Butcher on start-up block
Meat expert hoping to open school for would-be butchers in Chicago
10/03/2012 10:00 PM
Kari Underly has spent most of her life around meat.
No, not with turkey or bologna sandwiches, or fried chicken; Underly has spent most of her time around raw meat, whole beef carcasses.
She is a third-generation butcher, a craft that’s regaining prominence in the food world. And as more and more restaurants and artisan shops devote time and space to high quality cuts, Underly thinks there’s a need for someone to take the lead and train a new wave of meat-cutters.
So, she’s aiming to start a one- or two-year butcher school in the city of Chicago, a place where culinary students could come and learn a hard skill that’s increasingly needed in the food world today.
Underly has had a lot of experience with meat. She grew up in a butcher shop outside South Bend, in a small town named Lydick. There, her father ran a small shop that was part restaurant, part ice cream parlor and, of course, part butcher shop. That’s where she began her career as a butcher.
“I started at 11 or 12, but it’s not like I was cutting meat and running a band saw,” she said. “I was always around it. We would sometimes get to push the meat down the meat grinder — that was always fun.”
In high school, after her father’s shop closed and he moved on to a supermarket, he got her a part-time job cleaning up the butcher department.
When she started at Indiana Wesleyan University, she tried to escape the craft. Shooting for a business degree, she wanted to be a grocery store executive — not someone who works with carcasses every day.
But soon, when she was looking for part-time work, she found that it was hard to turn down a butchery gig.
“I put my way through college cutting meat, thinking ‘How am I going to get out of being a butcher?’ It’s a lot of work,” she said. “There weren’t a lot of college kids or women that were cutting meat. That’s not something you set out to do to get a job. It was really finances. I was asking ‘How much does he make, how much does she make?’”
She quickly discovered that the butchery department paid much better, and she was back at it again.
Underly formally joined the industry. After some time, she joined the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a trade association for cattle ranchers. There, she worked with a team that “invented” new cuts of meat, as she puts it, by using software to analyze beef and find the most efficient pieces to use.
“Producers weren’t getting enough value for their animals — there was too much weight that was going unused,” Underly said. “So if we could find these muscles, then we could charge more, because then that brings up the value of the animals. Sixty dollars to $80 per cow has been increased because of this program.”
Underly split from the association in 2001 to be an independent contractor, and today, she’s called all over the nation to consult on how to run meat programs at everything from restaurants to grocery store chains.
In many places she’s gone, Underly said she’s seen a growing demand for high-quality butchers, people who have been schooled in the trade in great detail.
“Back in the ’70s we switched to boxed beef, we devoided the whole industry of skilled butchery, because it became like a factory assembly line of meat,” she said. “But now, we have this resurgence of people going back to hands-on, back to handmade. Woodwork, and the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker.”
Culinary school just doesn’t cut it for butchery, she added.
“There’s really no formalized training available for people who want to get back into the trade. If you go to a decent culinary school, you’ll walk out of there having paid $40,000 to $50,000, and in a culinary program, you’ll get if you’re lucky, four to six weeks. And that’s meat identification. They don’t get to cut anything up, they don’t learn how to butcher. They might learn how to cut up a chicken and a boneless pork loin or something.”
With her butcher school, she’d give kids an extra boost.
“What I’d like to do is take a year, or two-year program and they can walk out with a usable skill that they can take to a chef, or a grocery store, or a butcher shop,” she said. “These people come out of school, and they think they’re going to be on TV, they’re going to be rock stars. But no, they still need those hand skills that people will come back to. People want that. They want to have a prideful skill again.”
Underly is currently scouting locations in Chicago, focusing on the West Loop area because of its old industrial buildings (and because that’s where she currently has her consulting office). The ideal place would be a minimum of 50,000 square feet, she said, and would include a butcher shop where people can buy her students’ wares, as well as branded knives and other accessories. It’ll have four to six full-time instructors, as well.
Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd), whose ward covers some of the West Loop, has been partnering with Underly to help her find a location. The project could be a big boon, he said.
“We have met a number of times. I think her concept in creating a butcher school is just part of the culinary art. Her ability and her television appearances have attracted national attention. We have all these steakhouses, chophouses that could benefit from people she could tutor,” he said. “There are a couple places in both the West Loop and the South Loop that make sense. But it’s a matter of dollars and cents.”
This article has been changed from a version that originally appeared online and in print to clarify that the school is targeting a minimum of 50,000 square feet, not 500,000. The school would also have four to six full-time instructors, rather than employees. The school would have more employees than that.