The reinvigoration of the lost art of butchery has been a saving grace for the hospitality industry.
Who could have predicted that the humble corner butcher shop, under threat before COVID-19, would have found a second life during the pandemic? Certainly not the butchers, who've had more work than they can handle (one described it as "Christmas, without the joy"). Not only have butcher shops boomed but they have kept a lot of chefs employed, as restaurants across the country shuttered. For chefs, it's been an opportunity to upskill.
For diners, it has meant access to better meat than ever before as butchers offer produce formerly destined only for restaurants to retail customers. Just another reason why everyone now has the opportunity to be the best cooking version of themselves.
With two-hat Yarra Valley restaurant Oakridge closed for six weeks, chef George Wintle and executive chef Matt Stone are in residence at Cannings Butchers in Kew, where they are working in the online orders section."We've been really fortunate to have been working with people that are experts in their trade, and learning absolutely everything," says Wintle.
Ideally, Wintle will go back to kitchen service as soon as he can (Stone says the plan is to reopen Oakridge as soon as Victoria's latest lockdown restrictions have eased), transferring some of the skills he's learned in the butchery to his daily kitchen practice – not only for himself, but to share with other young chefs. "Those really traditional ways of doing things had been broadly lost."
Matt Stone already had a fairly solid working knowledge of butchery before donning the mesh gloves. At Oakridge, he would order in whole pigs, lambs and sides of beef which would be butchered in-house.
But that's nothing compared to the whole frozen pieces of beef he's been sending through the bandsaw (he describes cutting a marrow bone like sliding a hot knife through butter). "All I think about is cutting my hand off every time I use it."
Chef Luke Powell recently changed his one-hat Chippendale restaurant, LP's Quality Meats, into a charcuterie bar and wholesale smallgoods business. Making the switch from cheffing to charcuterie brought incredible relief to Powell.
"LP's was up and down for all of 2019. I don't know if it was just us but it felt like a theme throughout the industry," says Powell. "We needed to do something. We would have really struggled if we'd tried to stay open [during lockdown] without doing this."
His signature pig's head sausages and boudin noir are now appearing in delis all over Sydney, with plans to expand interstate. "It just feels right – it's become what it always should have grown into."
After wiping down stainless steel benches at the end of his restaurant shift every night for 15 years, Jerome Hoban decided he needed something else. And so, a decade ago, he switched his chef's knife for a boning knife. "I grew up in country Victoria so I always had that connection to farms, and one of my contacts was looking to retire, so I thought, 'What the hell, I'll give it a crack'."
Hoban's business, Gamekeepers, historically serviced hatted Melbourne restaurants with his own farm-bred gamebirds and Wessex saddleback pigs. Most of his stock went to the likes of Amaru, Rosetta and Grossi Florentino.
Coronavirus saw him invert his business entirely (he describes it as "10 years of work decimated in two days"), setting up a delivery service and opening directly to the public.
Marrickville butchery Feather and Bone Providore provided a safe haven for many out-of-work chefs while NSW was in lockdown. If you peeked out the back, you would have seen 2020 Good Food Guide Josephine Pignolet Award winner Anna Ugarte-Carral packing meat for delivery, while Jemma Whiteman (ex-Lankan Filling Station) was developing a range of take-home sauces and curries for the boutique butchery.
Like many of the chefs who suddenly found themselves working in this different arm of food service, she learned more about regulation and compliance than she ever thought she would.
"It was a completely new mindset and a whole new set of rules," says Whiteman. "It's all about batch numbers, nutritional panels and allergy things."
During the pandemic, the wholesale side of the Sydney butcher Feather and Bone's business dropped away completely, but retail markedly increased. "It was interesting; we found strength in the diversity of our business," says co-owner Grant Hilliard. "The diversity we look for in our farmers actually served us really well in this situation and further reinforced to me how important that is."
Chef Chris Watson joined Melbourne butcher Meatsmith, run by Andrew McConnell and Troy Wheeler, after he lost a cheffing job during COVID-19. He says the butcher specialises in bringing restaurant-quality meat to customers but a second lockdown means there is extra special produce available, including Murray Grey beef. Destined for the menu at McConnell's freshly opened restaurant Gimlet at Cavendish House, it's now hanging in the dry-ageing room for home diners. Watson also has pheasants from Swan Hill that had been bound for restaurants.
For Good Food Guide 2019 Josephine Pignolet Award winner Kylie Millar, just back from her stint at New York State restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns, butchery has been a saviour. And also an interesting physiological lesson, for someone who trained as a physiotherapist before deciding to become a chef.
"For me, it's anatomy. I find it fascinating. All the muscles I learned about at university, I can relate it to a cow."
While the former Attica chef would eventually like to return to restaurant kitchens in the United States, she is currently working in a small shop in Cremorne Point, North Sydney, an experience like nothing she has done before.
"We'd receive the meat at the restaurant already broken down and cleaned up. But at the butcher you can see where it's actually come off the animal and I think it makes you appreciate things.
"For example, if it's a hard-working muscle or a lazy muscle, it relates to how you cook it. The lazy muscles tend to be the tender ones and the hard-working ones like beef cheeks are the slow-cooking ones."
Oliver and Ruby Hagen, owners of Melbourne butchery Hagen's Organics, have hired five chefs from several restaurants affected by pandemic restrictions.
They've found the marriage of chef and butchery talents an unexpected win-win-win. Chefs are picking up new skills and enjoying greater work-life balance, butchers are absorbing food knowledge and improving kitchen efficiency, and customers are able to buy restaurant-grade products such as Great Ocean Ducks, usually found on menus at hatted venues such as Brae and Wickens at Royal Mail Hotel.
"These times have been so tough on many," say the Hagens, "but we feel we have been so lucky to be able to work with these incredible chefs and been able to provide them with work."
A cut above
From hard-to-find cuts of meat to the best smallgoods and rare breed beasts, here's who to buy from and where.
Feather and Bone
A sustainable, community-focused butchery offering rare and lesser-known cuts and animal breeds as well as local cheeses, smallgoods and condiments.
8/10-14 Lilian Fowler Place, Marrickville, featherandbone.com.au
Shane's Quality Butchery
A small butchery on the north shore focused on grass-fed meat and traditional butchery methods.
37 Spofforth Street, Mosman
LP's Quality Meats
Newly opened as a charcuterie bar and wholesaler, the famous pig's head sausages can now be purchased around Sydney, or onsite.
16/12 Chippen Street, Chippendale, lpsqualitymeats.com
Don't see the cut you want? The butchers here will do it for you. Not to mention deliver it to your door. If you're very lucky, you might also get your hands on one of their pies of the week.
Sydney Fish Market, 50-60 Bank Street, Pyrmont, vicsmeatmarket.com.au
Opened by ex-chef Colin Holt in 2007, the focus here is on connecting farmers and producers with the broader community.
121 Victoria Road, Drummoyne, hudsonmeats.com
Before COVID-19, Gamekeepers supplied Melbourne's best restaurants with their own farm-bred gamebirds and Wessex saddleback pigs. But now the butchery is open directly to the public, with delivery available to Melbourne metro.
7 Edgecombe Court, Moorabbin, gamekeepersmeat.com.au
An Andrew McConnell and Troy Wheeler joint, there are now three Meatsmith locations in St Kilda, Brighton and Fitzroy, servicing Melbourne with carefully sourced meat, ready meals and more. And, music to the ears during lockdown, they deliver.
273 Smith Street, Fitzroy, meatsmith.com.au
Gary's Quality Meats
A beloved family-run butchery concentrating on the art of the cleaver and the process of dry-ageing. Order online if you can't make it to South Yarra, and they'll deliver.
163 Commercial Road, South Yarra, garysqualitymeats.com.au
Sam Canning opened his first free-range butchery in 2010 and now has eight stores dotted around the eastern suburbs. Order online and pick up at one of the stores or arrange delivery.
When this family-run business began in the 1980s selling fruit and veg, organics was a niche area. Now with five stores focused on organic meat, they deliver across Melbourne and into regional Victoria.