Of all the classes that the Natural Gourmet Cookery School has offered during its 40-year history, the one nobody ever expected was an animal butchery course that begins with the actual slaughter of cows and pigs.
Founded in 1977 to teach plant-based, health-supportive macrobiotic cooking, the school, now located on West 21st Street, has long trained culinary students in the wonders of umeboshi, lentils, ghee, miso, kelp, wild mushrooms and other staples of the eco pantry while graduating enlightened chefs like Amanda Cohen, Bryant Terry and Caroline Fidanza.
But a visionary new CEO, fresh from Slow Food, has the school at the forefront of sustainability — which includes experimental partnerships with farms and nonprofits that allow students the option of getting their hands dirty. Or, in this case, bloody.
Last year, the traditionally vegetarian school began offering optional meat classes, but director Anthony Fassio wants students to understand issues well past the cutting board. So he approached Jake Dickson of Dickson’s Farmstand Meats and next month will hold their first hands-on Sustainable Meat Certificate Program. It begins with visits to farms and slaughterhouses and then takes students through whole animal butchery — from carcass to charcuterie.
“I teach what we know,” says Dickson. “Whole animal butchery and sourcing, within the context of larger industry.”
Students will spend the first two days upstate, visiting a beef farm, a beef slaughterhouse, a pig farm and a pig slaughterhouse, where they’ll witness what even most butchers have never seen: animals rendered senseless, throats slit and bled out. This should make for especially interesting conversation over dinner with a farmer who sold his last hogs to Dickson last fall before going vegetarian. He’ll talk to students about his choices over a meatless meal.
Students spend the rest of the program learning to butcher beef, pork and lamb at Dickson’s shop in Chelsea Market, covering everything from deboning to removing silverskin, plus the likes of making sausage, pâtés, rillettes and charcuterie.
But what makes this class unique is the focus on sourcing — how to find raised-right meat, develop a relationship with farmers and then use the whole animal. “There’s so much trim,” says Dickson, of working from a whole carcass rather than retail cuts. “That’s why we emphasize things like sausage, smoking and curing. Whole butchery is nearly [economically] impossible without sausage, bacon and ham. All those skill sets combine into allowing you to use the whole animal.”
And while ground meat doesn’t sound like the hottest offering around, it’s essential when working with whole animals. “It seems silly, but go into any kitchen — most pros don’t even know how to use the grinder.”
After 10 days, these students will. And they’ll know the real story behind it, too.
The program is open to the public and costs $4,200, which includes everything from knives to books to upstate lodging. They hope to offer it every six months.