Chop, Chop: In-house butchering gives restaurants a cutting edge

“It’ll take me a couple of minutes just to get this nice and sharp,” said Gerard Craft, shuttling his paring knife across a whetstone.

Whenever struck by the whim, Niche’s executive chef likes to butcher a little something at the Benton Park spot. On one recent day, he’d ordered a pig’s head. What can Craft say? One chef’s trash is another chef’s treasure. “I just get a lot of personal enjoyment from [taking] something … that most people throw in the trash and transform[ing] it into something great.”

The recipe calls for …

The something great on the menu that day was tête de porc, a cylinder made from the meat and fat of a pig’s head that’s braised and then served sliced. While cheek meat finds its way into dishes relatively often, Craft said temple meat generally goes unused. In other words, his knife’s a sucker for it.

Tim O’Sullivan, executive chef at The Dubliner, likewise cooks with pork parts that others pass over. In keeping with its overall concept, the downtown pub offers traditional Irish dishes; some of them require uncommon ingredients – for example, black pudding calls for pig’s blood. House-made bangers (sausage) and pork loin chop also appear on the standard menu, while bits of fried pig’s skin occasionally satisfy sippers at the bar. (Oftentimes, the munchies mysteriously disappear in the kitchen.) But before any of these ol’ Irish favorites can be readied for a plate, O’Sullivan first has to butcher a hog.

Grand entrance

This time of year, O’Sullivan usually gets in two carcasses every other week. They arrive bled, shaved and halved and are delivered through The Dubliner’s front door. Decapitated lambs enter at the same spot. So far, only one person has complained, O’Sullivan said.

Without a fleet of trucks or a team of drivers, small farms have limited distribution and often deliver the meat themselves.Chef Kevin Willmann, a devotee of fresh ingredients, said that irregular delivery dates create a lot of work for him at Erato in Edwardsville. Just the same, the executive chef sources lamb, chicken, beef and the occasional elk locally. Plus he orders oodles of fresh fish from the Florida Gulf Coast.

Cutting up, say, a 2-pound Spanish mackerel is arguably easier than butchering a 120-pound hog, though it still requires technique. In fact, Willmann’s fish-cleaning skills helped him get his first job. “I challenged [my boss] one day. They had a tuna fish come in and I said, ‘I want to work upstairs’ – upstairs was the fine-dining restaurant – and I bet him that I could clean the tuna better than he could so that I could work upstairs,” he said. At that, Willmann literally carved out a new career.

Close to the bone

Willmann prefers to use inexpensive knives because he finds they’re easier to sharpen. “I probably sharpen this five times a day,” he said, raising a $20 fillet knife. Then he sunk its tip into the gill cover of a triggerfish.

Regardless of what’s on the butcher block, a chef’s first cuts are the starkest: Willmann sliced along the backbone to the pectoral fin; Craft split the pig’s snout in two; O’Sullivan (on lamb day) detached the first foreleg with an incision that originated in the carcass’ armpit. From there, O’Sullivan proceeded to break down each half of the lamb into its five primal, or basic, parts: shoulder, breast/foreshank, rib, loin/flank and leg. When it was all said and done, his white apron bore just a few short smears of blood. O’Sullivan, a surgeon’s son, has a knack.

His boss respects this. “It’s not that you open a box of [meat] and say, ‘I’m a cook.’ … You have to be able to work with it,” said The Dubliner co-owner Eddie Neal.
“If you can do a lamb, you pretty much know what’s going on,” explained Willmann, who said he learned how to move a knife around a bone by cleaning fish. Anatomy from animal to animal doesn’t vary wildly, which means the butchering process remains fairly consistent. The general maxim is: Stay close to the bone.

Still there’s the occasional wrinkle. A snaggletooth left Craft to do some minor maneuvering, and when it came time to skin the pig’s head, he had to concentrate a tad harder. Having collected a larger knife for this task, he said, “Fish skin comes off relatively easy,” he said and then paused when his blade met resistance. “Pig skin does not.”

Back in The Dubliner’s kitchen, O’Sullivan switched out a boning knife for a Chinese cleaver and then a saw. As he bore the latter down into the hog, his stance widened. His lips tightened. His brow spotted with sweat. Butchering unwieldy hogs is usually a two-man job, but O’Sullivan worked alone that day. His familiarity with both the animal’s anatomy and its cuts was apparent. “This is the diaphragm right here,” he said running his fingers across the carcass, “and this is the diaphragm line.” Then, moving on, “Here’s where you begin your French pork loin chop. The first one will be a two-bone chop.” Moving on again, “This is the shoulder. The knife will go through it like butter.”

Under the butcher’s blade emerged manifold layers and cavities. Every stroke – whether shallow or deep, straight or skewed, quick or deliberate – left wet pink in its wake. The once-monolithic carcass expanded into parts.

The whole buffalo

Schoolchildren past and present know American Indians used the whole buffalo. In similar fashion, O’Sullivan uses the whole hog.

Once he’d made some headway with the hog, he set out several 5-gallon buckets around his worktable. The feet went in one, the loin chops in another, the ears and tail in a third – tendons, blood vessels and the tips of the shoulder blades were the only things O’Sullivan threw away. He’s just as thrifty when it comes to lambs.

Big bang theory
A lot of restaurants don’t bother to do what The Dubliner, Niche and Erato do. One reason why: It takes time. Roughly speaking, a fish requires five minutes; a pig’s head, 30; a lamb, 45; and a behemoth hog, 60 to 75. It’s much faster to remove precut meat and fish from a box. Still, these restaurants consider in-house butchering worth their while.

For one, they get more bang for their buck … or lamb or pig or fish. “[When we butcher animals ourselves] then we have the bones and we can make all the sauces … then we can grind stuff and we use it in our meatloaf and then our hamburgers … and we can make sausages. Charcuterie’s another great thing you can get out of buying all your own stuff. Using byproducts is satisfying. Plus it’s just irresponsible and annoying for me to watch people throwing stuff away that you can make not only money out of, but you can enjoy,” said Willmann.

By cleaning triggerfish himself, Willmann has access to its tasty but often-overlooked throat meat. O’Sullivan taps into meat caches, too – located, for example, in hogs’ legs. Craft said he’s always happy to get his hands on a pig’s tongue, which is generally pitched, because it “produces quite a bit of eating.”

Citizen Kane’s Steak House gets extra mileage out of its beef scraps by using them to make soup. “The less that hits the trash can, the more your wife will appreciate it,” said owner Frank Kane. In-house butchering isn’t an option for the Kirkwood eatery because of a cow’s enormity, still the restaurant opts for ready-to-slice slabs over precut meat in the interest of freshness.

The Dubliner gets lambs and hogs raised at Prairie Grass Farms near New Florence and Benne’s Best Meat in St. Charles county, respectively, just two days after the animals have been slaughtered. This means The Dubliner’s city diners enjoy country-fresh meat, and the same goes for patrons of Niche and Erato.

Willmann and O’Sullivan both said in-house butchering has economic advantages. “We pay about $3.50 per pound for the lamb whole, whereas if I just wanted chops of the same quality, I’m paying $16, $18, $20 a pound for some nice domestic chops,” Willmann said. Craft pointed out that locally raised meat can actually cost more, but he’ll continue to order pig’s heads and the like anyway.

In part, he likes to shock people, he admitted. Not gratuitously, though. “There’s no point in shocking everybody and then them tasting it and saying, ‘Well, what was the whole point of that?’” he said. And in the end, it turned out Craft’s culinary eccentricity has its limits. “I don’t use the eyeballs,” he laughed. “I’m adventurous, but I’m not that adventurous.”