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

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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.

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Rachel Miller
Contact: Rachel Miller