Northwest chefs do their own butchering for uncommon cuts
Chefs who do their own butchering find it's good business sense, because the return on investment is greater. Whole-animal butchering also inspires creativity — and customers get a chance to try something unique.
ONCE A WEEK, sometimes twice, in the lull between lunch and dinner, Seattle chef Chet Gerl snaps on blue latex gloves and dismantles a whole pig behind the counter of his open kitchen at Matt's in the Market.
Since Tamara Murphy showed him how years ago, when he was her sous chef at Brasa, he figures he's butchered more than a hundred. At Matt's, he taught his sous chef the skill, too. He prefers a large animal, one that weighs 125 to 150 pounds on average. "Bigger pigs not only yield more meat but allow for more versatile cuts," he says, among them shoulder chuck roast steaks, flank and sirloin steaks. He makes short work of cutting primal, sub-primal and portion pieces, sometimes racing the clock, just to see how fast he can do it. His best time is just under 10 minutes.
Off come the trotters, the belly, the fatback, the tenderloin, the neck and head, the shoulders and rump. If the animal is big enough, he'll make porchetta by cutting a whole piece off the back, skin and all, and wrapping it around the tenderloin. Although Gerl buys chops from Carlton Farm (one pig doesn't have enough to sustain the restaurant for a whole week) when he gets a pig with a nice loin, he might pound out cutlets for pork katsu.
He braises the ham and shoulders for BBQ pork, cures the neck for coppa, the thick rim of fat for lardo. The rump is used for pozole. Trotters, tongue and cheeks go into head cheese. The skin is fried into chicharrones. Ribs feed the employees at "family meal." Trimmings fill chorizo or the stock pot.
Increasingly, chefs are doing their own butchering. It's good business sense as the return on investment is greater. Whole-animal butchering also inspires creativity — and customers get a chance to try something unique: like the porky Asturian bean stew, fabada, at Matt's. It's packed with tripe, rabbit confit, chorizo and morcilla — blood sausages speckled white with bits of pork fat.
At Ballard's Bastille, chef Jason Stoneburner gets a whole goat weekly from Quilceda Farm in Snohomish County. "We take the loin first and use it raw for tartare or carpaccio," he says. "We get maybe 12 to 15 orders out of it." The rest of the meat is braised with harissa and might turn up as a sauce for pasta. Goat-neck ricotta cavatelli sells out fast.
Quilceda Farm also supplies whole goats to Bastille's sister restaurant, the Mexican-themed Poquitos. Chef Manny Arce braises the animal, bones and all, for his Goat Birria. Sometimes, if the goat is large, Arce will carve out the belly and confit it in pork fat. "I might get six portions," he says. "So I will put it on the menu as a special."
Whole-animal butchering is Russell Flint's specialty at his Melrose Market retail shop, Rain Shadow Meats. Flint spent five years in the meat department of Whole Foods but only started butchering whole animals as sous chef at Renee Erickson's Boat St. Café. "I started Rain Shadow, in part, to educate customers about animal parts they don't often see in the market," Flint says, "because no big meat processor does those cuts."
The geography of meat can be a mystery, even to dedicated carnivores. Flint likes turning customers on to "a great piece of meat that's not going to cost a lot." He offers uncommon cuts like veal flank steak, pork brisket and teres major. Sometimes called "butcher's tender," it's a leaner cut of beef from the shoulder muscle, with loads of flavor and a price comparable to flank steak or hanger steak.
Shoulder and leg muscles produce tremendously flavorful meat, but those big muscles can be tough. Skilled butchering of whole animals produces tender cuts hidden within those large muscles. But what do you call them? A fantasy name can help them catch on.
At John Howie Steak, where they do all their own cutting of 42-day-aged USDA prime and wagyu products, you'll find "Zabuton" on the menu. "It's a Japanese term that means cushion," says Howie. "It's attached to the rib, the loin and the chuck. It's not very large, but extremely rich. We get three or four cuts out of each cushion. The skill of the butcher comes in when portioning the steaks and cutting them properly to produce the desired tenderness."
Zabuton is a favorite at the Bellevue restaurant, but Howie recalls it was a hard sell when he first tried it out years ago at Palisade. "At that time people were not as open to trying unusual or unusually named cuts of beef."
What's in a name? The Coterie Room's Brian McCracken and Dana Tough prefer the more straightforward "wagyu sirloin cap" to culotte steak because they think it's clearer for the customer. But chef Shaun McCrain calls the grilled beef rib-eye cap on the menu at the Book Bindery the "Flavor Curve," adopting butcher's slang he learned from one of his crew.
Clever names help market lesser-known cuts, which is why the beef industry established the Beef Innovations Group. Its website says, "A stringent, scientific process to analyze individual muscles in the chuck and round identified those with marketable value beyond their traditional use." They've given these "value-added cuts" evocative names. The Denver cut is from the shoulder (chuck); the San Antonio, Tucson and Santa Fe cuts are all from the cow's hind leg (top round); Merlot and Braison cuts come from the heel of the round.
"These are cool names for really crappy cuts of meat that are usually ground or stewed," says Rain Shadow's Flint. But who knows? Teres major might really take off if he called it the "Capitol Hill cut."
Providence Cicero is The Seattle Times' restaurant critic. John Lok is a Times staff photographer.