The Butcher, the Baker: A Pastry Chef Picks Up a Cleaver in Learning the True Meaning of Farm-to-Table

I will not chicken out. Okay, I might.

Before me on a plastic table is a chicken -- throat slashed, naked of feathers, still warm. The eyes are closed and since the neck has been cut to drain the blood, rendering my chicken lifeless, the neck is floppy and attached by only a few tendons. My job now is to put my hand around its head and pull.

I grasp the head and yank. Nothing happens. I readjust my grip, apologizing to dead Chicken Little for covering his entire face with my sweaty hand, and pull with all my might. The tendon releases and I am holding a chicken head. I loosen my grip and look at the little head balanced in the cup of my hand. I expect to feel sick, but instead I feel pride. I drop the head into the bucket and set about working through the rest of the butchering process.

I am at Davis Family Organic Farm in Queen Creek on a warm, sunny Saturday in April to butcher the chickens I have paid the farm to raise for me. This program is offered to people who don't have the room or knowledge to raise chickens themselves. I bought five of them.

You put a down payment of $15 per bird, then pay the balance (minus your deposit) after the butchering, based on the weight of each bird at the cost of $5 per pound. Not a bad deal for the freshest meat you can imagine. The one caveat is that you must participate in the slaughter of the animals before taking your meat home.

"I am a chef!" I scream in my mind as I stare at the dead chicken before me. This is part of what I do. Well, not really what I do as a pastry chef, but what I have always wanted to learn. Here is a chance to jump in, and I'm balking.

I have broken down chickens before, in one of the restaurants I worked as a pastry chef. I'm sure the executive chef thought I was mental, but I wanted to learn as much as I could about every aspect of the kitchen, especially the savory side, where my skills were weakest.

That was different. The chickens would arrive at the restaurant in a box lined with plastic gutted and ready to have their meat removed from the bones for grilling. Cold chickens, sharp knives, shaky cuts. I messed up a lot of chickens, though I got better.

But now I have this chicken that is still warm, that I have to gut. I'm in the yard of the farm. A few other customers -- men with their sons and one woman -- are scattered at the other tables. The woman stands next to me. Nervous and unsure about what to do, she looks around for Nichole Davis, owner of the farm, who moves around the tables giving direction and hands-on help as needed.

The head is off. The feet come easily -- sliced at the joint, they almost snap off and are tossed into the feet bucket. Heads, feet, hearts, and livers are placed in separate buckets to be divvied up later among the chicken owners. Not only are these the best chickens I have eaten in my life, the leftover bones, feet, and heads make amazing chicken stock that soon will fill my freezer.

I make a slit in the lower region of the chicken in which to put my hand and pull out the innards. I reach in; it's hot and gooey. I grip firmly to get a handle on the chicken's innards, and a combination of air and still-intact vocal cords cause my dead chicken to sing. Everyone gets a laugh, and I try to continue working quietly, which only causes my chicken to sing more.

Once I've pulled them from the chicken, I carefully remove the heart and liver from the entrails. We wash the chickens and check to make sure that their marshmallowy lungs have been removed, as the lungs' soft tissue tends to stick in the rib cage. Then all birds are placed on ice until bagging and labeling.

We work in a production line. Some people are slaughtering, some de-feathering, some breaking down, some packaging. I find I am best at breaking down. With each bird going faster, my fear is gone.

I'm a pastry chef. Mostly, my medium is sugar, butter, and flour. In restaurants, pastry chefs are in charge of all sweet items, bread items, and, typically, cheese plates or boards.

Depending on the establishment, we are either the first people in every morning, preparing and baking for the day, or we are the last people out, waiting till the final table has the opportunity to finish its meal with dessert. There are times when we assist with garde manger, salads, and cold appetizers, but usually we don't stray too far from the realm of pastry.

Growing up in western Pennsylvania, I had a pantry of ingredients at my fingertips and never appreciated them. Vegetables from local farmers were abundant -- both professional farmers and hobbyists often ran small roadside stands in front of their homes.

I picked my own strawberries in the summer, grew the fattest zucchinis by just tossing the seeds into a small plot of our 60 acres where my parents let me start my first garden. My dad taught me how to make fried eggplant, and my mom taught me how to can. There were orchards of apples every fall, the smell of Concord grapes hung in the air, letting you know what time of year it was. We bought our meat from the 4-H auction -- the successful project of each youngster to raise an animal, then auction it off -- and filled our freezer for the winter.

I attended culinary school for patisserie and baking with the hope of learning the savory side of the kitchen once I was working in the restaurant industry, with the ultimate goal of being a food writer. I landed in Thomas Keller's Bouchon in Las Vegas as a pastry cook after culinary school and was immediately in love with professional kitchen life.

But I still didn't know how to butcher an animal.

The letdown in culinary school for me was that meat-fabrication class wasn't offered to pastry students, and even if I hadn't focused on pastry, most schools don't take you out and show you how your chicken was raised, what it ate, and where it lived, and then teach you how to kill it, gut it, and clean it. Meat arrived cleaned and ready to go in boxes or in "primal cuts," a smaller wholesale cut, ready to be portioned for service.

I figured meat fabrication was something I could pick up in the industry; however, very few restaurants still bring in halves or quarters of animal to break down in-house and utilize all the pieces.

Still, I was curious. It started innocently enough at my first job out of culinary school, watching large slabs of meat arrive, to be broken into smaller pieces by some of the sous chefs. I was blown away by how easily their knives slid through and around the meat, knowing exactly where to cut.

I started buying cookbooks about roasting and charcuterie, trying to learn more, so that when I asked questions to the savory cooks and chefs I wouldn't sound like a totally ignorant pastry cook.

The mystery of meat -- how to cook it well, where it came from, who was raising it, and how to use it in a seasonal way on the menu -- became increasingly interesting to me and drove me to bug the crap out of some of the amazing savory chefs I worked with.

But at Bouchon, there was no cross-training. I was hired to bake, and my shifts were 10 hours or longer. I had no time to bother anyone to teach me to butcher, let alone do it.

Years later, I helped Jared Porter open The Parlor, a pizzeria on Camelback Road in Phoenix. Porter is a wonderful teaching chef, and he was bringing in entire pigs, doing nose-to-tail dinners. But while it might have been a teaching experience, again, there was no time for hands-on experience. I was up to my elbows in flour, literally.

I secretly planned my escape a few years ago to attend a butcher program in the south of France. The huge price tag and the need to leave for a month hasn't worked out with my schedule yet, but it is still on my bucket list.

The people who think it's disgusting usually don't understand why you can't just be happy buying meat at the store, wrapped safely in cellophane, blind to everything except what the label says. I hate to break it to you, but labels definitely can lie.

My passion for learning the art of butchering, which will take me many years to learn, comes from two places.

First, as a naive culinary student, I read The Soul of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman. One thing stuck in my head about my soon-to-be boss, Thomas Keller.

As chef of La Rive in the Catskill Mountains, Keller asked his rabbit purveyor to bring the rabbits alive so that he could learn how to break down the animals.

Ruhlman writes, "He stunned, killed, skinned, gutted, and butchered them all for service that week, and he did learn how to break down rabbits. But he learned something more. He had taught himself about respect for food and, its opposite, waste. It had been hard to kill those rabbits because life, to Keller, wasn't meaningless."

This may seem hippy-dippy-trippy to you. At one point, I probably felt the same way. In our society, we are detached from seeing where our food comes from. We find the process of slaughtering an animal too inhumane and disgusting, preferring it to occur behind closed doors and the meat to just arrive, pretty and ready to cook. There is no respect there.

There is a lot of waste in a kitchen. Many cooks fuck up a dish and it goes into the trash without a second thought to not only the owner and their bottom line, but also to the beautiful food that was just wasted. This piece about Keller really made me realize that I needed to respect where the food I cooked was coming from and be thoughtful when working with it, regardless of whether it's animal or fruit.

The second thing that made me decide to seek out education in butchering was a complete lifestyle change in the way I was eating. A diet soda addict, I would put back gallons, and working in kitchens it was free flowing. I ate pretty healthy, but I started to really ask myself, "What am I putting in my body and where did it come from?"

I cut out processed food, gave up diet soda, and switched to a mostly organic diet. I read labels, and attempted to educate myself on what I was eating and where was it was coming from. Since we cut out processed foods, my husband no longer has debilitating migraines. My body feels better and more energetic. But I had to start getting creative on where I was sourcing our food, particularly meat.

In Phoenix, my pantry has become increasingly abundant as every year brings new artisans in every market. Local raw milk is now easy for me to get at Sprouts. I no longer have to purchase it through back channels from someone in the Target parking lot. We have two sources for local organic flour. The local cheese scene is growing and eggs from backyard chickens are everywhere.

Proper Meat & Provisions already has opened its doors in Flagstaff; Proper Meats Tucson is slated to open in the spring. Owner Paul Moir and chef David Smith were bringing in meat for restaurants Brix and Criollo Latin Kitchen in Flagstaff and Proper in Tucson when they decided to open their own shops.

This is a start for Arizona, but currently there is no one in the Phoenix area bringing in the majority of their inventory as whole halves of animals from Arizona farms and breaking them down in their butcher shops.

So where can you get high-quality local meat in Phoenix?

Many local animal farmers are now selling cuts of meat at farmers markets. It can take a little more work to search out some of these farmers, but you will be able to have a conversation with them about how the animal you are purchasing to feed you and your family was raised.

Some of these farmers or ranchers have set up CSA programs, while others cut you a deal if you order a quarter, a half, or a whole animal. JH Grassfed Beef, Adams Natural Meats, Hopkins Hog Farm, Bar 10 Ranch, and Double Check Ranch are just a few of them.

But there's no easy way to pick up meat, no butcher shop like what Moir and Smith are doing. Given the history of meat in Phoenix, it's odd that both Flagstaff and Tucson are now home to artisan butcher shops, yet in the Valley of the Sun, we currently go without.

While we can assume that the first form of butchery came when man began consuming animals, there are archeologists studying the beginnings of butchery. Charlotte Leduc, an archeologist with the University of Paris, has been studying a prehistoric Danish site, called Lundby Mose, where it is believed butchering occurred 12,000 years ago.

By studying the animal remains at 
Lundby Mose, Leduc proposes that animal heads were cut first to remove the skin, which then was utilized as a "perishable container" to dispose of unusable scraps and to protect meat from the dirt. She also surmises that some meat from the limbs would have been consumed raw on the spot by the hunters. Skeletal parts containing marrow were found fractured, indicating that the marrow had been extracted, a possible reward for the hunters.

From skillful cut marks on the bones, Leduc believes that remaining meat was cut down for ease of transport and later use, then moved to a settlement nearby. Bones were used for weapons or tools. Every scrap was utilized, very little was wasted.

The butcher shop, as a place to purchase meat, came about in the Middle Ages. As cities grew, people became unable to raise their own meat. London's earliest record of a butcher shop comes in 975 A.D. Guilds formed, offering support to butchers able to share techniques and problems while also issuing rules and regulations on proper ways to slaughter animals.

The history of butchery in Phoenix is linked to a man named Edward Ambrose Tovrea. Originally from Illinois, Tovrea started to work on a cattle ranch in the Midwest at age 10. Moving west at 19, he began a freight company that moved goods between Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado.

When he finally settled in Arizona, he opened a number of butcher shops around the state, eventually founding the Arizona Packing Company in 1919, which soon became known as the largest cattle feedlot in the world, with over 300,000 cattle each year. The Stockyards Restaurant, which was opened in 1947 as a gathering place for all the cattlemen, still operates today as the original Arizona steakhouse.

Our parents and grandparents probably can remember a time when families raised their own meat animals, knew someone who had a farm where they purchased animals, or went to the butcher who worked with local farmers to procure and cut meat to order.

In recent years, we have seen our way through mad cow disease, when everyone was scared to eat beef. Then there was salmonella, E.coli, or listeria contamination, and then the ensuing recalls were issued, causing us to run to our freezers to check to make sure we hadn't purcashed tainted meat. Our food system is so large that our meat more than likely has logged more miles on the road than we do after a summer road trip. Meat is traveling from farm to slaughterhouse to processing facility to truck to grocery store.

Do we know where the meat we get at the store comes from, who touched it through this process, and how it was raised?

The meat industry has changed dramatically in the past 20 to 30 years. Bob Thrush, a custom processor and butcher in Wickenburg, will tell you that when he worked for the grocery chain Bashas, it brought in halves of animals and broke down the meat right there in the store.

"Now," he says, shaking his head, "all the meat goes into the slaughterhouse. The guys on the line each know one cut. The animals come out the other side boxed and ready to be delivered to the store."

Thrush has a cowboy's demeanor (or what I imagine to be a cowboy's demeanor). He is gruff but kind and a straight talker. He has been a butcher since his early 20s, needing a profession and finding himself as a butcher's apprentice.

Currently, he and his wife, Lisa, own and operate Thrush's Processing. They have two grown children who have helped out over the years, allowing the Thrush family to keep several eyes on the quality of the work, which is their main concern.

As a mobile butcher, Thrush will come to your farm, kill your animal, break it down into halves or quarters, then take them back to his processing facility, where the meat must hang for a certain amount of time. Bob cuts the meat while Lisa packages. They employ one full-time apprentice and one part-time apprentice.

We met at my friend Nichole Davis' home. Davis is the sunshine for me in this storm of chaos and lies surrounding the meat industry. She operates Davis Family Organic Farm with her husband and kids and is Queen Creek chapter leader for the Weston A. Price Foundation, a nonprofit that educates about nutrition through food and farming.

The Davises raise pastured, organic soy- and canola-free chickens and pigs for people who don't have the space to be able to do so themselves. While the farm requires the purchasers to help butcher chickens, the pigs are butchered and processed by Bob Thrush on site, then delivered to Nichole cut down, wrapped, and portioned for each purchaser.

Davis began her farming journey five years ago after almost dying of an infection discovered after the birth of her fourth child.

Ultimately, it took 13 doctors four days to determine the problem. She had strep A, not the more common strep B, and landed in the ICU for nine days, in the hospital a total of 15 days.

At one point, her organs started to shut down. Doctors told her that they would attempt surgery but that the prognosis was not good. Davis' family began to arrive to say their goodbyes. She was 27 and spent the next two years in bed, too weak for everyday life.

"It put me on a new course. I had so many questions inside of me trying to figure out how I got so bad, so bad that I literally almost died! I was in my 20s -- what should have been the prime of my life -- so what wasn't working and how was I going to fix it?" she says.

Davis decided that she needed to make sure her health was the top priority, and that meant eating better food. After a less-than-fruitful search for local sources of quality meats, dairy, and eggs, she started raising her own.

On butchering day, Davis, tall and lean, wears rubber boots, jeans, and a T-shirt, her dark hair in a ponytail. She pushes up her glasses and gets comfortable in one of the two lawn chairs she has pulled up alongside a trampoline, near where Thrush will butcher the animals. She acknowledges that it's hard for her to butcher animals that she has spent time raising and loving.

"None of us like the killing part, but we do like that our animals were given a good life -- treated and fed right. And in turn, we end up feeling gratitude for them and the experience. Food is the basis for everything. It is an honor to have the chance to be a part of something so important."

Thrush, Davis, and I stand around talking for a few moments, before he starts butchering. Davis also is putting down her old dairy cow today and will use its meat to feed her family.

The farm comprises about an acre of land, with their house close to the road and an expansive backyard maze of fencing creating different areas for each group of animals. A small barn sits to one side. There are larger areas, where they allow the animals to graze.

The laying hens and ducks have a pen with space to roam and a coop. The roaster chickens and turkeys are kept in their own pen, pecking around the ground for bugs. Dairy goats play in the dirt, occasionally meandering up to the fence to investigate. Pigs are tucked in the back corner. A few large trees extend their canopy and offer shade. A fenced-in garden and raised planters are distributed throughout the property to provide vegetables for the Davis family.

Nichole Davis' four kids run around, playing and talking about what will happen on their farm today. Ranging in age from 5 to 12, her kids assist with butchering in different capacities, from chicken catcher to bagger to labeler. While still young, they realize that if they are going to eat meat, they have a responsibility to be a part of this process.

Thrush reassures Davis and me, explaining exactly what will occur and that once we get past the killing, it is a clinical procedure. I look over at the cute pigs in the pen and back at him. He just smiles and nods in a calming, it-will-be-okay way.

Thrush places the tip of a .22 shotgun at the cow's head. I aim my camera. But before I am able to remove the lens cap and Davis is able to slide back through the fencing after placing a bowl of molasses and feed in the pen for the cow, we hear a small pop. The cow crumples to the ground.

Davis looks at me, slightly shocked, a smudge of molasses on her cheek. For her, this is the hardest part, and Thrush is really good at making sure it happens quickly and as humanely as possible for the animal.

With speed that comes with almost 30 years of experience, Thrush quickly slits the throat, allowing the blood to drain. The fence is removed and a winch lifts the cow by the hind legs so that she is hanging.

Butchering cows costs $70 per head, with the processing (hanging, cutting, wrapping, and freezing) costing another 70 cents per pound on the hanging weight. The hanging weight is the weight after the meat has been hung for about two weeks, which allows some of the water to evaporate from the meat. Pigs cost $45 per head, with a processing fee of 55 cents per pound.

In order to be able to assist Thrush in butchering the cow and pigs, I would have to train as his apprentice for years; his own experience shows in his steady hand and precise, quick cuts.

He puts on his apron and begins to skin the cow, and he is right: It does become clinical. He points out all the primal cuts to Davis and me and how each one would be broken down and used. The kids gather around for their science lesson, seeing the four chambers of the cow's stomach and receiving a lecture on what each one does.

Thrush quarters the cow in 40 minutes and hangs each piece of meat in a custom-made refrigerated trailer. He then begins work on the pigs.

Back at their property and facility in Wickenburg, I chat with Thrush as he cuts apart pieces of meat.

"I think butchering is a dying art," he says.

Much as how kids go to culinary school today, never work in a restaurant yet call themselves a chef, most butchers in grocery stores or even small butcher shops rarely do much cutting. If they do, they receive the primal cuts in boxes and break down from there. A self-proclaimed butcher who lacks the ability to break down a whole or half animal isn't much of a butcher in the eyes of Bob Thrush.

"We could work seven days a week, 365 days of the year if we wanted," Lisa, Bob's wife, and co-owner of the processing facility, tells me. "We are turning people away and aren't taking on any new customers, because we just don't have the time."

They don't know whether it's just because they have been in business and they get recommendations from customers or because more people are raising animals, but business is booming.

The Thrushes work in an efficiently designed refrigerated commercial building on their land in Wickenburg. The building houses a custom-designed walk-in with a rail track to pull hanging meat from the entry side, through to the cutting room, and a freezer where they place the cut or ground packaged meat, awaiting pickup.

The pig and cow Thrush killed, skinned, and broke down at Nichole Davis' ranch come here to hang -- about seven days for the pork and 16 days for the cow. Evaporation helps concentrate flavor and provides an increasingly tender product.

Before cutting, Lisa and Bob go over the order sheet, which has all the cuts the customer wants from the animal. With the aid of a large saw and a few knives, Bob skillfully breaks down the quarters of beef, as they hang, into smaller cuts. He dons a chain-mail glove and begins making cuts. Lisa packages everything as soon as it leaves Bob's hand, and they are done with half of a cow in about an hour.

Six months after my first butchering experience, I am back at Davis Family Organic Farm to butcher more chickens and a turkey for Thanksgiving. I am the first to arrive on a cool mid-November morning.

Slowly, people start to trickle in. By the time we begin at 9, the yard is full of families. Today, we are butchering 63 chickens and nine turkeys, almost double what is normal for a butcher day.

I begin with a de-feathered chicken, and it feels like old hat to be there going through the motions of removing the head and the feet. An older woman sidles up next to me and asks for advice. I realize that I am teaching her, encouraging her to make the cuts, and guiding her how to put her hand in the chicken to feel for the gizzard and remove the lungs.

A purple-haired teenager walks up to my husband and asks him to teach her how to use the de-feathering machine.

She takes the hose and drops a bird into the machine.

"I feel like I was made for this," she murmurs. "I have learned every station here. I even killed a chicken. "

She beams with pride, takes the hose, and learns how to run the de-feathering machine like a pro.

Though I don't think I'll switch to the life of a butcher anytime soon, I intend to keep growing in my knowledge of this skill set.

In any case, the pastry business is booming. As an artisan baker, my sweet wares seem to be more in demand than ever. People love that I use local organic flour from Hayden Flour Mills or Agritopia and other ingredients sourced from around the area, and they seek out me for that reason.

And maybe that's all this city is ready for.

Driving through Central Phoenix, I see the empty storefronts of small businesses that made a go and failed. There's one on McDowell Road, a space that briefly housed So We Meat Again, a smoked meat shop.

Just this month, a sign went up on the former meat shop. The new tenant? A baker.

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Rachel Miller
Contact: Rachel Miller