You could say that Nathan Mills was destined to be a butcher. He's been around meat all his life: first at the Canberra slaughterhouse that his great-grandfather founded, and then at his parents' butcher's shop at Nambucca Heads on the NSW mid-north coast, where he learnt the trade.
Given that, it's no surprise to find him running The Butchery, London's most forward-thinking butcher, alongside partner and fellow Australian Ruth Siwinski. Ask the 35-year-old if he wanted to become a butcher, though, and he laughs. ''I didn't expect to go into it,'' he says. ''It's a lot of work: 90 to 100 hours a week, one week's holiday a year. It didn't look very appealing to me!''
London's carnivores are delighted he changed his mind. The Butchery is rapidly becoming one of the city's most respected butchers, largely because of a unique approach to meat.
Not only does Mills focus on free-range, native-breed meat, but he buys the whole carcass and then cuts it up himself. It's an increasingly rare way of doing things (particularly with beef), but it means he can ensure none of the animal is wasted.
''No one else in London is doing this,'' he says. ''Every other butcher's shop I've worked for in London, you'll buy a roaster, which is the steak section: the rump, loin and forerib. That's just two-fifths of the animal - what are you going to do with the other three-fifths?''
Mills’s great-grandfather was the founder of Canberra Abattoirs, and by the time he started school most of his family was working in the abattoir – his mother and sister in the canteen, his stepfather, Dennis Reid, grading beef, two brothers on the slaughter floor and another in the boning hall.
‘‘My family where likened to the mafia at the slaughterhouse,’’ he says. ‘‘Most of my school holidays were spent walking every inch of the Canberra slaughterhouse, which is not the way most five to13-year-olds spend their school holidays.’’ If a pregnant ewe came in and lambed overnight, they would take the lamb home to raise in the backyard, he says on his website, recalling as many as eight lambs at a time to be fed.
In1989, when he was15, his parents moved to Nambucca Heads, where they set up the Centenary Meats butcher, and where Mills helped making sausages and mincing meats. After leaving school, he returned to the Canberra abattoir, packing meat there for a year until it closed.
His partner, Siwinski, 35, grew up on a farm close to Coffs Harbour and ran a restaurant and bar there before she and Mills moved to London. ''People think of nose-to-tail eating and they think of offal, but it should mean a lot more than that; it should mean eating the lesser-known cuts,'' she says. ''Fillet is such a small percentage of the beef.''
This approach has attracted attention. A number of London restaurants now buy their meat from The Butchery, including Pitt Cue Co, whose American barbecue has become incredibly popular over the past 12 months, and Elliot's Cafe, where Australian Brett Redman's down-to-earth approach is garnering lavish praise.
Nonetheless, it can be difficult to find chefs who share his whole-carcass philosophy, Mills says. ''If a chef wants something, I'll say, 'Let's meet up, I'll show you what we are doing, the potential issues.' Then we can both make an informed decision whether we want to work together.''
He's soon to appear on British television, too, after Michelin-starred chef Raymond Blanc visited The Butchery's railway-arch base in Bermondsey to talk about meat for slow cooking. ''It was very interesting: he's been a chef for 30-plus years but [my kind of butchery] is a totally different world,'' Mills says . ''We got a forequarter of beef out, we talked about it, I took pretty much every muscle I could out - and there were four or five that he said, 'I had no idea that they existed.'''
Mills says his philosophy has been shaped by his own research, but years spent at some of London's best-known butchers must have helped, too. He's done time at The Ginger Pig in Borough Market and at Jamie Oliver's Barbecoa, where he helped to set up the restaurant's butchery after meeting co-owner Adam Perry-Lang.
The Butchery is part of a worldwide movement towards better-quality meat. Mills says much of his inspiration comes from the US, but he is also impressed by what's happening in Australia, citing the Victor Churchill butcher's store in Woollahra, Sydney. He does believe, though, that British consumers have a more respectful approach to the trade. ''In Australia, people will be like, 'Oh, you're a butcher. You make the sausages for the barbecue,''' he laughs. ''Here people look at it differently, as a skill.''
Despite this, the traditional British butcher's shop is struggling. According to figures from the Meat Trades Journal, about two-thirds have shut since the mid-1990s as competition from supermarkets has intensified. ''People are eating more and more meat, but there are fewer butchers,'' Siwinski says. ''All the butchery is being done in production plants. There's not any connection even for the people who are working with it.''
A strange time, then, to be opening a butcher's shop, but that's what Mills and Siwinski have just done. The queues that stretched out of the door of their new shop in Forest Hill, south London, before Christmas suggested it may prove to be a smart move.
It's a job that consumes your time, Mills says. ''When we first came to London, we went on holiday all over Europe,'' he says. ''Now we spend what little free time we get going to check out suppliers!''
Siwinski says: ''But that's important. Good meat is like wine: the same grape has a different flavour depending on where it's grown, where it's harvested, who looked after it.''
It might sound like hard work, but the pair - who recently became parents - seem content with their lot. ''I'm sure we could do other jobs and work a little less hard for more money, but it wouldn't be something that we would get as much satisfaction and pleasure from,'' Siwinski says. ''There's a real challenge there about eating less meat but eating better meat - and using more of the animal. We want to inform people about that, without preaching. That's a fine line.''
So far, so good. Mills is optimistic about the future. ''It would be nice to be at the forefront of a revival of whole-carcass butchery of native animals in the UK,'' he says. ''More people are becoming more concerned about the providence of their meat - hopefully it will lead to a rise in standards across the board.''
After that, perhaps, it might be time to go back to Australia.
''We're comfortable here, but I wouldn't say we would end up retiring here,'' Mills says. ''I might need somewhere warmer for my butcher's elbows.''
Will Hawkes is a London freelance writer.
The best five lesser-known bits of beef
Nathan Mills calls these his ''cheeky butchers' cuts'' because they're interesting and economical.
1. Pope's eye
This is the quintessential butcher's steak. My favourite cut, it's also known as the spider steak in the US and Italy due to the network of fine marbling that runs out like a spider's web within the meat. I call it the Pope's eye as it's a better definition of its location on the beast (in essence the sphincter muscle). It's a small, forgiving piece of meat that sits in the aitch bone making up part of the pelvis. It has loads of flavour and I find it as tender as any other, more popular cut. Best flash-fried, season well just before throwing on a super-hot grill/griddle/pan and cook to your liking - this cut can handle it. Out of a whole animal you are lucky to get 300 grams of this meat.
2. Flatiron or featherblade
Increasingly popular in the US and Britain, this is an economical cut from within the shoulder. It's usually braised but, when seamed out into two flat steaks, it can be flash-fried.
From the breast of beef, this is usually rolled for pot roasts. But it's becoming popular here for long, hot smoking, after which it's great shredded on a bun.
4. Hanger steak
This is classed as offal in Britain. It is known as onglet in France and ''butler steak'' in Britain, because it was what they fed the butler. It comes from between the 12th and 13th ribs. Cook it rare, or grill, barbecue or flash-fry it. It's good value, too.
5. The chuck
The chuck is taken from the neck and is generally stewed or minced. If it's seamed out, you end up with two versatile cuts of meat. The top cap of the chuck is known as the Denver cut. It's great for slow cooking for pulled beef, or sliced thin for steaks that take strong marination and flash frying. The bottom half of the chuck, the chuck eye, has some of the same values as the rib eye: heavily marbled and full of flavour. It benefits from long, slow cooking.