Chefs with Issues is a platform for chefs we love, fired up for causes about which they're passionate. Today's contributor, Frank Bonanno, is a protégé of Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry and current owner/chef of Mizuna, Luca D’Italia, Osteria Marco and Bones in Denver, Colorado. He was named a semifinalist by the James Beard Foundation for the "Outstanding Restaurateur" award in both 2009 and 2010.
I was invited to break down a fish on a local morning show last week. Why is a chef filleting snapper over a Sterno flame in a brightly lit news room at eight in the morning? Because cooks everywhere want to be more hands on with the proteins they use. They are becoming dissatisfied with Cryovaced, pre-portioned precise shapes. They want to be cutting and portioning their own meats, utilizing the trim, creating rich broth from broken bone. It’s a beautiful thing.
What saddens me, though, is that just as the cooks are becoming more eager to learn basic butchery, culinary schools are not teaching the art of butchery. A chef can come away from a thirty thousand dollar education and never learn how to bone the smallest animals - fish, rabbits, chickens. Some come into my kitchen having never killed a lobster.
We broke down lamb, chicken, duck - and as an intended chef, the experience was nothing short of awesome. It’s one thing to see a chart that denotes where the rib on a cow is, it's another thing entirely to place your hands on the body, break the legs, use a saw, whittle the animal into primal cuts. This intimacy takes you beyond textbook memorization and into actual body memory that helps you discern cartilage from bone, meat from matter, lean from fat.
My butchery class impressed upon me the true weight of waste. It taught me to be economical with my knife and careful in my process. I learned to see value in every part of the animal.
I see the same appreciation in the interns that filter through our doors. The whole pigs arrive, and the interns want, ask, are eager to learn how to tackle them. One of our intern’s first butchery attempts took him nearly two and a half hours to break down (something a seasoned chef can do in 20 minutes). This skill set was denied him in a school designed to educate our trade.
To take these thoughts to the next level: I believe that if you are to become skilled at cooking an animal, you should learn how to butcher one - and if you are to learn how to butcher one, you should understand what goes into killing one.
In my role at Ballyneal Golf & Hunt Club, I walked in the cold with four men carrying shotguns, work boots crunching ground, following dogs and waiting for them to pick up the scent of wild bird. Afterward, we removed pheasants’ feathers and cleaned out the buckshot to let them hang for a day. I cooked every one.
No, the flavor wasn’t somehow enhanced because I shot one myself (wild birds are gamey). My pleasure came from the cool, quiet of the morning and the challenge later of turning every part of the fowl into a really flavorful dinner for twenty people. I don’t like to hunt, but I shot that pheasant, killed pig, fished - all for food.
And no, that doesn’t mean I think everyone needs to go out and kill an animal. I do think, though, that if you cook with meat, fish or game, you sure as hell should see how that animal came before you. Visit a slaughterhouse, talk to a hunter, get to know your butcher. As a chef, it will improve your knowledge. As a human being, it will enrich your understanding.
I do the same for produce - grow it, pick it, slice it. For me, the joy isn’t in the gardening, but in understanding the origins of meals I will prepare and eat. Truthfully, I’m a better chef for the experience.
Home cooks, the ones watching a man slicing up a fish on the morning news, will become better cooks for doing so. Professional chefs, the ones that go into kitchens and figure out how to use a hacksaw on bone, will become better for that experience. And if you see, firsthand, how a life becomes food, you will be better for that experience.
Previously - A day two pigs would die: on ethical slaughter