Monday, March 14, 2011

Meet The Butcher's Guild!

Matt Jennings
Chef/Owner Farmstead & La Laiterie at Farmstead
Providence, RI

How long have you been a butcher and where did you get your start? Have you been working with sustainable meats the whole time and if not, what precipitated your shift in practices?

I've been butchering since I was 16, as a prep and line cook. Everyday has brought new challenges, and I continue my "education" in butchery by way of self-teaching and seeking out talented Chefs and Butchers to work with. In 2000, while visiting Italy, I was able to work with Dario Cecchini in Chianti for just a couple of days- this was when I was 'bitten by the bug'. Picking rosemary and lavender and being enveloped by the love for craft that Dario brings to the table, was a life changing experience and it was then that I realized how much I respected the craft. Since then, I have been completely self-taught, reading a lot and working even more to perfect the skill of proper butchery. In my restaurant, I source 100% naturally raised meats, and we are a 'whole animal' restaurant- so everything gets broken down on site. Now, I have the ability to teach my cooks- bringing the next generation into the story. So many culinary students and young cooks these days are taught that meat comes in pretty shapes, cryovaced in plastic and all they have to do is open a package and throw it on the grill. We all know this is not the case, so being able to instill knowledge and passion into a younger generation of cooks is paramount for me.

What do you think about the current media hype and attention on butchery, butchers and meat in general?

Meat is hot right now. I think it is a good thing. It's good for restaurants like mine- showcasing house butchery is important and displays a level of dedication and commitment that few places have. The 'butchery trend' is great for consumers as well- it's about time we 'took back our food' and actually learned the old ways and the heritage behind where our food comes from and how it is prepared. Knowing your food on this intimate level, ensures you care more about what you put into your body and ultimately, allows the consumer to 'vote with their fork'- educating each other and pushing for more knowledge and information from their meat purveyors. I've won the Northeast Regional Cochon 555 the past three years in a row, and I can tell you from experience that this movement is not slowing down. People are hungry for more (pun not intended), and that means they want more knowledge of where their food comes from, who is preparing it and how they can cook some of the lesser known cuts at home.

What do you believe is the role of butchers in the movement for a sustainable food system and what do you see as the biggest impediment to a truly sustainable meat industry?

Expense. Good (humanely and responsibly raised and slaughtered) meat is more expensive. People need to understand this. Consumers need to be ready to pay a premium for the skill set a great butcher brings to the table, coupled with the high caliber of product that responsible shops and restaurants can provide. On my end, distribution is a huge issue. I think the Chef who is involved with a higher end butchery model, needs to be flexible and has to be able to adapt to the market- learn how to utilize the 'lesser known' cuts, how to cook head to tail- waste not, want not! Work with your distributors- tell them what you want and what you are looking for. It will take strong voices and a determined professionals to keep moving the needle forward. I'm honored to be one of these people.

What does being a member of The Butcher's Guild mean to you?

Everything. I'm honored and thrilled to have been chosen to represent such an integral part of our industry. Change is in the air. It is an exciting time to be a Chef. We are all learning together- the learning curve with proper butchery is huge, and BG creates a very important and necessary forum for like minded professionals to be able to reach out to each other, share ideas, concerns, thoughts, values and vision. Proper butchery is one of the things that I pride myself on, and I think something that makes my restaurant and businesses stand out. We need to continue to promote this skill, honor the craft and all those who came before us, and most importantly, empower and teach the next generation of butcher. Passing the torch is the ultimate goal. We cannot let this art die. We will not.

Tell us your absolute favorite cut and preparation method/recipe!

Wow. That's a tough one. There are so many. Right now I'm obsessed with tongue. Smoked. Pickled. Braised. Fried. I can't get enough. Likewise for any type of offal and organ meat. We have an extensive in-house charcuterie program at La Laiterie, and I pride myself on my attention to detail and commitment to classical charcuterie technique. I've been considered as one of the original 'offal experts' of this new generation- bringing up the rear of a speeding train that includes my personal heroes and friends like those who are included in the BG- Chris Cosentino, for example, is a friend and someone I look up to as a leader. Ditto for Chefs like Jamie Bissonette and April Bloomfield. We all love those naughty bits that require more in depth thought on their utilization, the numerous techniques required to treat offal with care, and make it sing on a plate. Long live livers and lungs!

Thanks, Matt, for another great introduction to the shining faces of The Butcher’s Guild!

I’ve got a really special combo BG charter member introduction/Friday Feast planned for this week! We’re also gearing up for the Carolina Meat Conference, so expect to hear much more about that as the week goes on. Happy Monday!

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