Oct. 16, 2019 — “Okay, we’re going to cut some beef,” butcher Kyle Anderson said. Lying in front of him was a hind quarter of a cow slaughtered seven days prior. It was a Saturday morning, and gathered around Anderson were around 20 students enrolled in the culinary classes at Siuslaw High School, taught by instructor Kyle Lewis.
Anderson, who works at the high-end Portland restaurant Renata, has been coming to Florence annually after Anderson took a class with the profession butcher a few years ago through the Portland Meat Collective.
“Those are the classes where you got to spend $200 for a two-day class. You get the same education you get right now,” Lewis explained to the class. “This is going to be a lot of fun.”
Anderson began the Saturday class by talking about the health of the cow he was working on.
“Before I start cutting into an animal, I’m going to try and see what I can assess from it,” Anderson said. “This one specifically, we see the fat is pretty yellow. It means it was probably grass fed. Chlorophyll accumulates in the fat and starts to make it look yellow.”
The animal had come from local grower Walker farms, which supplies high grade animals across Oregon.
“You also look at how much fat coverage is on there. You can see some big deposits of fat. This is probably something that walked around a lot, which is good. The more an animal moves around, the more flavor it has, the happier the animal is, the happier we are. These are all the things I like to see. This is not typical. This is the one-percent of beef, instead of the 99 percent that most people eat.”
It’s at that point that Anderson pulled out the kidney and showed it to the class.
“The kidney is left in the animal for a couple of reasons, the first is to see how healthy the animal was. If there was some sort of issue, a lot of times these would be discolored.”
There are some recipes that call for kidneys as well, though Anderson admits hasn’t been able to find one he likes.
“They taste like what you would think they would taste like, which is urine,” he said. “There are ways to bring out the flavor, I’m sure.”
Lewis and Anderson were teaching the students how to use all of the animal for cooking — the thyroid, the tongue, the tail. Many of these less-desirable cuts would be used in a massive meal the students would cook just hours after cutting into the first quarter. It not only honors the animal but teaches the students true culinary skills, Anderson explained.
The only thing that wasn’t going to be used that day was the kidney, which got passed around by the students. Lewis said that normally, some kids get a little ill with it but, on this day at least, “No queasiness” as the students poked and prodded it.
It’s at this point that the kidney was discarded and Anderson brought out the bonesaw as the students looked intently, learning the motions in what they would be doing themselves in a matter of minutes.
“It’s a playground,” Lewis said about moments like these. “I don’t miss being in a restaurant. For the most part I just get to talk about what I love and nerd out with them. Times like this, to get youth to come in on a Saturday, it’s very rewarding. It’s really cool to see the instant pride and ownership that they’re going to take on that animal.”
In 2007, when Lewis first arrived at the school, a shift was occurring from traditional home economics class to culinary.
“Enough years have gone by with the Food Network that people now know that cooking is more than just ending up on a line. It’s a little more respected as a career choice,” Lewis said. “But at the same time, culinary schools have a tendency to overproduce cooks. People think they’re going to be a cook or a sous chef. From an industry perspective, the field is wide open.”
From pastry and bakery work, which Lewis hails from, to cheese makers, meat work, fermentation and of course butchery, “there’s a lot going on” in the industry.
That’s one of the key messages that Lewis is looking to instill in his students, and it shows in his curriculum, which has three levels.
There’s the semester intro class, which is just basic principles,” Lewis explained. “How to hold a knife, how to cut properly. Various cooking methods, what they do. If you were to sear versus grill versus braise. What is that doing for flavor. They’re kind of learning the rules.”
Second level gets into actual cuisine, starting with international.
“What countries, what are their cooking methods, what are their religions, historical events. How did their cuisine evolve as people invade or become dominated by a country that has a different ingredient — You see how food evolves.”
Then Lewis swings the class back to America.
“You remember the Brits, the Spanish, the French? Okay, they’re coming to Maine, they’re coming to Boston, their coming to Florida. You see how all cuisine shapes,” he says.
This prepares the students for the advanced class, where they focus on more specialty areas, like baking or sausage making.
“Typically, about five to six times a year, we’ll do a sausage fundraiser where we grind up our own meats. We make the sausage. We get a high production side of cooking and not just pretty stuff. We do about 150 pounds of sausage each time. We produce a lot of sausages.”
To keep the class going, Lewis relies on moments like the butchery class to keep the freezers stocked.
“I never have to go to the grocery store for beef. I never have to buy pork. With the local fishermen and shrimpers, we’re kind of moving in a direction to show them what real good ingredients taste like.”
The reason for this is two-fold. First, it’s a cost saving measure.
“It looks expensive up front,” Lewis said about the $1,000 purchase for the cow, but he’s able to stretch the process out for weeks. “You spend a week preparing for it,” another week wrapping it and cutting it into finer cuts, and then frozen for the rest of the year. … “This is the only way I could afford to play with the ingredients I wanted.”
But the butchery process also opens the door to culinary experiences that would normally be closed off to most students.
“If you’re going to freeze your bones, you’re going to be teaching them stock making, which is a great starting point for all the other sauces. I go a step further and introduce canning, we actually pressure can. Then I bring in sausage and charcuterie (preparation of meats)
Lewis is also able to expose them to meats that most students would never be able to afford to purchase.
“It’s hard to do when Dakota raised beef is the price it is,” he said. “A lot of people can’t afford to eat grass-fed Oregon beef.”
However, if students gain the pallet for different qualities of beef, and learn how to economically and responsibly produce it, then perhaps these styles will become more prevalent.
“There’s a lot of stuff in the media about making the effort to going back to the European model, like have a corner butcher,” Lewis said. “It’s going to take a couple of generations of people to change people’s minds on how to shop, how to diet. But if these kids learn how to do it, then the next generation can look at is as common and make that change.”
The business of butchery
“You can see I’m not really cutting into anything, just following the natural seams,” Anderson said while gently guiding his knife across the plank steak. “I’m using my fingers a lot, pulling it a part. You’d be surprised how much it pulls a part in your fingers.”
Anderson and Lewis’s class went over a mixture of anatomy, science and business during the day-long class, as well as dispelling some myths.
“You’ll notice it’s all very dry,” Anderson said, pointing out that the animal had been bled for seven days before making its way to his butchers table. “Every time you buy a package, you see a little bit of red in the package, it’s not blood. It’s just water and a little bit of coloring from the meat. It’s a very dry process.”
Anderson talked about anatomy, explaining that the higher cuts were more expensive not only because of how tender they were, but because of how easy it is to cook. While an inexperienced chef can make a gourmet meal out of a New York steak, making cuisine out of tongue can be a little bit trickier.
“There’s no good cuts or bad cuts,” Anderson said. “The recipes were made for the cuts, the cuts weren’t made to form to recipes.”
Being a cost-effective cook means using everything, which Anderson went into detail on.
“I get a pig a week,” Anderson said while he was removing the oyster, a small, flavorful cut that sits inside the hip. “As for beef, we go through about one quarter a week. And then probably 25 chickens a week. We bring in lamb, some specialty stuff, depending on when it’s in season. It’s not profitable unless we’re doing $45,000 a week. We do about 100-200 covers a night.”
“But $45,000 includes beer and liquor,” Lewis added.
“It does,” Anderson said. “Honestly, there’s a lot of cushions on the pasta side. Pasta, the margins are excellent. They run about 20 percent of food costs, which is a lot better than I do.”
Anderson explained to the students that half his job is figuring out how to use ground beef and ground pork.
“It’s really easy to sell a steak,” he said. “My job is trying to figure out how to use everything else so that we don’t lose money and waste product. In my restaurant right now, I can’t tell you how much bolognese sauce we use right now. Every time someone wants to take it off the menu, I kick and scream.”
There were discussions on different types of breeds, which means a lot to a farmer, but not as much to a butcher.
“Beef hasn’t gotten into breeds,” Anderson said while slicing through some sinew. “There’s Angus and Hereford, that makes up 99 percent of the beef, and then some mixed breeds that have different attributes. I look at it like, this is really good beef, and this is how the farmer got it to me.”
This led to a discussion on wagyu beef, like Kobe.
“For wagyu, what is the initial investment like?” Lewis asked.
“A lot,” Anderson replied. “And they’re a pain to cut. There was just so much fat. You’re looking for muscle and you don’t know where you are.”
Anderson explained that there are always certain types of cuts that are being discovered, such as the tri-tip.
“It came out of California and stayed there for a really long time. You’re starting to see it more on the East Coast now. It’s one of those that unless you know what to do with it, which is roast it whole, it’s kind of annoying to take it out until someone was willing to pay money for it. Once people wanted it, they started taking it out.”
And then there was the business of naming cuts.
“The beef industry likes to change names just to make it sound exciting and new,” Anderson said. “Sirloin tips aren’t sirloin. We call them that because they touch the sirloin. Because of that, a customer will it say it sounds delicious.”
And will pay more for it.
As Anderson and Kyle talked the business of butchery, they ensured that the students knew the tools of the trade, both in butchery, and in cooking (always cut with the grain). After an hour’s worth of discussion, Anderson handed the knives (and saws) over to the students, who were provided with their own hind quarter to work on.
Some kids took Anderson’s cuts and worked on perfecting them with the help of Lewis, while others worked on the quarter under the direction of Anderson.
After six hours, the class had done the initial butchery for the entire cow, all quarters. The walk-in was stacked with hundreds of cuts of beef. Anderson pointed out that, in college, such a class would take a full day just to butcher the hind quarter.
“But they powered through it,” he said. “They stayed focus, even with everything I was throwing at them.”
And the students didn’t stop there. Right after the cuts were made and stored, the students focused on cooking a gourmet meal, splitting up into sections with each group taking on a specific dish. Lewis bounces around from station to station, ensuring quality.
“I was running around like crazy helping them out,” he said. “We tried to make it so everything comes up at the same time. We’ve been prepping since Wednesday, so we knew the cook times.”
Anderson added, “It was basically like a commercial kitchen. A couple of the kids seemed pretty confident. I was like, ‘How long have you been in class?’ They answered, “Oh, it’s my first year in culinary.’ So… Wow.”
An hour-and-a-half later, a multi-course meal was laid out in the center of the classroom. Lewis walked down the line, describing the menu.
“This is the tongue, which went quick,” he said, pointing out to bits of tongue that had been used in tacos with fresh-made tortillas. “So, high schooler ate tongue.”
There was risotto made with fresh chanterelle mushrooms, picked by Lewis himself. There was Florentine steak, with the NY and tenderloins sliced perfectly. There was gremolata (“very old school”), braised greens (“very southern”) and then there was Bavette, made from the flank steak. There were black beans, marinated red onions, “and if this wasn’t enough, we have the hanger, the oyster. There’s three more meats coming out.”
The most popular dish of the afternoon was the sweetbread, which was made from the thymus gland.
“We were preparing a lot of those less desirable cuts,” Anderson said. “We’re eating a couple of really good cuts, but also the bad stuff.”
As the students were eating, one said, “It sounds gross, but when you eat it, it’s good.”
“It’s kind of the rule of things,” Anderson told him. “The grosser it is, the better it tastes. Nobody is like, ‘That looks disgusting and tastes disgusting, so let’s keep eating it.’”
Anderson pointed out that in his restaurant, the afternoon meal would have cost an easy $1,000 to produce.
“That Florentine there, we sell that in our restaurant for $90. This is a ton of food. I mean, they made the tortillas from scratch!”
As for the quality of the food, “it was great,” Anderson said. “The steak is cooked perfectly. I’m just amazed.”
While the entire meals took hours to produce, the students cleared their dishes within a matter of minutes. The pride was evident throughout the room as they looked down at their creations. One student, staring at the Florentine, smiled and said, “I did that all by myself.”