When last we spoke I had just hired on at Niman Ranch in Oakland.
I started my days at 5 a.m. in a part of Oakland that has yet to earn its way up to sketchy. After donning the couture de boef, we all assembled in the cutting room in a balmy 28 degree draft. We had to wait around for the Federal Inspector to give the OK to begin for the day. I often felt as though I were presenting my fingernails for a chilhood pre-dinner inspection.
After inspection, we began cutting.
Now, you've all seen us cutting meat at Baron's, and many of you pass kind remarks on the size of our joints and loins. Allow me to say we are but Tokyo to the Godzilla of an industrial operation, even an indie operation the way Niman's was at the turn of the century.
Meat would not be brought in by the case, nor even by the pallet (many cases), but in what's know as a Combo box: 2,000 pounds of ice-cold beef, pork and lamb, waiting to be turned into steaks, chops and roasts.
All day long, box after box after box.
Do you realize that 35 beef carcasses weigh about 24,000 pounds, give or take?
600 pork carcasses can be upwards of 120,000 pounds.
We had forlifts, but when 75 whole lambs get delivered, they have to be unloaded by hand, and by that I mean off the hook, over your shoulder, and back onto a hook in the back of the cooler. Just because I know you're wondering: that's about 3,000 pounds of lamb.
But, I digress.
Suffice it to say, I cut a lot of meat. A lot. Even better, I got to watch some superbly skilled meat cutters in action. Some worked at chemically-enhanced speed, others worked with the methodical precision of a surgeon. All of them worked extremely hard. Overtime was abundant and weekend work was optional and welcome. On the other hand, the pace of work could be brutal.
There's a point in every job you have, when you discover that the job you've always wanted turns into the job your father said you'd end up with if you didn't listen to him.
For a chef, it's usually when you are introduced to a 50-pound bag of carrots with corpulent Sous Chef screaming, "I need these yesterday!"
When I was on Wall Street as an intern, it was a collating project that lasted 13 days.
In the circus, it was when I was handed a pitchfork and told to be on the alert when Anna May the elephant raised her tail during a performance.
Eventually, a job came up in the customer service office, so I took it. I got to talk to every great chef in the Bay Area every day. I got to talk food with people who know more about food than I ever will, and I got to give advice to people who don't. I learned all about meat from Bill Niman, who knows more about meat than anybody. (My words, not his, but it's true). I got to work indoors in a temperature controlled enviornment (controlled to 68 not 28 degrees). For a while, I started my day at 7 a.m. instead of 5 a.m. For a while (by choice) I started my day at 3 a.m. and went home at noon. (Way nicer than it sounds). Soon a management position opened up back in the plant.
It was for a Quality Control Manager spot. Basically, I would lay eyes and hands on every order that left the plant. With my background as a butcher and customer service rep, not only did I know what the cuts were supposed to look like, but also I knew what the customer wanted. It was a good fit. The extra money was nice, (we had three kids by now), there was a title involved, and I got a clipboard! All was well.
Or was it?
(Well, really it was.) But if you remember, I had this cooking school degree; I spent all this time talking to these great chefs while at Niman. I also spent time talking to some very succesful people who owned some very succesful food businesses. Several had burger joints. For some reason that resonated with me, I began to explore the options of opening my own place. I registered with a real estate agent and scouted several locations around the Bay. A place in San Raphael, a place in Berkeley that would later become a famous raw restaurant. Nothing was clicking, but I plowed on.
I was on one of these expeditions when I got a call on my cell. I pulled the brick from my pocket tugged the antenna from its nest with my teeth and pressed the green enter button.
"Hi! This is Donna from the Alameda Natural Grocery. Would you like to open a Gourmet Butcher Shop in the Marketplace?"
I said, "Yes. Yes I would."
'Til next time. Happy Holidays!