What Is Artisan Butchery?

Learning about some of the techniques and ideals that set artisan butchers apart  might influence your own career trajectory.

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December 23, 2015 4 min read
Artisan butchers offer locally raised meat in a variety of unusual cuts.

Artisan butchers offer locally raised meat in a variety of unusual cuts.

The  American Culinary Federation conducts an annual survey of its membership of professional chefs, and for 2016, the ACF listed artisan butchery among the top five culinary themes. If you are attending culinary academy, it is vital to stay on top of the latest trends in food. Therefore learning the techniques and ideals that set artisan butchers apart might influence your own career trajectory:

A socially conscious approach to butchery
In the past, to be an artisan simply meant that you were a person skilled in your trade or craft. Today, however, the term indicates a traditional, non-mechanized means of making a product or preparing food or drink. Artisan butchers therefore eschew the practices of factory farming and mass production, generally sourcing organic meat from local farmers and committing to using every possible part of an animal.

Some artisan butchers and others interested in conscientiously raising and slaughtering animals have formed organizations to educate the public and advocate for their ideals. The Artisan Beef Institute, for instance, was founded by the CEO of California-based The Oliver Ranch Company and encourages people to buy locally raised, organic beef. The institute teaches people how flavor and other characteristics differ based on the land where the meat was raised.

In 2011, cooking writer Marissa Guggiana and chef Tia Harrison founded The Butcher’s Guild. Anyone interested in whole-animal butchery can pay a fee to join this professional organization. However, to become a certified member one must be an experienced butcher, undergo a vetting process and take an oath. The swear to follow ethical practices in supporting sustainable agriculture and building relationships with customers and vendors.

How artisan butchers do things differently
To act on their ideals, artisan butchers must master traditional butchering skills and work on a relatively small scale. As food writer Michael Ruhlman explained, artisan butchers break down animals in ways distinct from more common American methods. Since they are working with smaller quantities of animals, butchers can show greater adaptability.

Rather than cutting all beef or pork into uniform rectangular portions, the artisan butcher takes into account how each animal’s meat and skin will be used and sections it off accordingly. They sell cuts of meat that are hard to find in large chain supermarkets, such as pork belly or hanger steaks, and unusual parts like skin to fry for cracklings, kidneys, pig’s ears and trotters.

Nose-to-tail restaurants rely upon that versatility. Chicago’s The Purple Pig, for instance, has a menu that includes items like pork liver pate, salt and vinegar beef tendon chips and pork rillons, which are cubes of roasted pork belly.

The New York Times reported that another major difference between artisan butchers and their larger scale competitors is the way they interact with customers. A butcher at The Meat Hook in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood said, “Here, you can have a conversation with a human being, and I can tell you that every transaction is different.” Independent butchers are more likely to have extended interactions with shoppers and provide expert advice.

Artisan butchers tend to form similarly close relationships with their suppliers and vendors. Erika Nakamura of Los Angeles butcher shop Lindy and Grundy described how these ties affect the way she does business. “All of our meats come from farms that are USDA exempt, meaning they produce too small a quantity to require certification,” she told Bon Appetit. “If my farmer’s truck breaks down, I’m going to pay to fix it so we can get our pork.”

These personal touches, along with quality meat and socially conscious practices, explain why artisan butchery has become a popular trend. Diners’ interest in locally raised meat and unusual ingredients means butchers are likely to continue influencing the restaurant business in years to come.


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