Most home cooks don't typically break down a whole lamb. Most restaurant chefs don't even do it. But for Barry Maiden, chef and owner of Hungry Mother, whole animal butchery is a weekly occurrence. Today, Barry spent the day with our class discussing and demonstrating the principles of nose to tail butchery. After the morning lecture, a whole lamb with head, eyes, and dangling tongue, was waiting for us in the kitchen—yikes!
Before getting out the cleavers and hacksaws, chef Barry talked a bit about the different parts of 4-legged animals (cow, pig, veal, lamb). The primal cuts (main sections) vary slightly between each animal, but the general anatomy is essentially the same. Just as cows have flank and hanger steaks, so do lambs. Just in miniature. We reviewed the primal cuts of different stock. For example, lamb (the smallest of the bunch) is broken down into neck, shoulder, rack, loin, leg, breast and shank. Cows are much larger, and are therefore butchered into more primal cuts including chuck, rib, loin, rump, round, shank, flank, plate, and brisket. At Hungry Mother, a Southern restaurant, they often get in whole pigs that are immediately broken down into primals so they can easily be stored in the walk-in cooler. Barry is a big proponent of using as much of the animal as possible. First to get thrown into the skillet are the offal—heart, kidney, liver, etc. Organ meat is best eaten when it's as fresh as possible while the larger primal cuts can hang out in the cooler for a couple of days.
It is during that dwell time that Barry and his team figure out how they're going to make the best use of all the animal's parts. Not only do the menu items need to be delicious, they also need to hit the sweet spot of perceived value (from the customer) and profit for the restaurant. This is where things like butcher loss (ratio of overall weight to consumable weight) and food cost (ideally 25% of selling price) come into play. In the restaurant business, profit margins are always tight, so eeking out the most portions from an animal is the most economical way to go.
After the chat on restaurant economics, the class moved into the kitchen to come face to face with "Mr. Lamb". Some were squeamish, but in the end, everyone took a turn with the boning knife, cleaver, or hacksaw as we broke down the animal under Barry's guidance. First off was the head, then the neck—both cuts required the saw to get through the chine bone (term for spine on 4-legged animals). The lamb was then cut in half crosswise and separated into hind and fore legs, and saddle. As Barry carefully sliced and sawed the lamb into parts, it slowly began to transform from dead animal to meat. It's eye opening to watch the process unfold. I think anyone who eats meat should be capable of butchering a whole animal into parts (or at least watching). Because of factory farms and commodity slaughterhouses, we are so far removed from the business of animal processing. It's easy to forget about it. But participating in today's lamb project made me realize that as carnivorous humans, we should be responsible for the animals we eat. That means making sure they're raised properly and embracing the fact that a juicy steakhouse t-bone comes from a whole animal—with a head, eyes, and a tongue.