The students are serious and absorbed by their work. They know they have a lot to learn, and they go about their business quietly, concentrating on their assignment.
But their classroom and course of study is hardly ordinary.
They spend part of their week learning how to humanely slaughter animals and the rest learning how to break those animals down to the cuts of meat typically found in a grocery store: sirloin tips, filet mignon, T-bone and porterhouse steaks, as well as lamb loin chops, spare ribs and pork ribs.
They wear hairnets and smocks and handle saws, knives and industrial meat grinders. In a recent class, they were working with beef, but their curriculum also teaches them about pork, lamb, goat and poultry.
The class, an intensive four-week certification course in meat processing and food safety, meets in the meat lab at SUNY Cobleskill, a school known for its agriculture courses. According to the course description, “Students will obtain a basic understanding of the steps involved in livestock processing from slaughtering to the actual retail cut we see at the store. … Students will be skilled in sanitation, food safety, slaughter, meat cutting and processing.”
The students are the next generation of butchers.
In recent years, this once-dying, old-fashioned trade has seen a resurgence, driven by a growing market for meat that’s raised, killed and processed locally.
Eric Shelley, course instructor and manager of the Meat Processing Laboratory at SUNY Cobleskill, said concerns over the potential for E. coli outbreaks and the desire for fresh meat that contains no antibiotics or growth hormones has also fueled the trend. Many people who once eschewed meat have become interested in eating it again, as long as its raised and processed in a way they consider ethical and environmentally sound, he said.
“Every time there’s an E. coli scare, people go running to the farmers market to get local meat,” Shelley said.
This is the fifth year SUNY Cobleskill has offered the certification course. It is the only school in the SUNY system that operates a USDA-approved meat processing facility, and the meat lab processes livestock raised on campus, as well as from local farmers.
“My students learn to do everything a regular grocery store would do,” Shelley said. “I can’t make someone a butcher in a month, but I can give them a solid foundation.”
Shelley’s students come from a variety of backgrounds and a variety of places.
“The students are looking to go into the industry and do processing,” Shelley said. “Some have culinary backgrounds, some have farming backgrounds, some are high-school graduates.”
One of Shelley’s students is 37-year-old Josh Peil from Brooklyn. On a recent weekday, Peil was working with chuck steak, a rectangular cut of beef that includes the shoulder bone.
“I’m going to be making flat iron steaks,” he said. “It’s really hard. Hopefully I won’t screw it up like I did last time.”
Peil said the course has been educational.
“I’m learning so much,” he said.
Peil recently quit his job as office manager for a Japanese television company with the goal of working in the food industry, preferably in “farm-to-table” restaurants that create meals from local produce, meat and dairy products. He said he used to work in a restaurant, and he’s always had a passion for cooking and knife work.
“Desk work wasn’t for me,” he said.
Also offering courses in butchery is Fleisher’s Grass-Fed and Organic Meats, a butcher shop with locations in Kingston and New York City. The shop offers three different courses: a one-day class in which students witness a slaughter, usually of pigs, and learn about the process of turning the animal into a saleable food product; a more intensive three-day course that’s more hands-on; and a three-month apprenticeship program.
Students who take this course “are literally learning to be a butcher,” said Jessica Applestone, who opened Fleisher’s in 2004 with her husband, Josh, and began offering butchery courses about five years ago. She said people who take the three-month course learn how to butcher animals, but also how to teach others to do so.
Teaching “secures your knowledge,” she said. “If you can guide others, it shows that you really know what you’re doing.”
Applestone said she and her husband decided to start teaching butchery because they kept getting phone calls from people interested in learning the trade. Many of the apprentices, she said, have gone on to work for them.
“We’ve hired a lot of the people we’ve trained,” she said.
Fleisher’s specializes in pasture-raised animals that have not been treated with hormones or antibiotics. The shop takes its name from a defunct kosher New York City butcher shop run by Applestone’s grandfather and great-grandfather; by becoming a butcher, her husband is returning to his roots, Jessica Applestone said.
Prior to opening Fleisher’s, Josh Applestone was a vegan, and Jessica Applestone was a vegetarian. When she decided she wanted to eat meat again, she began looking for a place where she could buy locally raised meat and learn how to cook it, and realized such places were in short supply. This observation inspired the Applestones to start Fleisher’s.
Josh Applestone had started eating fish after a motorcycle accident, and after running Fleisher’s for six months, he began eating other kinds of meat, his wife said.
“There’s a huge demand for butchers,” Jessica Applestone said.
The Niskayuna Co-op has had butchers on site for about 70 years, said manager Don Bisgrove.
“For a long time, [butchery] was a dying art,” he said, but in recent years it has undergone a revival. More and more of the co-op’s customers are seeking local meat and requesting specialized cuts. The co-op sells grass-fed beef from Wm. H. Buckley Farm in Valley Falls; the meat arrives at the store in hindquarters, which then are broken down by butchers.
“There’s a skill to cutting it, and the butchers know how to cut it,” Bisgrove said.
Pam Blasting is one of the co-op’s butchers. She learned her trade the old-fashioned way, at the feet of an experienced butcher named Charlie Brouillette, who worked at the co-op until he died in 2007. Blasting got her start wrapping meat and found butchery intriguing.
“I always watched the butchers cut the meat,” she said. “I found it very interesting to watch, and the manager decided to teach me little things at a time. He used to get sides and whole hams and take me into the back and show me how to break them down.”
Blasting said the work is creative. She said she makes a point of trying to make the meat look good because it is more likely to sell.
“Everyone has their own way of cutting,” she said.
On a recent weekday, nine would-be butchers worked quietly in the meat lab at SUNY Cobleskill, the huge hindquarters of beef dangling from the ceiling. Students broke down large slabs of meat, using knives and saws to turn them into delectable cuts. When they were finished, the cuts were vacuum-sealed in plastic.
One of Shelley’s students, 39-year-old Chris Bradley, moved to Cooperstown last fall after a decade in California working in the film industry. He said he and his wife would like to start a farm, and he decided to take Shelley’s course to learn more about processing animals.
Bradley said his farm will likely specialize in pork and possibly lamb, and learning how to kill animals humanely is of “paramount concern.”
“This is a critical component of getting food to the table,” he said. “People know what cows look like on the farm, and on their plate, but they don’t [know about the rest of the process].”
Of the animal processing course, Bradley said, “It’s been a blast.”