This is the fifth guest blog in our series! Heather came to us from New York as an intern determined to “be the best intern we’ve ever had” (she told us that in her interview). She was indeed a great intern and she now works here part-time. Below are her musings on being a butcher and her journey to get to wear the “butcher apron”.
A master butcher named Hans, my first teacher, told me that decades ago there was a butcher shop on every corner. These shops were always willing to train eager young butchers in order to have an extra set of hands around the shop, but that generation of tradesmen is now nearly extinct. He said he saw positive changes coming, and he encouraged me to be patient and persistent.
In 2011 I decided to commit to a major career and life change. I wanted to become a butcher, which entailed joining a largely male-dominated trade for which there is no school or training program to enroll in, and few masters left to learn from. My self-guided search led me to upstate New York in the dead of winter for a week-long workshop at a butcher shop, where I met Hans. Soon after, I made plans to leave my home and business in order to dedicate eight months of my life to a farm in rural Pennsylvania. In exchange, a farmer named Brooks took me on and taught me how to sustainably raise pastured animals. I slaughtered many chickens, made a lot of sausage, and began to truly practice butchery. Eventually, my pursuit led me to move across the country, from Brooklyn to Berkeley, where I was given an apprentice apron at The Local Butcher Shop.
Aaron and Monica Rocchino have built their business on the same principles that brought me to butchery. They have a true commitment to supporting sustainable farming and utilizing whole animals. Entire carcasses hang in the walk-in refrigerator and every part of every animal is used. Aaron brings his years of experience in the kitchens of Paul Bertolli and Alice Waters to his work as a butcher, and holds a high standard for himself and everyone on his staff. He is a true artisan, with careful hands and a calm demeanor. When Aaron and Monica asked if I would be willing to commit to working in their shop three days a week in trade for learning and practicing whole animal butchery, I asked if we could make it five.
In the beginning the learning curve was daunting, and nearly every task tested my patience. I was overly cautious, and my respect for the animals’ lives could cripple my confidence when I was unsure of a cut. At times I was content just to clean scraps of meat for trim, knowing that logging time with a knife in my hand was the foundation I needed. One day, as I was working to skin a pork leg, Aaron proposed a challenge: to leave as much fat behind as possible and remove it in one clean piece without ever piercing the skin. After several attempts I was finally successful, and this became one of many things I continued to practice, getting a bit faster and more fluid in the motions with each pass.
Over time I worked my way up to bigger challenges. Under the supervision of our senior butcher, Bill McCann, I often wrestled a whole beef chuck, using my knife to cleanly remove all the bones. Over and over I moved through the steps, making it a bit farther each time before I had to ask for a pointer or simple reassurance that I was on the right track as I grew more and more familiar with the complex anatomy of a cow’s shoulder. Bill has spent nearly 40 years of his life working with meat, and has a confidence in his craft that is the result of a lifelong dedication. During my first few weeks I would follow him into the walk-in and watch while he broke hindquarters of beef into separate muscles with grace and ease, wondering if I would ever possess skills like his. As if reading my mind he would turn and say to me, “Don’t worry, in a few months I’ll be watching you do this.”
And so the months slid by as I repeatedly tied roasts until the blisters on my fingers became callouses. I spent days cutting up chickens, stripping fat to render as lard, preparing bavettte and flank steaks for the shop case, and all the time glancing to the left and right to see how the butchers around me were doing things. I could feel myself turning corners, accumulating skills and familiarity, and yet I worried that I wouldn’t be able to learn everything I needed to know to work as a butcher within the period of my apprenticeship at the shop. When I told Aaron this, he assured me that he and all the other butchers were still learning every day, from each other, from customers and from the meat itself. Craft is a constant evolution and patience has become an ongoing theme in this new life of mine.
I no longer wear the apprentice apron. Eventually, I earned my place among the talented and supportive team of butchers at The Local Butcher Shop, where I am grateful to continue practicing the trade I have chosen. Working in a custom shop where meat is often cut to customers’ orders means the workload varies from day to day and week to week. There are always new challenges, and frustrations, and yet as I cut different parts of different animals, I find it all crosses over and my core skills and techniques are always being repeated. Now when I put on my butcher’s apron, I set to work with the words Aaron often repeated to me in my mind, “just take your time and do it right.” Everyday I learn a little more, knowing that a lifetime of understanding will always be ahead of me.