Local Chefs Talk Whole Animal Butchery and First Kills

Tony Maws, Matt Jennings, and others reflect on wielding the knife for the first time.

first kills

Image courtesy of shutterstock.

In today’s extreme farm-to-table culinary climate, serious chefs are no longer satisfied with rooftop gardens, heirloom vegetables, and living, writhing seafood purchased straight from the dock. Now you have chefs like Prezza‘s Anthony Caturano and Bondir’s Jason Bond who reel in their own catch and till their own eco-friendly farms.  And then there is the ever-growing faction of cooks who—yearning to understand their ingredients on a visceral, basic level—are participating in animal slaughter and whole-animal butchery.

In a day dedicated to the macabre, we asked a handful of local chefs to share their own experiences with slaughtering and butchering animals. Particularly, we wanted to know about the unforgettable emotions inherent in wielding the knife themselves for the first time. In their own words, here’s how they sum up the experience.

Tony Maws (Craigie on Main, Kirkland Tap & Trotter): It was a bluefish, lying on a beach gasping for air after I reeled it in. I was probably 10 or so, and while I had caught other fish previously, that was the first time that I actually stood over a dying animal, thinking about what I had just done. I know some people don’t equate fishing with other slaughters, but to me it’s the same thing. I still slit its belly, pulled out its guts, and bled the fish myself. I thought about the whole series of events as I ate my dinner later that night. It didn’t make me want to stop, but I felt differently—I did something that was life-ending.

I have been part of other slaughters since, and I always think back to that first time. We don’t waste a single bit of the animal in either of my two restaurants. There are practical and financial reasons, sure, but the biggest factor is philosophical.

Matthew Jennings (Townsman, coming soon): I had grown up hunting small birds and quail, but I had never killed anything that large as a goat. This was only two years ago during a James Beard Foundation retreat at Glynwood farm in upstate New York. We had come together to discuss sustainability. I’d witnessed things being killed before but had never pulled the trigger myself and had certainly never broken down an animal that had been freshly killed. The first time you stick your hand inside a warm animal, it definitely changes you. Most of us are used to working with cold animals off the back of a meat delivery truck. But feeling a still-beating heart is pretty profound. I’ll never forget it. As cliche as it may sound, our ultimate goal as chefs is to do justice to the animals, while getting closer to the product. Learning more about the process, I’m only better for it in the end.

Carolyn Johnson (80 Thoreau): When I worked at [the now-closed] Salamander in Cambridge, they would get in whole veals and it was an all-kitchen experience. It took up half the prep space and everyone was expected to get involved. This was in the late ’90s when it wasn’t that typical for a restaurant to get in whole animals. So it was a pretty amazing experience and a steep learning curve. Now I’ve broken down more bunnies than I’d care to admit. As a chef, you need to know where your food is coming from. It’s not Cryovac steaks, its actual live animals. Next week we’re actually getting in a 250-pound pig from Carlisle, which we’ve gotten weekly updates on from the farmer. It’s really hard for the farmers who spend their lives raising these pigs, and for them it’s a really emotional experience.

Mary Dumont (Harvest): I was working in San Francisco at Campton Place and there was a butcher named Vyha. He had worked there for 18 years. I’m short, and in my memory he was two-feet shorter than me. He would walk around saying “Bullshit” all the time, so his nickname was “Bullshit.” He would let me stand around and watch him butcher. Before I did anything myself, there was a lot of observation. I was always working for these yelling, screaming chefs that were always freaking out. So you never even wanted to jump right in and screw it up, even if it was a lobe of foie gras. But frankly, the first time for me was scary. Every mistake that you make is expensive. It’s a part of the job though, we try to give a lot of respect to the animal. It’s not like popping a tire and going to buy a new one. This was something that was alive. We have to respect where it came from.

Josh Lewin (Bread & Salt): I’ve been cooking for a living since I was a young teenager, so I’ve had a long relationship with meat. That wasn’t much of a preparation for our current butchering programs, however. Nor were most of my subsequent jobs through my early twenties. It was at Beacon Hill Bistro that [then-executive chef] Jason Bond suggested an immersive experience at Mosefund Mangalitsa Farm. I drove there overnight with Rachel Miller who’s currently at Clio. Killing a pig is a three person job. One stuns the animal and a second team member has to roll it onto its side, press down with a knee just below the shoulder joint, and stab it in the heart. The third member pumps the front leg and catches the flowing blood in a pail. After we killed it, we placed it in a drum of near boiling water to remove the copious amounts of fur. Twenty minutes later we were presented with a cup of coffee as well as a breakfast of pig’s liver and heart. We had to repeat that process five more times that day.

Israel Medina (BOKX 109 American Prime): In Guatemala, where I’m from, animal butchery is something that is a common household task and something I learned at a very young age. It was eating local and fresh—everything that is trendy right now—out of necessity. I have so many memories of running wild around my yard chasing the chickens until I caught one, something I became very good at over the years. After catching a chicken, I would carefully cut its throat and hang it on a tree in my back yard to let the blood drain for about 30 minutes. I would then drop the chicken in a pot of boiling water and submerge it until the skin became tender enough to pluck its feathers. I use those same skills today at the restaurant where almost every protein is butchered by hand.