Nice to Meat You Nice to Meat You
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Nice to Meat You

by Adam Starr

August 18, 2009

Put on your aprons and pass the saw: The next wave of the food-awareness movement is do-it-yourself butchery.

Early on a recent Sunday morning I boarded a train to San Francisco's Mission District to learn how to butcher a whole hog. The class, taught by the chef-turned-butcher Ryan Farr, was held in La Cocina, a non-profit shared-use community kitchen that Farr is using as a temporary venue until he opens his new butcher shop, to be called 4505 Meats.A total of 13 students turned up to trade their shoulder bags for butcher aprons. The group was made up of young professionals, ranging in age from mid 20s to 30s, equal parts men and women. Their vocations varied, from copywriters and marketers to health care providers and public relations executives. What united the class was a shared fascination with the entire food experience.Chef Farr is part of a young, DIY butchery movement that is gaining traction across America. He recently began both sausage making and animal butchery workshops to give people the chance to understand their food more personally. In my class, we would learn how to break down the entire animal, familiarizing ourselves with both common, and uncommon, cuts. Eaters have been thinking about meat and its implications a lot lately, and Farr's classes give them a chance to have more direct experience with the sources of their protein.To start the class, Farr handed out knives, hatchets, hacksaws, and plenty of encouragement. He asked, with a smile, for a volunteer to remove the head of our pig, a freshly slaughtered 202-pound, pasture-raised, 5-month-old from Riverdog Farms, which lay on the table, hooves jutting toward the ceiling.The volunteer, a hardened veteran of Farr's last sausage-making class, watched Farr draw a finger along a seam before slicing into the neck. After the head was removed and held up for the crowd, Farr took over and started the process of removing the spine with a hatchet. A few tidy cuts later, he divided the pig into workable pieces, and apportioned them to the class. Circling the table, he guided the students, explaining the animal's musculature and skeleton, as the pig transformed into increasingly recognizable cuts of meat.
"Butchery is a lost art, and it's an art form with a lot of honor, there are men and women doing it really well everyday, and they have been for a long time."
We frenched pork chops (cleaning the long bone attached to the chop for French presentation), sawed off hooves, cubed shoulders, sliced tender loin, and salivated over the belly's marbled bacon. After a student finished sawing through the skull, Farr removed the brain, dusting it in flour and butter to fry on the stove as an appetizer for his homemade hot dogs.Despite his expertise, Ryan Farr didn't learn how to butcher in culinary school. "Part of being a chef is knowing how to break down an animal," he tells me. "I don't know why it's not part of the curriculum; it wasn't when I was there, but I think they should be teaching more of it." After working in New York and Japan, he became fascinated with using the whole animal. Unable to find the meats he wanted, he decided to take matters into his own hands."I researched," he says. "If I had any questions on how to do anything I'd check out YouTube. That's how I learned how to do hot dogs. It's just trial and error. The main thing that is so important to remember is, ‘I might fuck this up, but I can still eat it.' I like utilizing whole animals and understanding the whole process, the whole system. Butchery is a lost art, and it's an art form with a lot of honor, there are men and women doing it really well every day, and they have been for a long time."
After working at the Fifth Floor restaurant in San Francisco for three years, helping it to earn a Michelin star before ascending to executive chef, Farr left to design and open the kitchen at Orson as the chef de cuisine. Next, he worked for a non-profit, Chefs Conquering Homelessness Through Education in Food Services as an instructor. The program teaches formerly homeless people the culinary skills necessary to land a job in the food industry.With time between projects as he works to open his butcher shop, he's been helping people get hands-on with their dinner through his butchery classes. It's a fitting role for a chef interested in connecting omnivores to the animals they eat. After years of mindlessly feeding on industrialized food, eaters are growing wary of mass-produced meat. For some, learning butchery is a natural evolution in understanding the sources of our food. Farr explained, "with this excitement around food, we have people that want to know where the food comes from, how it's prepared, how it ate, how it lived."For Farr, butchery is also about maximizing resources, speed, and precision. "With butchery you don't want waste, you want economical movements, not small cuts and a hacked up product. It's all about making the right cuts-that one cut-sharp knives, and letting gravity take over, finding that perfect seam to cut along."At 4505 Meats, Farr plans to serve as a chef-butcher who can carve up the fresh product while also talking to patrons about their meals and offering ideas and culinary advice."Education is really important," he says, "and as long as I can teach, I'll keep talking." A quick glance around the country suggests that people are lining up to listen. "I'm impressed with the enthusiasm around using the whole animal and understanding the animal. I love the fact that everybody ate the pig brains today. When you butcher, you have a whole new respect for the animal. I hope that after my class these people can go into a Whole Foods, look at the meat, and think, 'I can cut those pork chops better than these jokers.'"To learn more about 4505 Meats, click here, and to read Farr's blog, click here.Photos courtesy of Shing Wong.
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