Butchery Skills Can Provide the Base for Going Local

There’s no question sourcing local is one of the nation’s hottest food trends. But that doesn’t mean you should do it just to be trendy. As a chef or restaurant owner, the decision to feature local and seasonal products, especially when it comes to proteins, has to be done for the right reasons and with the proper planning. If it’s not, your integrity and bottom line could be at stake.

Let’s narrow the conversation to proteins. More often than ever before, customers want to know where their meat comes from. And, typically, that’s a great thing. It’s a relationship that benefits the local purveyors, and the product simply tastes better. Some paths to this goal are better than others, however. Here’s an example: This past year, I came across a special party menu that featured over 20 beef tenderloins. That’s 10 whole animals! Does that sound like a sustainable or profitable model? While the restaurant was likely just trying to meet a growing demand, there are more creative ways to approach the challenge that will still allow for a decent profit.

Butchery skills can play a key role. Chances are, a local purveyor will place a substantial price tag on cuts that are broken into small subprimals, and ready to cook. It’s also unlikely the supplier will have enough of one cut available, especially if it’s a desired cut such as strip loin or rib-eye. Instead, try purchasing a large primal or full carcass.

In doing so, a chef will need to be inventive in his creations, as well as have the butchery ability—and time—to break down the product.

One tip could be to rethink categories as you’re cutting. For instance, group the sections of primal by grilling cuts or braising cuts. Then, instead of, say, a braised short rib, a chef can make a braised dish from a different cut that’s just as effective and stays true to the local distinction. I can think of a few different cuts that could substitute for skirt steak, for example. You can butterfly a hanger steak, or take a sirloin flap and slice it thin. There are plenty of options if you’re willing to get creative.

Another approach could be to focus on how the animal is raised. Some of the prerequisites might be free roaming or pasture feed, raised outdoors, and the always popular grass-fed beef option. It’s very important for chefs to be able to understand quality when they’re breaking down these kinds of cuts and then craft a menu accordingly. It’s a crucial, yet tough skill to master. Being able to look at those less-desired cuts, like bottom round, and figuring out what to do with it is a challenge. Nobody jumps up and down when they read bottom round on the menu, but they might get excited when they see a Bragiole—an Italian meat roll that showcases some creativity.

If a chef truly wants to go local, there may be no better choice than a hog. The nose-to-tail method of cooking can fully be on display, from sausage to pancetta, prosciutto, salami, and so on. We also teach our students to work with game meats, such as venison, plus lamb, and, of course, poultry.

Once a chef builds up a solid base of knowledge, the trick is to be able to work quickly enough so that it’s profitable. It’s yet another factor worth considering when it comes to purchasing local. If done correctly, it can be a satisfying, successful, and lucrative decision for all parties involved.

Thomas Schneller is an associate professor of culinary arts at The Culinary Institute of America. Chef Schneller teaches Meat Identification, Fabrication, and Utilization to students pursuing their baccalaureate and associate degrees at the CIA.