benefit of controlling their protein from farm to bollito misto and use Tiberio as an in-house meat czar. To work with whole animals, you need to manage not just your plate, but your walk-in, production schedule, and staff skill sets.

Tiberio has also learned to be a better butcher from watching his handiwork in its final application, something he can’t always do when handing off a steak or roast to a retail customer. He is renowned for his artful roast-tying. We know how emotionally attached he is to seeing perfect knots and strings running the length of a sub-primal, but he told us that seeing the cooks portion and plate a roast made him rethink his string-style. Removing so many knots at small increments ripped the savory crust of fat from the meat. “I would still tie my roasts like that for the meat case, but I had to change my thought process for the restaurant.” The more we share, the more we grow and the better we become.

Each of us, whether Cutter, Curer, or Creator, has different challenges and concerns when we look at a piece of meat. Will we be able to merchandise all of that fresh meat in the counter? Is the marbling on that shoulder going to yield the best whole muscle cure? Are my patrons going to understand when I run out of bone-in pork chops after nine orders? Chefs have a powerful platform from which to inspire consumer excitement about meat, the platform of an exquisite meal. By extension, chefs can help local agriculture thrive by simply serving great food.

In the full flux of spring, there is the titillation of freshness. Peas, asparagus, and, yes, the readiness of lambs and goats and all the other animals that have been growing all winter. Here are some principles for the curious and reminders for the expert:

1: Change the Way You Look at a Carcass “It’s all going to be seared, braised, or roasted. Think about those techniques as pathways, rather than thinking only in portions.” If you’re going to tackle whole animals, Tiberio suggests using cooking techniques as your organizing principle. Most chefs who use whole animals say they make back their cost on the loin and everything else is gravy (and cottechino and boudin and headcheese and sugo…).

2: Buy Local Buying meat from a farmer or a small local distributor is a different process than ordering boxed meat. It requires planning ahead and flexibility and very often means buying whole animals. But the payoffs are enormous. One payoff is greater engagement. You’re involved from the grass-eating beginnings all the way through to the meat-eating end. Your kitchen will also be more engaged because you have to make decisions about what to do with all the parts that are not portioned for the menu. A salumi-making cook is a happy cook.

3: Be Daring “It’s very hard to sell brain salad in a retail setting.” And yet, every animal comes with a brain. Restaurants have the ability to make even the most organy-gamey piece delicious. And it often becomes the very thing that sets that restaurant apart.

4: Communicate with Your Butcher “I’ve been lucky to actually be in the restaurant when my meat comes out because it tells me what works when you see something on the plate. Retail customers often blame themselves if a meal doesn’t come out right, but obviously a chef knows what he is doing. I want to hear all of that so I can do my job better.” Having a butcher who knows your menu can give you both greater control and greater creativity.

5: Use the Tiberio Steak The Tiberio steak is between ribs 1-4 at the bottom of the chuck roll. “Sear it up with beef drippings. You don’t want it too rare because it has some gristle that runs diagonally through the muscle and if you serve it just on the rare side of medium-rare, then it obliterates the gristle.”

This is a cut Tiberio named because he couldn’t find another retail name for it. It has all the attributes we love in a hidden gem: inexpensive, flavorful, and unique.

To join The Butcher’s Guild and have meaty conversations all the time, go here.