Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Butcher's Apprentice

First of all, I'd like to take a minute to Congratulate Tory Miller, Chef at L'Etoile in Madison, WI on being named a finalist for the James Beard Awards, Best Chef Midwest. For those of you who aren't aware, the beard awards are like the Academy Awards for Chefs and Foodies. It is one of the highest honors in the food world, and I am honored to have played even the smallest part in his nomination. Great guy, Great Chef, and the guy who took me in when no responsible Chef should have really hired me. I have scouted the competition, and this could just be me being biased, but I think he's got it in the bag. I'll be in NYC for the award ceremony, either in the audience, or on the street outside, L'* hat on. Cheering on the guy who gave me the job that changed my life, and the kitchen crew who taught me everything I know.

Looking back only a few weeks, it is amazing to see how drastically my plans for the next few years have changed, at the drop of a hat. A month ago, I had a plan, to work my ass off in the pits in NYC, for celebrity chefs and at nationally renowned restaurants, while hoping to get an opportunity to cut some meat every now and then, or crank out a few yards of sausage every so often. But why bullshit myself, I thought. I don't really like plating salads or prepping garde manger menus, basically things that I'd have to do, for a while, and do really freaking well in order to be moved to positions where I'd have an opportunity to do what I'd really like to do. So why don't I skip all that crap, life is short, I don't want to waste it doing something I don't enjoy, or take up time that could be spent mastering a craft.

I have always had these illusions of grandeur. These images of myself, 21 years old, in a white coat, being the head charcuterie cook at a Boulud restaurant. That's not realistic, though. It's hard to avoid those kind of thoughts when the school I attend breeds cockiness, and pumps out a lot of pretentious, audacious cooks who believe that they are the next big thing in food, even though they've only spent about 5 months in a professional kitchen. And to some extent, they have the right to feel that. For the amount of money we spend on our Education, we should be at the cutting edge of the industry, but the quality of the education does not match the price. The price matches the amount of money most parents, unfamiliar to the food world, are willing to pay to keep their kids in school a little longer, and have the security of that CIA degree, when realistically in today's world, an untrained, hard-working, line-savvy cook may even be more valuable than a little punk in chef whites who can write down recipes and spit back the mother sauces from memory. But the one thing the CIA does better than anyone else, is that it opens up the world to young cooks. Things I wouldn't have dreamed of doing, or even known to exist two years ago, are at the forefront of my to do list today. Without the CIA I would have never been to Madison, without the CIA I'd still be a snotty little wannabe Top Chef with a "Culinary Boner" T-Shirt, and most importantly I'd still be looking at my journey in entirely the wrong way. I'd be trying to follow a path some other famous guy had taken. I'd be trying to stage at the French Laundry, I'd be trying to be promoted to sous chef at a Michelin Restaurant, I'd most likely be picking parsley leaves for the next two and a half years, and personally, I'd be miserable.

I have a luxury that not a lot of people had even a few years before me. There's a movement going on right now, nationwide. Chef's are slowly turning back to the artisanal means of curing meats, butchering whole animals, and specializing in just that. People before me had to work in restaurants, and over time figure out that buying whole animals and butchering them in house, making sure that every last bit of the animal is utilized was actually financially and morally responsible. These chefs eventually left the restaurants entirely to start their own meat centric ventures, and to educate the masses on their newly rediscovered craft. And every craftsman needs an apprentice: some wide eyed, eager to learn, psycho-kid who desparately wants to spend the rest of his life elbow deep in pig, to pass on his trade to. That's where I come in. I want to learn from these pioneers of American Charcuterie, these lone butchers. I want to master everything they can teach me, and then, take some crazy little fuck into MY shop and teach him how to debone a pork loin while leaving the belly attached, so that he too can enjoy the magnificence that is porchetta.

So kids, that means that New York City is a no go for now. There are windows open in other parts of the country that just make 90 times more sense than NYC right now. I will always have a love affair with the food in New York, but it'll be a long distance relationship for now.

"But if not New York, where else is there to go?" you may be asking. I've thought about it, looked around, studied my options, and there are two major possibilities of where I may find myself in three months after I graduate: Chicago, close to my roots, in a familiar setting with awesome food and a shit ton of really cool stuff happening; or across the country, in the Napa Valley, which is scary as shit considering I've never been West of Texas, but hey, I'm not so bad at being the new kid. I've done it so well so many times before.

I apologize if my next post is a little while away. Restaurants are kicking my ass and I'm frantically trying to find a job.

Until then, take care.



  1. Michael, i wish you the best in your future, but i dont think you realize how hypocritical and pretentious YOU are being in this post. Your even say yourself that L'Etoile "taught you everything you know", and with that said, you are still a novice. From one CIA grad to a soon to be, take it easy on that enormous ego of yours, until this post I though highly of your work. Cheers and good luck in the future

  2. Thanks for your input George and for the well wishes. Sorry I came off sounding the way I did. I was just trying to stress how much the crew at L'Etoile did for me. And about ragging on the CIA, that's probably just me being ready to jump ship and graduate already. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunities I've been given here. And I'd do it all over again if given the opportunity. Hope to have you back as a reader even if this post didn't agree with you. Thanks again, any input is really helpful to me.