Adam Sappington on Butchery

One of Portland's biggest proponents of whole-animal butchery tracks back the love affair.

April 5, 2016 ● 4 min read

Adam Sappington is the chef and co-owner of The Country Cat Dinnerhouse & Bar in Portland, Oregon. He's a rad, friendly dude with a solid handshake and a reputation for being one of the preeminent butchery chefs in the United States. 

My first real experience with butchery was butchering a pig.

The restaurant was Wildwood. I started working there in '95, and then I took over the kitchen in '98 — that’s when I realized I knew all of my produce providers by name, but I didn't know any of my ranchers.

I wasn't raised to hunt animals, none of that, but I was always really drawn to butchery. I loved working with my hands, and I just loved meat. There was a point in my career where every year, I would study a different aspect of cooking. One year I just studied vegetables. All I did was read about vegetables, try every vegetable that I could, cook as many as I could. I would cook chard for five days in a row in different ways. It was important for me to have a larger understanding of why certain vegetables behaved the way they did. It was the same for meat; I needed to know, so I could teach people, and get myself into a position where I could be an authority. If I'm not an authority on something, I'm just a bystander.

When I got out of culinary school, I wanted to be a butcher, but I didn't want to sit and cut fucking top round all day long. I wanted the romanticism of getting the animals from the ranch, butchering them in-house, and then being able to use all of those parts in the restaurant. That was my focus from the start.

I figured pig was probably the easiest to start with. It's a large animal, it has a lot of muscle groups, and I knew how to cook everything on the animal. I got in touch with Geoff Latham, who owns Nicky Game here, and said, "Hey man. I want to start buying whole animals and pigs." No one was doing that, I think it was like a $1.19 a pound at that point; it just didn't exist.

So he gets me the pig. They pull up. I remember the delivery driver was this big, old dude. He comes out to get me, because he needs help. Remember, I had just ordered “a pig,” I didn't really specify. The fucking thing was like 250 pounds, man. Whole, like luau-style. Not sides.

I take this fucking pig inside, laying it out on cutting boards because I didn't have a butcher board. I had some idea of how the muscles laid into the animal, but not to the point where I was efficient. Standing there, I had my whole team of cooks going, "All right Adam, what're you going to do?"

We just started cutting. Took the head off, then the shoulders. As I got into it, it was the same thing that happens almost every time — it's like you're opening up a book and then you start to really realize where all the muscles lay. And that, to me, was the story that helped provide me with the skills to be a better cook. I realized why there was so much fat in the shoulder and the neck, why the leg was lean, how the shanks are different. It makes you approach flavor profiles differently. 

Then I started looking at how French butchers butcher, and Italian butchers, and then Chinese butchers, because the palates of those cultures lend themselves to different cuts. You look at the breakdown of what an animal muscle structure is with an Italian diagram, a French diagram, and an Asian diagram and there's differences on all three, depending on what that culture values.

Americans just take the big fucking pieces and roast them. Everyone wants the trophy chop. They want the pork chop. We made a porchetta and people didn’t even know what to do with it. They would eat it, but: “Oh, it's too fatty.”

It was a great exercise for myself, but most importantly, for my cooks. It was like, this is the deal. This was a live living thing. It's not in a fucking box. It was a live, living thing. This is the best way to do it. We would use everything. The cooks walked away with a grander sense of accomplishment for what they learned that day at the restaurant. They also understood a new technique, because they were forced to think outside of the box. We would win because the price point was great. Nothing’s wasted. It's peace through achievement, I think.

My advice? You’re always going to be under the gun, so go slow. Understand where your knife is, what you're cutting into. Every cook wants to be fast and that's the stupidest mistake. Speed comes later. Do your research, find out what it is that you want to accomplish through the act of butchery. Find out the part of the animal that you want to learn the most about.

I would love to see more kitchens practice whole animal butchery. It's not that hard, you just have to balance the labor into it. It’s not as cheap as it used to be, but being able to use every ounce of the animal provides a better learning environment for the kitchen, provides a better experience for the customer. It tells more of a story. I like the fact that people are being very precise about charcuterie, and bringing that into their world, because that's a huge piece of butchery. I think being able to support local ranchers on a level where the relationship is still involved in the purchasing is a really important piece.

I would love to see people buy more whole animals, and I would love to be able to have more cooks come out of kitchens understanding why animals exist and how to cook them correctly. Period.

A certain chef told me I was spending too much time on this, that it wasn’t going to get me anywhere.

Then 10 years passed…and I was right on target.

As told to Cassandra Landry