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'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.

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Rachel Miller
Contact: Rachel Miller