Without butchers, we'd be looking at cows and pigs and shrugging about what to do next. Butchers are a crucial part of the farm to table pathway but often the most overlooked. We tend to focus on the chefs that cook the meat or the farmers that carefully raise the meat, but the artisanal meat spotlight has finally begun to shine on the craft of butchering.
In New Orleans, Leighann Smith, aka the Meat Mama of Cochon Butcher, has been relentlessly pursuing the perfection of pork parts and has done such a good job doing it, she was chosen this year as one of the Eater Young Guns Class of 2014, which honors 16 of the country's best "young chefs, restaurateurs, sommeliers, and hospitality industry professionals."
Cochon Butcher's sausage and charcuterie are often held up in culinary circles as some of the best in the city, and Smith's dedication to her craft is a huge reason as to why that is the case. Read on to find out what drives this young gun and proud part of the butchering tradition.
How did you get into butchering?
I moved to New Orleans specifically to become a butcher. I've pretty much always wanted to be one. Growing up, my grandfather hunted, which sort of started it all. There's not much opportunity in Northern California to learn what I wanted to learn, so I came here to learn at Cochon Butcher.
I came down here and took any job they threw at me, just worked hard, tried to read and learn as much as I could. Then when the position I'm in became available, I was ready to fill it, although it was open a lot sooner than I thought it would be.
Where do you get your hogs?
We get them from Rockin' R Dairy in Southern Mississippi, where they are raised for us. It's about two and a half hours away from New Orleans. I haven't had the chance to go out there - I'm just always so busy and so are they - but they are absolutely amazing gentlemen. They're like the nicest people ever.
How often do you get your hogs delivered?
We get whole hogs delivered every Tuesday and Thursday.
How long does it take you to break down a whole hog?
Well, the fastest I ever did it, I was really angry about something, was about 40 minutes. But usually we like to take our time - it'll take anywhere from a couple hours to a couple of years, depending on what we're doing with it.
Do you have any advice for people who want to pursue butchering?
Man, I'm so bad with advice. But it's a hard, hard job, but totally rewarding. I think there are more opportunities popping up all over the country with the farm to table trend, so that's good. Um, try not to cut yourself? Also, keep learning and reading - absorb as much knowledge as you possibly can.
What makes butchering so rewarding for you?
It's because of all the options you get. You can take the same piece of meat and do a number of different things with it. Like, every ham has a different flavor, every coppa. You're always learning - you can never know everything there is to know. To me, it's much more exciting than like a desk job, where you learn your job and then just do it every day.
What's your favorite under-appreciated or overlooked cut of pork?
The face. Whole roasted pig face is the best thing you can eat. Put a little chimichurri on top, and whoo!
What's it like being a woman in a traditionally man's profession?
Well, it's getting a little better, there are more women chefs in kitchens than there used to be, but it's still mostly men. I think I've only worked under one female chef in my entire career. But butchering is definitely not a traditional women's job - definitely a male dominated industry. That makes it very rewarding to be a successful female in this industry.