Chefs with Issues - A Plea for Butchery Classes in School
September 8th, 2010
04:00 PM ET
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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.

My own butchery instructor actually shot the veal himself and brought it to our classroom so that we could learn from his experience. He showed us how he killed it, how he hung it to bleed out and waited a day for the rigor mortis to go away and offered it up so we, as a group, could appreciate not only the knife and cooking skills, but the skill set of the one who slaughters an animal and the sacrifice of life that becomes food.

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

soundoff (45 Responses)
  1. Stephanie Morimoto

    I loved this article. I'm a home cook, but I'm really interested in learning butchery (if anyone knows where a home cook can do this in San Francisco, please let me know!). I recently attended lamb and hog butchery demonstrations, which were fascinating but not hands-on. I completely agree with the importance of intimately where your food is coming from. Even growing some of our own veggies and fruit in our backyard has been a great way for us to connect more deeply to what it takes to raise food.

    September 16, 2010 at 10:39 pm |
  2. Blades of Glory

    I grew up on a farm and since I was 10, I have cleaned by own fish, filleted them, cleaned squirrel and rabbit, dressed and butchred deer, bear, and farm hogs and cattle. It really is a different mindset when you prepare your own food to be prepared, if you know what I mean. I actually thought of being a meat cutter part-time in a grocery store. The other side of the story is those who eat steak, burgers, fish and fowl, yet crinkle their nose in disgust about the idea of raising or preparing (butchering) your own meat. I call this Bambi syndrome, and blame Walt Disney for this wussification of america. Back in the day, even in the big cities, you went to the buther shop and saw your meat cut in front of you, chose your own cuts or bought whole fish at the fish market. Today's shrink wrapped meat and frozen fish fillets have removed us from our closeness of the earth.

    September 9, 2010 at 4:54 pm |
  3. Rob J

    In this time of a tough economy my friends now ask me how to cut up a chicken. Let's see, a whole bird is 70 cents per pound cheaper and you can get the benefits of great stock out of the carcass once your done trimming out all the "good stuff". You get to meal plan all the different parts for a month if you buy multiple birds instead of just the pre-cut breasts at the same price. Go figure. I still remember Julia Child teaching how to do this on TV. It was her pleasure and her pride to bring it to us and yet the schools don't see the benefit. As usual bureaucrats and bean counters are in charge of education. Love of and pride in trade must be missing from our culinary schools. No wonder my table is always full of friends to share meals with.

    September 9, 2010 at 4:44 pm |
  4. jimg

    if your hunters were shooting birds with buckshot, you had nothing left to clean. please, an informative article but a stupid remark.

    September 9, 2010 at 4:30 pm |
    • Pheasants are big

      Maybe you missed the part where he said he was hunting pheasant. They're fairly good sized.

      September 9, 2010 at 11:21 pm |
      • ...

        More likely High-brass 6 shot but any sort of buck shot (generally 000 and down) would obliterate a pheasant. Wouldn't even use buck on a turkey.

        November 28, 2011 at 8:28 pm |
  5. MEAT

    When I was pregnant, it was hard not to eat the raw hamburger right out of the fridge. AS well as evertything else i could find in the kitchen. And yet, my child won't touch meat. Go figure!

    September 9, 2010 at 3:45 pm |
  6. Truth

    I actually have gone the whole cycle...Have shot deer, field dressed, then butchered them, later cooking the meat. There is something that is very "back to our roots" about it. Makes me appreciate what the colonials went through.

    September 9, 2010 at 1:41 pm |
    • Jdizzle McHammerpants

      Yeah, I hear ya. I wonder how many people would die if we suddenly went back to colonial times. No supermarket, no McDonald's.

      September 9, 2010 at 5:07 pm |
  7. Truth

    Children already get a lesson in butchery every day from the liberals and the party of hate, Obama is a straight A student at butchering the constitution.

    September 9, 2010 at 12:16 pm |
    • Truth

      Please stop posting under my name.

      September 9, 2010 at 12:37 pm |
      • Jdizzle McHammerpants

        Can't stand when people do that.

        September 9, 2010 at 12:40 pm |
      • Jdizzle McHammerpants

        But it wasn't bad. X)

        September 9, 2010 at 12:41 pm |
  8. Mildred

    I think this is a valid point... more and more people are not aware of where their food comes from. There are people who don't believe that milk comes from cows... because it comes from the store and that's all they know. Even with the recent food illness issues, many people only think to the store and not beyond.

    September 9, 2010 at 9:23 am |
  9. Mike Lehman

    I agree with the author about schools not teaching this skill. While I did get to butcher fish and chicken, I may as well have been watching a video on all the rest of the types of meat for all the "hands-on" skills I learned. Even at the club I work at, we barely get the chance for butchery.
    As for one person's comment about we should all know the circle of life, I will fish, but I refuse to hunt. Nothing about morals, just that I'm sure I'd shoot my eye out.

    September 9, 2010 at 5:28 am |
    • Jdizzle McHammerpants


      I have nothing against hunting, I just don't do it myself. Will fish all day, though. Something about the warm blood turns me off to hunting. I'd kill anything cold-blooded. Weird! I am a good shot (former military and Alaskan) and have hunted very successfully as a teenager with my dad (ducks, particularly). I didn't care to run up and break a wounded duck's neck. Was kind of sad. But I'd do it again in a heartbeat to survive. Personal preference. I'm a softie, I guess. X)

      September 9, 2010 at 3:36 pm |
  10. TAMMY!

    dont trust anyone who doesnt eat meat

    September 9, 2010 at 4:18 am |
    • JLS639

      Yeah, Scott Pilgrim showed us just how dangerous vegans are...

      September 10, 2010 at 1:25 am |
  11. chef cal

    Great article, I agree that being able to butcher your meats and fish alows you to control many aspects of the finished product. As for the vegans and vegetarians, I cant wait for the day that I can have an establishement of my own so that I may put a no vegan/vegetarian sign next the non smoking one at the front door. I dont and wont cater to your wants and needs, go somewhere else to eat.

    September 8, 2010 at 11:32 pm |
    • robot chop

      from one chef to another, that's not the spirit of the game mate. it actually takes more skill and creativity to make awesome meals without meat (or any animal byproducts in the case of vegan food). and catering to differing dietary needs is part of our jobs as chefs. i recently held a slow-food dinner that was gluten, egg and dairy free...and it got rave reviews. that's not how i eat, but we cook for our customers man. i for one usually welcome a challenge. do you plan to have a "no allergies" sign as well?

      September 9, 2010 at 12:46 pm |
  12. April

    Excellent article. I hear people say "I can't think about where my food comes from or I wouldn't be able to eat it" all the time, and it makes me sad. That's probably the ultimate disrespect–becoming so used to getting what you want when you want it, that you refuse to realize that your choices affect other living beings.

    September 8, 2010 at 11:17 pm |
  13. Jim

    It's too easy to go to the store and buy processed meat. I believe that anyone that eats meat should be willing to understand the full circle of life. Understanding and experiencing the entire process makes me value and respect life more. Thank you for writing such a great piece.

    September 8, 2010 at 10:46 pm |
  14. robot chop

    good article. i'm glad he touched on a very important matter here. schools really should be teaching more than the 2 days to 2 weeks of butchery that they do currently (depending on the school. they also should really be teaching spanish as a mandatory course. the deeper issue is that kids are coming out of culinary school thinking they will be chefs in a few years with very little experience and skill. they are not told enough that they still need 5 to 10 years solid experience before they will even be sous. give me a guy who has worked his way up through the system 8 times out of 10. school is great, but experience is also.

    September 8, 2010 at 8:04 pm |
  15. Carmine Monoxide

    This article reminds me why I became a vegetarian.

    September 8, 2010 at 7:55 pm |
    • Jdizzle McHammerpants

      More meat for me! Yippee!

      September 8, 2010 at 8:18 pm |
    • chef cal

      This was a great aticle, being a chef in the industry I have to agree with everything about being able to butcher meat. You can do so much with the bone and scrap that makes the meal that much better.


      September 8, 2010 at 11:29 pm |
  16. TJ

    Great article. I grew up in the country where we raised our own veggies and processed our own: chicken, pigs and game. People should see where their food comes from. They should feel that sense of accomplishment and sorrow you get from seeing something give its life for your own. Great job.

    September 8, 2010 at 7:31 pm |
  17. MBD

    I'm more convinced now than ever before that I'm happy eating vegan. Nothing was "sacrificed" for my food today, though I appreciate the motivation in writing this article. People SHOULD understand where food comes from. My hope is that once people do, they won't want to eat it.

    September 8, 2010 at 7:30 pm |
    • Jdizzle McHammerpants

      Plants are alive, too. Didn't you watch Avatar?

      Also, our bodies are designed to process meat. Coincidence? Jesus ate fish.

      September 8, 2010 at 7:38 pm |
      • MBD

        He also told his disciples to put down their nets and begin fishing for men. I know, it's a ridiculous statement. Almost as ridiculous as having someone pull out the old "plants have feelings" card.

        September 8, 2010 at 8:38 pm |
      • Jdizzle McHammerpants

        And they did. And continued to eat fish, even later. They just didn't catch it themselves.

        And the Avatar reference was a joke. (For some reason, grilled asparagus spears just entered my mind's eye. *mouth watering)

        September 8, 2010 at 9:00 pm |
      • mind's eye

        you guys are weak

        September 9, 2010 at 12:20 am |
      • Truth

        So Jizz, if they did not catch the fish themselves, does that mean that the disciples were fans of outsourcing???

        September 9, 2010 at 12:35 pm |
      • Jdizzle McHammerpants

        And shipping jobs overseas to Rome. First Republican move in history.

        September 9, 2010 at 12:42 pm |
      • Truth

        No, no, no...Outsourcing is a very liberal concept. You know, wealth redistribution, free trade and the like. Typical of the party of hate.

        September 9, 2010 at 1:39 pm |
    • CatM

      You're the first Vegan I've ever met that didn't try to convert people by bludgeoning them with shame. I appreciate that you've made your choice, and you can still see the value in this article and in the philosophy of killing/butchering your own animal so you can see where it all comes from and what's involved with getting it to your plate. If a person can do it themselves, it's a much more direct and respectful (if that's the right word) way to deal with the consumption of animals. And if you can't do it yourself, well then, hey maybe it's time to check out some seitan recipes online.

      September 9, 2010 at 1:24 am |
    • Kevin

      So did you ever stop to think of the animals that are killed every time they till a field of vegetables? (everything from fieldmice to gophers, or ground-nesting bird chicks...and we wont even start on the insects...)
      tens of thousands die every time a field is tilled.

      sorry... I'm just so sick and tired of hearing vegetarians on their high-horse spouting self-righteous nonsense while being so ignorant about where food actually comes from that they don't even realize what hypocrites they are.

      September 9, 2010 at 3:34 pm |
  18. Austin3759

    This story was the coup de grace for my 19 year public administration career...I now know that I missed my calling.

    September 8, 2010 at 7:17 pm |
  19. Young Sinatra

    Super good article! I live in the country and I have always wanted to get my own chickens, ducks and turkeys for butchering and fresh eggs:) Gonna do it.

    September 8, 2010 at 6:25 pm |
  20. tabs

    Great piece on knowing the full circle of your food. You can't truly "go green" or eat whole food unless you know the WHOLE process! Great article!

    September 8, 2010 at 5:47 pm |
  21. Jdizzle McHammerpants

    If you haven't done any of this, you are NOT a true chef.

    September 8, 2010 at 4:34 pm |
  22. Evil Grin

    You have a really balanced view on things. I like the idea of every chef experiencing the food source and gaining appreciation for it. I bet that changes how you prepare your food, too.

    September 8, 2010 at 4:26 pm |
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