Recently Chef Tim Byres of SMOKE and Chicken Scratch was one of three judges in the 2012 Best Butcher competition at Meatopia in New York City.
The contest, hosted by Whole Foods, started with 300 butchers and through a series of smaller competitions whittled the field down to just three. For the talent portion of the program, each butcher had to:
• Make a Turducken by deboning a turkey and chicken and adding duck breast • Merchandise a whole lamb • Create a new-to-the-meat-case "cut" from a beef forequarter
Armand "The Arm" Ferrante sparkled in the pageantry and was anointed 2012 National Best Butcher. Ferrante is a second-generation butcher and has been practicing his craft for over 40 years. He currently holds shop at a Whole Foods Market in Middletown, N.J.
After the competition, Byers gave a tip o' the hat to Ferrante for his "talent, passion and creativity."
I've learned in previous interviews that Byres is a reverent student of food culture and history. He's taken extensive road trips prior to opening each of his Dallas restaurants, soaking in southern culture one biscuit and rib at a time. It all made me think about his involvement in this event. So, I floated the idea of the lost of art of butchery to Byres.
"I do think it is a lost art," said Byres from a Tabasco plant tour in Avery Island, LA. "We're easily distracted by the commercial way of things. In the old days, we'd see the butchers and actually be a part of the process. Now it's all on display and we're completely disconnected."
To Byres, it's not so much of the lost art, but the lost connection. "Remember back in the days of the The Brady Bunch? Alice and Al the butcher? He always had a special cut for her in the back - that's gone now."
Byres mentioned that he's writing a new book that touches on the issue. He said it's not only about being food sensible, but it's also about the cultural and historical importance of our food.
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"The circle of commerce is another important factor here," said Byres. "When you pass the baton off as a consumer, if you're dealing with the processors directly, it shortens the race and you have better awareness of every step of the process."
In short: get to know your butcher. Maybe he'll save a nice cut for you in the back.
Rudolph's Market in Deep Ellum provides a pretty good overview on different cuts of meat from different animals on their site. This is a good place to start. Or, if in doubt, just ask. I've never met a butcher who didn't appreciate the simple question, "What's good today?"