We’ve seen it on social media and touted on menus, “whole-animal butchery!” But what does it mean for our food world and why should you care? We talk to two chefs who break it down for us.
Chef Michael Bonk leads the kitchen at BLT Steak DC in Washington, D.C., a modern steakhouse utilizing whole-animal butchery. We touched base with him and Chef Erik Niel of Main Street Meats in Chattanooga, TN to get the details on breaking down a whole animal in-house.
For Chef Erik, the concept of whole-animal butchering is something he uses to educate not only his staff, but diners too, on meat, where it comes from and animal farming in our country.
“Main Street Meats’ has a shop with a butcher case, so it’s very easy to see what’s behind the glass. And if the guys in the back are running the bandsaw, everyone knows it. An awareness about whole-animal butchery is a fundamental tenant of our concept.”
What are the greatest benefits for the chefs who order whole animals to use in their restaurant? In one word: Knowledge
Chef Michael Bonk: “For the chef’s, it’s a teaching opportunity. In today’s world of prefabricated cuts, too many young cooks don’t get to learn how to butcher whole animals. It offers different challenges. When you have a whole animal, you have to use every piece. It really takes you out of your comfort zone.”
Chef Erik Niel: “The earthy aspect. You know where the animals are coming from, who raised them, how they were fed, and why they taste the way they taste. You know exactly what you’re getting.”
The best part of getting in a whole animal? Being creative.
Ordering a whole animal and paying for less sought-after parts means you have to get creative so that nothing goes to waste.
Chef Michael Bonk: “Oh man, I’ve used everything. With a previous group, my specialty was using off cuts. It was kind of a byproduct of the fact we only bought whole animals. Plus, if I see something I’ve never heard of, I want that. I’ve used blood in interesting ways. Blood composition is very similar to the protein to water content of egg white. You can actually whip it like a meringue. I’ve made blood macaroons, blood cake, and blood ice cream. I’ve also had my fair share of testicle dishes over the years. Fried is always the most popular. […] I’d never serve anything I don’t think is good. If a guest can get by the mental part of what they are eating its actually very rewarding to see their reaction to eating something that on paper seems so out there but actually has a very recognizable delicious flavor.”
Chef Erik Niel: “With beef, the butcher steak. It’s all these different cuts that would normally get ground up, and we get to turn them into steak or pieces to be braised.
With pork, making pork rinds and head cheese. We wouldn’t have the opportunity to do that unless we had access to the whole animal.”
Trend Alert: What is a cut of meat customers are now requesting that no one was asking for 5/10 years ago?
Take notes, here’s what to order the next time you are out. We love the Denver steak.
Chef Erik Niel: “Dry aged beef and the Denver steak.”
In your mind, what is the future of butcher shops and meats in restaurants?
Hold onto your wallets, folks! Chefs are predicating meat will become even better, quality-wise and how it is raised, but with that comes a high cost.
Chef Michael Bonk: “It’s a challenging and complicated future. Wages are constantly going up as well as product costs. It’s a very fine line between running a profitable business and staying true to your vision if that entails working with whole animals. I still envision myself opening a butcher shop / deli counter in a small town when I’m ready to retire. I love to work with my hands and nothing in the kitchen is more satisfying than the respect you gain for an animal when your butchering it yourself.”
Chef Erik Niel: “Meat that is hormone-free, antibiotic-free, grass fed, and organic will continue to be a luxury item. The costs of producing that sort of high-quality meat is expensive, and I don’t see that changing (and perhaps even getting more expensive). As the farmers go up in their costs, restaurants will also have to raise prices.”
So why should you care?
Unless you’re a hardcore food nerd who gets genuinely excited about random food facts, interesting techniques or watching chefs challenge themselves, you may wonder why you, as a diner, should care about restaurants that are getting in whole animals. It’s not easy or convenient to embark on whole-animal butchery, but it’s better for our planet and our food system. The more we care about our meat as diners, the more the other steps of meat processing world will care about how their contribution to the meat world alters our environment, economy and our health. Also, because someone so connected to an animal is going to know how to make it taste great. And after all, aren’t we here for a spectacular meal?
Chef Erik Niel: “Diners should care about whole animal butchery as much as they care about any skill a chef or artisan has. The craft of butchery has been lost as a skill, but also as an art form to be appreciated. We all think there are only 4-5 cuts of beef that go with ground beef, because that’s all we ever see at the supermarket anymore. A skilled butcher can coax 100’s of different cuts out of an animal, and use all of the different parts (marrow, bones, tendons, etc.) to make beautiful tasting food. We’ve been trained out of any appreciation for this skill, and I think it’s important to realize that.
We should care about whole animal butchery, because we should care about whole animals, not just the parts that fit in neat little shrink wrapped packages in the grocery store case.”
Chef Michael Bonk: “More often than not, a place doing whole animal butchery is buying from a local source. The network of farmers I work with take great pride in the animals they raise. Animals that live in a natural habitat, can graze and live longer actually have flavor. The longer an animal lives, the more flavor it develops. I’ve had the opportunity to be exposed to different cuts of meat at a fairly young age. I’ve been a part of the entire process from slaughter to the plate, so when given the opportunity, I’m leaving my meal in the hands of the butcher.”
Mandatory family outings to the Detroit farmers' market and nightly home-cooked meals cultivated Annelise's respect and curiosity for food. A graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, she spends her free time in New York City recipe testing, eating breakfast all day, and dreaming up international culinary adventures.