I fell into butchery. It’s not a profession you tend to fall into: butchery skills and shops are usually passed down through families, or it’s a profession that someone who has worked with livestock – farmers, farm hands, cattlemen – side-steps into. Me? I had my 17-year old sights set firmly on becoming a mechanic. But then there was a financial crisis that Keating said we had to have and that industry was dead. I saw an advertisement for a butcher, and thought I’d give it a try. I stuck with it, and I found that I actually really liked it.
I meandered through a number of small butcher shop apprentices and ended up at Vic’s Meats in the wholesale sector. After about 10 years, I decided it was time to move on and joined another wholesaler, Denovo Foods, for three years. I segued into sales at a food processing company, which wasn’t for me, when I saw Neil’s ad for an in-house butcher. The deadline to apply had already closed, but it seemed like a good fit so I applied.
There was instant comradery between Neil and I: we both understood provenance and good produce and were emphatic about looking after it, respecting it. The rest is history. I’ve been here almost eight years. It’s a very unusual role – I don’t know any other on premise, in-house restaurant butchers. So I do feel very lucky.
My weekly routine begins with ordering and stock control early in the week. On a Monday I’ll have a chat with Head Chef Corey Costello and we’ll decide if we need to order extra produce, or cut back. I have to keep on top of ordering; I’m ordering two weeks in advance but because we’re buying direct from farmers – David Blackmore, Cape Grim in Tasmania and Richard Gunner in South Australia – we don’t have flexibility to change our mind.
I take deliveries early in the week, then Thursdays and Fridays are my busiest days, when I do most of the cutting. I’m primarily a one man band with help from Chef Santiago Aristizabal on Fridays: the busiest day of all.
The chaos of cutting day requires being a bit like Nostradamus and predicting what guests are going to order. To a certain extent it’s fairly standard: we’ll need a certain amount of rib eye on the bone, a certain amount of fillet.
We buy two David Blackmore’s full blood Wagyu ox carcasses a month, costing on average $7000 each, as well as one David Blackmore’s Mishima. In addition, from Cape Grim we get about 30 rib sets and six sets of short ribs, or T-bones, a week. On an average weekday I’ll be cutting 40 ribs a day. By end of the week, it’s well over 100 ribs a day.
From Cape Grim we also buy around 80 fillets a week. We also buy some boutique items from Richard Gunner, at the moment its T-bone, rump and loin.
We dry age on site, usually for between 37 and 67 days. T-bones we tend to dry age for 21 days.
There’s no course or qualification in dry ageing; you have to learn from trial and error. After 21 days, the natural enzymes that break down the meat die off, and if you take it any further it’s just for flavour. It’s like reducing stock, you’re intensifying flavour the further you take it.
Neil is the only one who takes it this far – to 60 days – in Australia. We’ve taken it all the way to 100 days, when we over-ordered in the early days, but it was too much. The flavour was very intense, almost like blue cheese. So we took it back, and found the sweet spot.
At Rockpool Bar & Grill we cook over wood fire, which imparts flavour on our steaks. It balances out the intense dry aged flavour. If you cook the same steak in a fry pan, the dry aged taste is a lot stronger.
Monitoring and managing our dry ageing room is also my responsibility. There is a method to be adhered to: you have to create all the conditions that are bad for bacteria. The cuts must be stored bone side down, nothing can touch, there needs to be lots of air flow, a blue ozone light that kills bacteria, and you must retain a super-cold temperature. Under the right conditions the meat will take on a nice crust, but not mould.
One of the reasons that I love my job so much is because I manage my own section: I get to control it, there is no one to blame but me if anything goes wrong. I have to take full control to make it spot on, and I like to make it spot on. I also love the comradery of the chefs that I work with.
I start at 5am, out of choice, because I like to finish before 3pm, which is when the chef shift change happens: like taxis. That’s when there are too many chefs in the kitchen. You don’t want to be in the kitchen during shift change! It also allows me to get home to Cronulla and spend some time with my kids – they’re two and three years old.
My favourite day of the week is Friday. It’s really busy. On Fridays we just get stuck into it – bang, bang – and then the weekend’s there. The atmosphere in the kitchen is contagious.
I was aware when Neil offered me this job that this was a special job in the industry, but not to the degree that it actually is special. I didn’t understand the comradery of chefs, which is infectious. I’ve considered becoming a chef, but the hours and life are insane. It’s not a family-friendly job. I think I’ll stick to butchery!
I cook a lot at home, though. I’m very lucky because I get to ask the chefs that I work with a million questions about whatever it is I want to cook. They’re a truly talented bunch. They give me lots of tips. I cook lots of different things: meat, fish, vegetarian – you name it. Despite being a butcher, I cook vegetarian about three times a week: usually veggie curries. The team gives me lots of tips.
Favourite places to eat in Sydney
My favourite place to eat in Sydney would have to be Spice Temple. I just love the hot Szechuan authentic flavours. Next on my list is La Disfida in Haberfield. They really nail simple Napalese pizzas.
Favourite family friendly dining places in the Shire
In the Shire you really can’t go past Paul’s Hamburgers: it’s an institution in the Shire and they always make an awesome milk bar-style hamburger. A really good fish and chips can always be had at Michael’s Seafood in Cronulla. After a day at the beach with the family, it’s a must have.
Favourite produce markets and/or grocery stores
I like Paddy’s Market for its fresh fruit and vegetable stalls and great prices. For some special ingredients, I like going to Fratelli Fresh.
Favourite place to go for a drink in or around Sydney
Going out for beers doesn’t happen much with two little kids, however, I do recommend The Blind Bear, which is a small pop-up style bar in Cronulla with a funky vibe. Also Cronulla RSL is also good on a hot summer’s day, as its newly refurbished and has a great view of the beach.
Favourite Australian produce
Bangalow Pork is an example of great Australian produce that I like to use at home. It never fails to impress, when we have people over.