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Food & Drink

More Baltimore restaurants are butchering their own meat

In his spotless and spartan work space on the second floor of the Four Seasons Baltimore Hotel, Marc Pauvert is showing off his knife skills. In 24 seconds, he reduces a whole chicken to its fry-able, broil-able and poach-able parts. His cuts are the sure and fearless ones of a master who knows absolutely that he will never accidentally cut himself.

Pauvert usually works in solitude, but he does occasionally have an audience. At a recent edition of Cochon555, a traveling culinary competition and tasting event that promotes heritage pigs, Pauvert's butchering of a pig in front of a live audience was promoted as a highlight of the weekend.

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The native of Angers in the Loire Valley lived up to the hype, completing the task in 23 minutes, a record for Cochon555.

But Pauvert, who carries the title of master butcher, or "maitre boucher," is most proud of another cut he has performed in the three years he's been working for the Four Seasons.

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"Since I came here, I reduced the food costs by 3 percent," said Pauvert, 59, one of the few master butchers working in the United States. "If I cannot do that, I am unhappy."

In-house butchery operations such as the one Pauvert heads up at the Four Seasons are still not the rule in the industry, where most restaurants purchase meat that has already been broken down into subprimal cuts, an intermediate step between the larger primal cuts and individual portions.

But the practice of working with large cuts and even whole animals is on the increase. And in Baltimore, the Remington restaurant Parts & Labor has put its butchering program front and center.

Patrons of the restaurant's adjacent retail store can watch Parts & Labor's butchery team at work through an exhibition window, and the menu includes, in addition to a section of "butcher's cuts," one devoted to "varieties," the kinds of organ meats and so called "off-cuts" that are seldom served at restaurants that don't do in-house butchery.

Parts & Labor is a spinoff project from Amy and Spike Gjerde's pioneering farm-to-table restaurant Woodberry Kitchen. It was when the butchery operations at Woodberry began to outgrow the space that planning began for Parts & Labor, which opened in April.

Woodberry Kitchen, although it no longer embraces the term "farm-to-table," was when it opened in the fall of 2007 among the first restaurants in Baltimore to forge relationships with independent farmers and growers and to tell its patrons about those partnerships. As have many like-minded restaurants, Woodberry Kitchen began looking for ways to do things itself. An in-house preserving program, which eventually spun off its own side business named Woodberry Pantry, started in earnest about two years into the restaurant's successful run.

It was only a matter of time before someone decided to take a stab at butchering, and it was George Marsh, now the executive chef and head butcher for all of the Gjerdes' restaurant projects, who saw an opportunity at Woodberry.

"I had always, like most young cooks, had curiosity about what it took to break down the animal, what the parts are called," Marsh said. "There was some space in the back [of Woodberry Kitchen]," Marsh said. "I saw it as an opening where I could try [butchering] out on my own."

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It was while working in the kitchen at the private Maryland Club, Marsh said, that he first saw an animal broken down in a commercial kitchen. "Members would bring in a whole deer or a whole pig and help break it down themselves," Marsh said. "They really enjoyed it. Plus, the meat was better than anything I'd ever had."

Marsh said he persuaded Spike Gjerde to give whole-animal butchery a try, and they acquired a veal calf from one of the restaurant's suppliers, St. Brigid's Farm on the Eastern Shore.

Wanting to do butchery was one thing. Doing it, Marsh said, was another.

"I used a book," Marsh said. "It was very unhelpful."

Marsh got the help he needed, though, by basically designing his own butchering curriculum. His first stop was Traverse City, Mich., for the 2010 edition of the annual Pigstock festival, a three-day educational event for professional chefs sponsored by breeders of the Mangalitsa pig.

It was at Pigstock that Marsh got his introduction to what he calls "seam butchery" at a class by Christoph Wiesner, who can be considered the Eric Clapton of taking apart a pig by cutting along the seams.

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"That was the coolest thing," Marsh said of the way Wiesner's cutting preserved the meat. "A lot of the muscles I find to be incredible little jewels — the bavette cut, coulotte, hanger, skirt — would be cut through," Marsh said.

Cutting along the seams of muscles, as opposed to the widespread industry practice of cutting through them, is the hallmark of seam butchery as well as the French-style butchery that Pauvert has brought to the Four Seasons.

"It's the difference between meat-cutting and butchering," said Pauvert, who speaks of French butchery as an art.

Butchering in France is not something that is taught in schools but as part of a long and arduous apprenticeship that culminates in a rigorous weeklong examination that begins, critically, with the selection of a live animal.

Pauvert began his apprenticeship at age 14 and became a master butcher at age 18. After a period of extensive traveling, Pauvert moved to the United States in 1986, settling in Philadelphia where he owned a succession of well-received butcher shops and gourmet shops.

In 2012, he joined the Four Seasons, whose operations include both a restaurant, Wit & Wisdom, and a large, on-premises catering operation — the ideal infrastructure for an in-house butchering program.

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Physical space matters, said Chris Becker, , the corporate executive chef for the Baltimore-based Bagby Restaurant Group, which includes Cunningham's in Towson and Ten Ten American Bistro, Fleet Street Kitchen and Bagby Pizza Company in Harbor East.

"You have to have a large enough restaurant and a busy enough restaurant to be able to do it," Becker said.

The butchering operations are housed at Cunningham Farms in Monkton, which supplies produce, flowers, grains and, increasingly, meat to its restaurants.

But in-house butchering programs present other challenges besides space. To be cost-effective, a restaurant has to make good use of all the meat that whole-animal butchering produces. And it produces more and different parts of the animal than the typical restaurant would order from a supplier or that an inexperienced chef would know how to use.

Becker acknowledges that there was a learning curve with the first group of Cunningham's pigs, which made their way onto the restaurant group's menus in October 2013.

"It took a little time, but we're getting the hang of it," Becker said.

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Now, Becker plans the distribution of meat from butchered animals in cooperation with the chefs at individual Bagby properties. So pork shoulders might be going to Cunningham's, where they're braised and fired over a wood grill; bone-in cuts of meat are going to Ten Ten, where they're sold as the "butcher's cut" on the Cunningham Farms pork plate; and cured pork products are used for the sauce at Bagby Pizza.

"It comes down to whoever can make the best use of the animal," Becker said.

Planning, butchers and chefs said, is the key.

Marsh of Parts & Labor said that managing an in-house butchering program is difficult. "Knowing how best to use the meat you've butchered is the big challenge," he said.

"I didn't realize how intense it was going to be over the years," Marsh said of managing Woodberry's meat supply. "I think a lot of young chefs are really interested in the cutting part of it. But probably most of them don't work out how much work [the management] is going to be."

At the Four Seasons, Pauvert works in collaboration with Oliver Beckert, the executive chef for the hotel, and with Zack Mills, the executive chef for the hotel's main restaurant, Wit & Wisdom.

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Beckert said that he has worked at some Four Seasons properties that employed their own in-house butcher and some that didn't. It's better when they do, Beckert said, because he can rely on the butcher's expertise.

"There are great meat suppliers out there," Beckert said. "But [Pauvert] knows how to use every part of every animal."

The demand for familiarity with basic butchering and meat management is definitely on the rise, said Erik Yeager, the culinary and hospitality director at the Baltimore branch of Stratford University, a degree-granting culinary school.

Yeager wants his graduates to show up at job interviews with basic butchering skills and meat management on their resumes

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"We are currently writing and rewriting our butchering and charcuterie curriculum to meet the needs of the industry," Yeager said. "I think the butchering trend is moving forward in a lot of fundamental ways. Not only for historic and nostalgic purposes but for its cost control."

The school has already increased the amount of time devoted to butchering, which formerly took up one session in a larger course devoted to garde-manger, the term for food, like salads and charcuterie, produced in a restaurant's cold kitchen. Now butchering is a course of its own.

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And, Yeager said, diners increasingly want to know not only where their meat comes from but who has handled it. He has brought Pauvert to Stratford for occasional butchering demonstrations, which are open to the public. On Dec. 23, Pauvert will demonstrate and discuss the art of veal butchery as he butchers a leg of veal. Yeager has designed a tasting menu of veal delicacies for the event.

"The customer base is so much more educated with the farm-to-table movement being what it is," Yeager said. "If you buy the whole animal, you know where every piece of that animal comes from."

There are other benefits to mastering the art and science of whole-animal butchery. Working with whole animals is a spur for chefs' creativity, said Becker of the Bagby group, because it increases their awareness and perception.

"Overall, the beauty of it for the chef is being able to use the whole animal and see the whole animal," Becker said. "If you ever go see an animal slaughtered or being broken down, it makes you more aware and respectful."

richard.gorelick@baltsun.com


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