Folks on Park Street may know me as Dave the Butcher from Baron's Meat & Poultry.
But often, when I meet people outside of Alameda, they ask me what I do for a living. When I tell them I'm a butcher, the usual response is "Oooo! that's really cool. How'd you end up doing that?" (Unless they're some form of veggie something, then I get cold stares and weepy stories about their favorite childhood pet).
It was a long and winding road to the white shirt and tie that I put on every day. I can hear you asking now "Well Dave, tell us how you became a butcher".
Ok, since you asked.
Years ago, after dropping out of my second college, having worked on Wall Street, in a hospital, the circus and then as a dishwasher, I found myself in my third college, the Culinary Institute of America.
One of the first classes that you take in any cooking school is an "Intro to Meat Fabrication" course. Imagine if you will, a refrigerated room, 18 eager cooking school neophytes, and a crusty old-school butcher, finishing out his remaining working years before retiring, training the next generation of chefs to order meat over the phone.
In the the room with this jolly group at 7 a.m. hung an entire side of beef. The instuctor walked up to it with a 6-inch knife, made two small cuts into the leg and peeled off a 10-pound roast. Magic! Well, I can tell you from then on I was hooked.
Two years, one Associates Degree later I was loosed upon the world as the latest "Best Chef in the Whole World".
Three years after that, I was making an impressive $12 an hour working for a catering company in Marin, not exactly setting the culinary world on fire making Chicken Satay and Pita Chips for holiday office parties.
Downtrodden and underpaid, I wandered into a kosher butcher shop/bagel bakery in Oakland. Trying to mooch a free bagel from the guy at the counter, I turned to my then 3-year-old daughter and said, "Daddy's grandpa was a kosher butcher". It was the Passover holidays at the time and the overworked butcher behind the counter turned to me and offered me a job on the spot (probably thinking I had more training than my three weeks at school five years earlier). Tired of skewering satay, and desperate for some kind of change, I eagerly accepted.
Well, like an old Frank Capra movie where the earnest street urchin makes an impossible one handed grab at a foul ball hit by some ersatz Babe Ruth and gets a big league contract, it turns out that I was a natural. At the very least I was a much better butcher than I was a cook!
As much as I enjoyed cutting meat and setting a nice meat counter, I really enjoyed working with customers — talking about food, what would make a good dinner, what could be a possible substitution. Once again it would seem that I was a natural.
From the little shop in the little town, I went to a big shop in a fancy town. Ending up in a very high-end shop in Marin I trained with a father/son duo who were a fascinating combination of old and new school thought. The dad, as you could imagine, was all about price point and presentation, and the son was very concerned with the new fangled concept of "natural" meat. I tasted my first "natural" meat at this shop, my first dry-aged steak and where I had what is to this day the best steak of my life. Truly a life-changing experience for your dear author.
This was one of the first retail shops that sold Niman Ranch meats and the place where I met Bill Niman for the first time.
But like all first loves, soon it was time to move on, to move forward, and to grow for the simple fact that life goes forward. That and I had kids to feed and they wouldn't pay me $15 an hour.
To further my career I decided I needed to cut more meat and cut bigger meat, so I applied to, and was hired to work at Niman Ranch at their plant in Oakland.
(End of Part 1)