Butcher classes cut a wide swath. But do they have staying power?
In Butcher & the Burger’s Lincoln Park basement, chef Allen Sternweiler bends over 80 pounds of pig sliced symmetrically down the spine. Sternweiler firmly caresses the meat, his eyes lighting up when he finds a sweet spot: the muscles around bones, which make natural seams for cutting. He fingers the spine, making a few swift slices before tearing out the first and most prized cut, the tenderloin.
“Keep the kidney fat, a sausage-maker’s dream,” crows Sternweiler—known as Chef Al—addressing an audience of 12, here to learn butchering techniques in a two-hour workshop.
One of a few new butcher-workshop purveyors around Chicago, Butcher & the Burger holds sessions on poultry preparation, fish mongering and pig butchering, and hopes one day to cut up a cow carcass from a rustic-looking hook attached to the dining room wall.
“I thought I was really going to have to work to build this part of our programming,” says co-owner Josh Woodward, who’s witnessed classes fill quickly since he opened the eatery in October. “But people want to have a connection with the land.”
An early adoptee of the butcher class, chef Rob Levitt started a regular Sunday morning demo series in 2009 at his now-shuttered, meat-heavy restaurant Mado. In 2011, Levitt opened Butcher & Larder, a small Noble Square butcher shop featuring classes with topics such as beef hindquarter or lamb butchering and sausage making. He attributes the butchering class phenomenon to greater food awareness sparked by the media and books like Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, published in 2006.
Both class providers also see themselves as ma-and-pa alternatives to big eco-aware grocery chains. At the end of each class, students can buy the freshly butchered meat at a discount. Woodward looks to Whole Foods’ prices to set the regular cost of his cuts.
One big drawback: In both classes viewers can’t touch a knife. (Each establishment is working on creating waivers allowing a small class to perform hands-on tasks.) In Butcher & the Burger’s two-hour sessions, Chef Al occasionally asks participants to feel the meat so they can identify fat density. He keeps buttery fat and tosses the tough silverskin into a bin set aside for trash.
Chef Al barks out cutting and cooking instructions as he uses a knife, cleaver and hand saw to whittle down the hog—a heritage breed raised just south of Chicago in Ottowa, Illinois—into a tenderloin, ribs, boneless chops, bone-in chops, bacon meat and a tub full of sausage-making scraps.
Meat from quality breeds can create simple, delicious entrées, which, Levitt says, rule the hip restaurant scene. Levitt rattles off names like Bristol and Nightwood as front-runners.
And when these food-trend cycles end, what happens to people’s interest in classes? According to Woodward: “Trends are things that come and go. I really think this is more about knowing about food—it will last.”
At Butcher & the Burger’s class, several of the mostly male students sip wine. As Chef Al finishes his work, men ask questions about fire pits and cooking temperature (for the record, if held at a lower temperature consistently for a longer time period, bacteria dies and meat becomes tender). The room smells acrid and ripping sounds abound. The quest to understand food might bring in students, but a primal interest in bloody meat is what’s keeping them fascinated.