We sat down with Dave Bergin, Donald Russell’s Head of Butchery to ask him some questions about being a Butcher, changes he’s seen in the industry, and what he thinks the future holds.
You’ve been in the industry for quite a while, what do think makes the difference between a good Butcher and a great one?
As an experienced butcher, I believe that the difference lies in attention to detail. While I can certainly teach the craft of butchery to anyone, they must possess what I call the "butcher's eye" - an innate ability to spot even the smallest details in the meat.
A great butcher understands the importance of properly handling and preparing meat, from selecting the best cuts to ensuring that the meat is stored and transported at the correct temperature. They take a lot of pride in their work and are committed to providing the highest quality products to their customers, every time.
I don’t think the butcher's eye is something that can be taught - it is a natural talent that sets great butchers apart from the rest. It’s this attention to detail that ensures that the meat is of the highest quality and that every cut is precisely executed.
What do you think is the most important skill for a butcher to possess?
There are a lot of skills a Butcher needs, but if I had to choose the most important, it would be hand-eye coordination.
Hand-eye coordination is an essential skill for Butchers, as it enables them to work quickly and efficiently with a sharp knife without risking injury. You can improve on this with practice, but it needs to be there from the beginning.
In addition to hand-eye coordination, depth perception is also a crucial skill. This allows them to estimate precisely how much meat to cut. This way they can reduce waste and make each cut visually pleasing.
Finally, Butchers need to have the stamina to keep up with the hard physical demands of the job. This means things like standing for long periods of time, bending over worktables, and cutting meat for hours on end. It's maybe not a skill as such, but it’s an essential part of the job that separates successful Butchers from those who cannot handle the physical demands.
If you wanted to get an idea of how good another Butcher is, what would you be looking for?
There are several ways I would assess the skill and expertise of a fellow Butcher.
A great indicator is how clean their bones are when boning meat. A skilled butcher will remove as much meat as possible, leaving them clean and free of excess fat and connective tissue. This not only makes the meat easier to handle and prepare, but also ensures that the final product is visually impressive.
Secondly, a good Butcher will have respect for the product. This means handling the meat with care and not throwing it around, which can damage the meat. Do they take the time to handle each cut of meat with precision and respect?
Another way to assess the skill is to look at how they use their knife. A good Butcher will keep their knife sharp and use it with precision and control, so they can make clean and precise cuts. A dull knife results in ragged cuts, which will affect the final appearance and texture of the meat.
In the end, though, the finished product is the ultimate measure of a Butcher. A great Butcher will take pride in their work and ensure that it is of the highest quality. This means that the meat is properly prepared, trimmed, and packaged to meet the customer's needs.
You're a very experienced Butcher, are there any elements of butchery you would like to learn more about or skills you’d like to develop?
I firmly believe that the learning never stops in this profession. Every day brings up new challenges, whether it's coming up with new products or managing different situations that arise in the workplace.
One of the most exciting aspects of butchery is the opportunity to experiment with new products and techniques. This takes a willingness to learn and a certain level of creativity, as not every experiment will be successful. However, the satisfaction of creating something new and delicious makes it all worthwhile.
However, there are always new areas of the butchery profession to explore, and one area that I have yet to experience is the slaughter to factory side of the industry. This is an entirely different aspect of butchery, with its own unique challenges and opportunities for learning.
Has much changed in the industry since you started out?
I've seen a lot of changes over the years, and perhaps the biggest has been the introduction of technology. Today, we have machines that can easily do many of the tasks once done by hand. For example, there are slicing machines that can cut steaks to within 5 grams, and tying machines that can roll a joint of meat in just 20 seconds. Automated band saws can cut through bones in seconds, eliminating the need for hand-sawing.
While technology has made the process more efficient and streamlined, there is a lot to be said for the traditional approach. As an "old school" Butcher, I still prefer to do things the traditional way, - but with the help of technology. This lets me keep the attention to detail and quality control that is so important.
When using machines, there is always a risk of losing the "Butcher's eye" on the final product. However, with the right balance of technology and traditional techniques, it is even easier to achieve the desired results. A slicing machine can cut steaks to a specific weight, for example, but it takes a skilled eye to ensure that each steak is properly trimmed and presented.
Finally, what do you think the future holds for butchery?
As a seasoned Butcher, I firmly believe that butchery will always be a necessary skill. It has been around since ancient times and is every bit as relevant today. While technology has advanced and could even take over some aspects, it is important to blend traditional techniques with modern technology to ensure the craft is not lost.
The satisfaction I get from the job isn’t just in the final product, but also in passing on knowledge and skills to people who are interested in the art of butchery. Watching the development and growth of apprentices and seeing them excel is one of the biggest joys in my job.
There is something special about being able to take a whole animal and break it down into various cuts, using every part of the animal to create something delicious. It's about having respect for the animal and creating a great product for customers to enjoy.
Overall, I am optimistic about the future of butchery. While the industry will continue to change and adapt, there will always be a need for skilled Butchers who can supply both high-quality meat and excellent customer service. By embracing new technologies and staying true to traditional techniques, Butchers will continue to thrive and provide an essential service to anyone who loves great-tasting food.