"I make a point not to forget that this thing I'm cutting in front of me gave its life for us to eat."
Jeffrey de Picciotto is a butcher at Dickson's Farmstand Meats in New York City. When he's not breaking animals nose to tail, he writes, edits, and produces the culinary how-to website FudeHouse.com. Warning: This interview may make you hungry.
People want to know more about their food and where it comes from, and consequently the butcher has become a kind of glamor job. But let's face it: aren't you covered in blood and guts all day?
Well, there certainly are days I'm covered in blood, although not much guts. Some people are mesmerized and others are grossed out. At Dickson's, we're not just pulling pre-trimmed sub-primals from a box that came from somewhere in the Midwest, and then slicing steaks for people. We bring in whole animals every week, and thus all the work surrounding the breaking of animals is layered. Each piece requires understanding, efficiency, and mastery of the step before. You can't begin to break animals before you've learned to cut for the retail case; you can't cut for the retail case before you've understood the placement of the muscles; and you can't learn the placement of the muscles before you've touched, identified, and packed every single piece of meat. Observation, time, and a guiding hand are best ways to get there. You'd be surprised how being really great at the simple act of grinding meat can inform everything up the chain. It's funny: People always ask us about coming in for a day to hack away at a piece of meat. The short answer is that we simply don't do the volume at Dickson's to accommodate that—four steer per week do not allow any margin for cutting mistakes. The longer answer is that I have more respect for the animal in front of me who gave its life to let someone go to town on it. And the longest answer is that it's much harder than it looks.
I can imagine a number of ways in which your job makes difficult demands on you, and respect for the animal leads me to one of them. Do you go through a sort of emotional calculus to help you deal with the butchering of recently living things?
You don't have to shut down your emotions to be a butcher. That would be scary and unhealthy. By the time an animal gets to me in the shop I already view it not as an animal-recently-dead but as "meat." Even though we bring in whole animals to the shop and I may be staring at a whole, head-on lamb, I still just see meat. The reality of the blood and flesh isn't something I think about that much, and I guess I've gotten used to it. When I started, I suppose I thought about it a lot more, but at the end of the day there are bigger issues to think about than the gore. Still, I make a point not to forget that this thing I'm cutting in front of me gave its life for us to eat. And in many ways, its sole purpose of living was to die for us. That must command a certain amount of respect from you, your knife, and your garbage bin. That's something I never want to grow used to. When I visited a small slaughterhouse in upstate New York, the slaughtering process brought with it a quick and seamless transition from live animal to "meat." I'm not quite sure when it happens, but I think it was sometime just after the animal is eviscerated and skinned. Visiting the slaughterhouse was a powerful experience, but an important one for any meat eater. It battles the disassociation that comes with buying prepackaged steaks. I think everyone should do it.
What were your ambitions prior to butchering?
I actually grew up wanting to be a doctor—an orthopedic surgeon to be exact—but somewhere along the way I got bitten by the arts bug and shifted gears, dabbling in acting, directing, filmmaking, computer animation, and cinematography. I reached a certain level of success as an actor and voice-over artist, but I could feel the business turning me into a type of person I didn't want to be. I realized it was time for a big change. My family had always been extremely food-centered, and I knew I wanted to get involved with food—promoting healthy eating, sustainable agriculture, slow food—I just wasn't sure how. Then I thought about my brother. He cooks the meanest steak you've ever seen. Better than any restaurant. I always joked with him that he should become a butcher and get closer to something he really loved. He ended up choosing to blow glass instead, and I became the butcher.
Did you work at any restaurants beforehand, or apprentice under a butcher?
I spent some time in various restaurant kitchens, but that just helped define what I didn't want to do more than anything else. I eventually started butchering as an intern at Dickson's. If there was any place to learn about butchering, it was there. They have personal relationships with the farmers, buy live animals, have a personal relationship with the slaughterhouse, pay the slaughterhouse directly, transport the animals themselves with their own truck, and butcher whole animals, hanging on the rail, down to retail cuts. Nose-to-tail eating without wholesalers, distributors, [Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations], processing plants, or middle-men. I was an unpaid intern working two days a week as a "meat packer," spending most of my days in front of a vacuum sealing machine bagging primals and sub-primals, learning the cuts inside and out, and watching the butchers wield their knives with artfully precise chaos.
Did they compensate you with meat?
The internship was unpaid, but yes, I was "paid" in meat. Part of the education of working in a whole-animal butcher shop involves learning all those nose-to-tail cuts that you simply don't see in a supermarket. I was often sent home with cuts that I had never heard of before: individual muscles that had been searched out, seamed out, cut differently, etc. And that means eating your way through a steer or pig or lamb and understanding texture variations, flavor differences, and how each cut wants to be cooked. Eventually I worked my way up to full-time butcher. Ironically enough, it also brought me back to orthopedics. Understanding bones. Separating individual muscles. Breaking tendons. Learning Latin muscle names. Anatomy and science are just as important as physical skill.
And what's favorite animal to break down?
You can't beat the variety and intricacies of the beef carcass. It's all so wonderfully beefy. Quadrupeds have essentially the same muscle physiology, so you're finding the exact same muscles in the exact same places whether it's beef, pork, or lamb. The difference is scale, so whereas with a lamb you can simply buy a whole shoulder, there are up to twelve individual muscles I can seam out in that same "shoulder" of beef, each with its own standalone characteristics of flavor, texture, and desired cooking method. That's where some true skill comes in. A steer just offers so much more variety in the way it can be broken down: individual muscles, muscle groupings, and differences, often cultural, in how you cut them. I take a lot of pride in talking to customers and matching the perfect cut of meat for how that person wants to eat and wants to cook - maybe even opening that person's mind and palate to a cut that is tastier or more fitting. Really, that's the most fun part of the job. Many people always ask, "So, you get to take home the best cuts?" To be honest, I try not to eat too much meat these days, but in their head, they're thinking: bone-in ribeye, NY strip, or filet mignon. Little do they know that the best cuts are things they have probably never heard of before.
My favorite cut in the whole steer are the boneless chuck short ribs. They go by many names: chuck flap, zabuton, serratus ventralis. It's a beautiful cut though somewhat nondescript in looks. You see "chuck" and "short ribs" and think it's a long braising cut, but for me, it's one of the the most tender and beefy cuts you can get, two characteristics that don't usually go together.To braise this cut would be to do it a disservice. I season it liberally with salt and pepper, sear each side in a cast iron pan, and slice it thick leaving it medium rare on the inside. But I love it cut in many forms: raw for tartar, sliced thin for shabu shabu, cut thick for steaks, or left whole for the grill.