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Seattle chefs take DIY approach to butchery

Butcher Russell Flint of Rainshadow Meats (front) and Bruce Aidells (back) lead a goat fabrication demonstration at the Chefs Collaborative National Summit Credit: Vera Chang

The goat fabrication and charcuterie demonstration was one of the most popular workshops at this year’s Chefs Collaborative National Summit. The summit, an annual meeting of chefs dedicated to practicing and teaching sustainable food practices, was held in Seattle last week. On Monday, visiting chefs looked on at the Seattle Culinary Academy as local butcher Russell Flint of Rainshadow Meats fabricated a goat, while Bruce Aidells, writer of the Complete Meat Cookbook, contributed his knowledge on ways to use each cut. The pair's knowledge and experience played naturally off each other, encouraging other chefs to use whole animals in restaurant kitchens.

The message is just a part of Chefs Collaborative’s greater goal: To foster, with the help of chefs and the greater food community, a sustainable food supply and healthier local economies. Perhaps thanks to Chefs Collaborative and like-minded organizations, many restaurants across the nation have transitioned their menus to feature exclusively grass-fed meats, which are believed to be humanely and naturally raised, healthier, and of better quality. The use of more costly grass-fed meats though is soon followed by the need to stretch quality meats in order to make keeping these meats on the menu an economically viable option for restaurants.

“I’m trying to get you to think in terms of how you’ll actually make some money out of this because there is significant labor going into it,” said Aidells.

During the demonstration, Aidells noted that a portion of the ribs could be sold as riblets, a more profitable menu option, while the breast could be stuffed and used in a braise. The ribs that are connected to the short loin, he mentions, is best sold as chops with the tenderloin attached. He advocated for using the trim for sausages or a goat burger. A whole goat can lead to endless menu possibilities.

Despite the added labor, more chefs across the country are adopting the use of whole animals in the kitchen, a practice that reduces waste in the kitchen, offers a larger variety of cuts for a restaurant’s menu, and lowers food costs while generating profits. This practice closely follows the push for grass-fed meats, which seems to now be a standard for many restaurants in the Seattle area. As grass-fed meats make their way onto local restaurant menus, Seattle chefs are faced with the creative and financial challenges of making the most of these meats in their kitchens.

Down the hall from Aidells’ goat fabrication workshop, butcher Kari Underly, author of The Art of Beef Cutting, cut away a ragged strip of trim off a portion of beef and held it up for the attendees.

“It looks like Hades, but it’s delicious,” she said. 

Underly's workshop touched on muscle profiling, where she identified new and traditional cuts of beef — from the tenderloin used in Steak Diane to the beef rib eye cap identified on many Seattle menus as the “flavor curve.”

Chef Seth Caswell, member of the national Chefs Collaborative board, purchases whole beef for his Seattle restaurant, Emmer and Rye.

“The thing I got out of Kari’s [beef butchery] workshop was how to take some of those cuts that I normally would portion with x-amount of trim on it. I think my portion of trim will reduce so I can get a few more creative filets. … We can get a lot more money from filets than burgers,” said Caswell.

Whole animal use has helped restaurants like Emmer and Rye introduce alternative options on their menu, which provide diners with unique experiences and generate more profit for the restaurant. Even in the case of burgers, in-house butchery of whole animals has helped restaurants customize their burger mix, by using trim and cuts from different parts of the animal. In this way, restaurants are saving more by using the whole animal rather than ordering pre-fabricated cuts.

When Fremont-based Hunger reopened in its new, larger location on 36th and Fremont, one of the first conversations between chef-owners Brian and Jaime Brooks focused on the possibility of saving money by bringing in whole animals and fish, and in doing so, being able to offer new and interesting items on the menu.

“The cost is exponential because as a restaurateur, when you bring in a specific cut of meat like pork shoulder, you’re paying about $1.80 a pound for it. Whereas, if you’re bringing the whole pig, let’s say you’re paying 65 cents a pound, you’re still getting the same shoulder at the same weight, you’re just saving that money by cutting it and trimming it out yourself,” said Brian Brooks, who notes that continued practice of using whole animals can drive costs down by more than 50 percent.

For Brooks and other chefs, there is another benefit (beside cost) to using the whole animal: The opportunity to work creatively with additional cuts and create new menu items. Hunger's use of whole animals and butchery techniques led to the formation of their nose-to-tail menu — which showcases a variety of cuts from a single animal — spearheaded by executive sous chef Josh Slaughter.

“The advantage of using the whole animal is that you can process it however you want to. The unusual cuts might be tossed into grind or really not taken advantage of. You can do more specialty cuts,” said Slaughter.

Customers reap the benefits as well, said Brooks. Hunger customers can order two preparations of one meat for about $14 to $17; a serving equivalent to about a pound of meat. Restaurants across the city are offering more flavorful dishes fortified with stock made from the bones, and diners experience new kinds of charcuterie made from parts of the animal that are cured and preserved to maximize flavor and extend shelf-life. But getting customers to bite is another step in the process.

“The biggest challenge is the education. You can do all this, but there’s still the aspect of trying to educate your customer to know that they’re not just going to just come in and order filet mignon or pork chops all the time. Some kind of marketing and education actually has to occur at the table,” said Aidells.

The turnout at the Chefs Collaborative National Summit in Seattle this year may speak to an educational process already taking place in Seattle. The noted efforts of Copperleaf Restaurant’s Executive Chef Mark Bodinet leading a lamb fabrication workshop, local chef and Seattle Culinary Academy instructor Kären Jurgensen and Washington farmers Rick and Lora Lea Misterly of Quillisascut Farm taking home the summit’s sustainability awards this year, and a large group of local restaurants showcasing Pacific Northwest cuisine at the summit’s opening reception and closing luncheon.

 “I do think there is a gap to fill to make the butchering aspect of sustainability more cohesive. I think we’ve made great strides in educating chefs and the public about grass-fed versus grain-fed,” said Caswell.

“That’s a great step. The next step is how we can add value. It’s a weird thing how heart and value can be combined in order to make the chefs happy and the customers happy too."

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