Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Butcher's Guild Hall of Butchers

As more of our charter members join, The Guild will be honoring esteemed colleagues of its ranks by gifting special membership to its Hall of Butchers. These are butchers and meat scholars with deep experience and unquestionable authority who take a strong stand for education. These experts strongly represent the tenets of the Butcher’s Guild oath, particularly, the “hand” and “voice” elements. As the gatekeeper’s to a wealth of knowledge and history of this trade, they do much to further and improve it by passing their skills on to others. They shape the industry and exemplify the lifelong mastery of skill that defines the craft of whole animal butchery. We believe this vast experience and proven leadership in this industry warrants a special designation among the cutters, curers and creators of The Butcher’s Guild.

We are proud to introduce our very first Hall of Butchers inductee, Dr. Gregg Rentfrow, Professor & Extension Meat Specialist at the University of Kentucky. As mentioned in this post about the Carolina Meat Conference, Dr. Gregg Rentfrow was one of the most outstanding folks we had the pleasure of meeting and working with. Tia, Marissa and I were in awe of the calm and relaxed way in which Dr. Gregg not only possesses immense knowledge of meat science but the personable and approachable way in which he shares it. We were rapt with attention as he taught classes right next to our teaching area. Often one of us saying to the other, “Did you just hear that?” or “Hmm, I didn’t know that” as we listened through the curtains separating our "classrooms". Everything from great information about the effect of bandsaws on myoglobin to the best jokes we heard all weekend, one might say the Guild was more than captivated by Dr. Rentfrow’s presence at the conference. Personally, Dr. Rentfrow inspires me to continue seeking a more academic approach to the industry and ways to improve it. A dedicated and long educational journey to dig deep into this complex field of study combined with the applied theory and practical base of real experience cutting is the holy grail in my book.

Dr. Gregg was just given the Outstanding Service to Kentucky’s Beef Industry Award by Kentucky Cattlemen’s Association and the American Meat Science Association honored him with their Achievement Award. Dr. Rentfrow is active in the American Meat Science Association, the American Society of Animal Science, the National Country Ham Association, the Mid-State Meat Processors Association and the Kentucky Country Ham Producers Association. Dr. Gregg’s coolness runs even deeper! When he’s not teaching the next generation of industry professionals or working to improve the industry as a whole, you can find him riding his Harley-Davidson and competing in powerlifting meets throughout the Southeast and the Midwest.

The Butcher’s Guild humbly introduces our first Hall of Butchers Member, Dr. Gregg Rentfrow.
Interview by BG Co-founder Tia Harrison.

Dr. Gregg Rentfrow, Ph.D.
University of Kentucky

How long have you been a butcher and where did you get your start?

I started in 1987 in the meat department of the local IGA in my hometown of Shelbyville, IL. I started at the bottom, grinding hamburger and helping the cutters package, overwrap, and label everything. Eventually I worked my way up to a meat cutter, head meat cutter, assistant meat market manager, meat market manager, and zone meat manager for three different retail companies. I ended my retail career with Wal-Mart Supercenters, during the time of the initial explosion of those stores. There, I trained other meat cutters and helped open the new stores. I even served as Interim Meat Lab Manager at Mizzou while working on my Ph.D.

Tell us about what you do now, how did you become a meat scientist?

My appointment at the University of Kentucky is 80% Extension, 20% Teaching. I work closely with the meat industry in Kentucky and the Southeast, which includes everyone from the small, family owned custom butcher shops to the large meat processors harvesting 1200 pigs an hour. Kentucky may be famous for fast horses and smooth bourbon, but we are also know for our country hams. We have several country ham curers that produce products that can be found throughout the Southeast.

I have two major marquee programs, the University of Kentucky Meat Cutting School and the Food Systems Innovation Center. We have trained over 300 retail meat cutters, over 50 foodies, and over 100 chefs at the UK Meat Cutting School. The Food Systems Innovation Center is geared to provide affordable research and development for small and medium sized food entrepreneurs. We are still in the beginnings of this program, but so far we have helped over 50 products make it to the market place or expand into larger markets.

How I became a meat scientist; originally I wanted to follow in my dad’s footsteps and teach high school agriculture, but the draw of meats kept sucking me back in. I went to junior college, dropped out for a couple years, went back to salvage my GPA enough to transfer to the University of Illinois and major in Animal Science with a Meat Science specialty. I earned my masters in meat science at the U of I, researching the effects of feeding high levels of vitamin D and E on beef quality. After my MS, I transferred to the University of Missouri and earned my PhD in Meat Science and Muscle Biology by studying the effects of postmortem glycogen metabolism on meat quality. I graduated in 1997 with my BS and earned my PhD in 2005, so it has been a long road to become a meat scientist.

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

Someone told me that butchers were the new celebrity chefs and the new sex symbol of the food industry. I told the guys in the meats lab about the sex symbol part and they are planning a calendar for next year. I think the old is new again; people are becoming more interested in food and wanting to know more about their food. I feel the biggest challenge facing us in the meat industry is destroying the vast amount of misleading information and internet rumors about meat. I’ve heard some really crazy things over the years, from the ridiculous to the asinine. Regardless of what the media and the internet says, we produce the most wholesome, safest meat and food supply in the world. We have other countries coming to America to learn our food safety regulations and practices. I have trained several people for several different countries on safe food handling and HACCP. I think we need to tell our story and address this misinformation.

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

We are in an unique time in our history; we have more disposable income to spend on a wider variety of foods than ever before. As I said before the old is new, and a well trained, artistic butcher can only help to accelerate the local meat movement and the world meat movement. When I say a well trained, artistic butcher, I mean someone who knows how to properly cook a piece of meat and can recommend a good recipe, knows the science behind the meat, and takes enough pride in their craft that each piece of meat looks like it jumped off of a magazine cover. This is what we need for the meats industry, regardless of local, sustainable, or global. There’s room on the table for everyone; we need the artistic butchers to remind us of what meat can be and we need the large guys to feed the world.

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

I’m not a wordsmith and my wife will tell you that I don’t communicate my feelings very well, but when I say that words cannot explain the honor, I mean it. It was so great to meet people with the same goal that I have, which is to bring back the local, knowledgeable, respectable butcher. Fictional characters like Sam the butcher (Brady Bunch) or Alex the butcher (Kroger) come to mind when I think of this person. And I feel we are bringing back these images. Hopefully we can remove the image of guy in a red stained apron with the mean look on his face. I really believe in what the Butcher’s Guild is doing and I am extremely humbled by being an honored member.

Your absolute favorite cut and preparation method/recipe:

Favorite cut… tough one for a fat guy to narrow down. You cannot go wrong with a well marbled beef top loin steak, cut a butcher’s inch thick, lightly seasoned with salt, fresh ground black pepper, and garlic powder, cooked on the grill just to the point where a good vet cannot save it. I have been experimenting with smoking these cuts in my new smokehouse at home with some tasty results. Or a good slice of country ham cooked 45 seconds to a minute per side on the grill. As you can see, I’m very much for lightly seasoned and not over cooked, we over season and cook everything

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