by The Healthy Butcher, a ‘Certified Good Food Fighter

On September 17th, we held our annual “Top Butcher” competition.  (A video can be watched here: 2011 Healthy Butcher “Top Butcher” Competition Video.

Initially the opponents were to be Candice Zaina (Eglinton Healthy Butcher) vs Kyle Lew (Queen St. Healthy Butcher).  Unfortunately, during training, Candice badly injured a finger and had to drop out of the competition.  Stepping in, and with very little time to “time-train” on breaking pork, Ryan Klauke represented the Eglinton Store in this battle.

The “Top Butcher” competition is not only an opportunity for our butchers to challenge themselves and their peers, it offers our customers a real look at the “old school” skills that go into today’s “nose to tail” butchery.  Each competitor had 1/2 pork to break into retail cuts.  They were evaluated on speed and accuracy and presentation.

Being first to finish only matters if your cuts are beautiful too!

The competitors used the traditional technique of “breaking from the rail” with the 1/2 pork suspended from a hook in the ceiling.  This can be both an advantage and disadvantage for the butcher.  The advantage is that you have gravity to help you and your knife in breaking off the sections so you don’t need to use as much of your own muscle power in the task.  The disadvantage is that the hook isn’t locked into a still position… it moves and so does your meat.  Having a moving target requires focus, skill and a keen knowledge of the best way to use all of this to your advantage. (the only way to learn that is through experience)

It was amazing to see how skilled and focused these two butchers were, given the PA system with a play by play announcer, the crowd shouting, and the music blaring.  A normal day in the butchery has none of these ingredients.

A coin flip determined who would get the advantage of the full butchery versus the smaller central table nearest the meat case.  That central table is smaller and not designed for butchery (if you’re using a bone saw, you’ll need someone to steady it)  From the moment it began, you could see two different butchering styles, and two personal histories of knife skills and technique at work. It was fascinating to see how each butcher prioritized their cuts.  At times it was difficult to see who was ahead of the other because their styles of attack were so divergent.

Thankfully we had Dave Meli, the executive butcher for The Healthy Butcher offering a play by play of what we were seeing.  He gave us insight into what each competitor was doing and noted when their techniques were different.  Without showing any signs of bias, Dave would tell us when something was remarkably well done.  Actually, his play by play was hilarious and dappled with “little known facts” about pork.

Most remarkable of all was the speed and accuracy of these butchers.  They clearly break pork all the time for retail sale, but not for time-trials, and not with cheering crowds to distract them.  From the moment they started, each had his own vision of how he’d take down the cuts.

In the end, Kyle finished with a time of 11:44 minutes and Ryan with a time of 11:55 minutes.  Being so close, it was definitely going to come down to the assessment of their retail cuts.  Dave Meli served as the judge and evaluated each cut.  He needed to see that the retail-ready cut was accurate, clean, no blade slashes, and done to the specifications and standards that we require in our stores.  Kyle had one penalty, which added 20 seconds to his time.  So now, at a time to beat of 12:04 it came down to Ryan’s evaluation.  Ryan had 3 penalties, adding 1 minute to his time, for a total time of 12:55.  Kyle would be our 2011 “Top Butcher” and the trophy would remain at Queen Street.

As a special thank you to the competitors, owners Mario Fiorucci and Tara Longo gave both butchers the choice of any of the knives sold in their stores.  Kyle chose the Moritaka Hand Forged Blue Steel Chef Knife and Ryan chose a Shun Premier Edition Damascus Chef Knife.  To see these knives and more visit: The Healthy Butcher Knife Collection

Also check out the video of this event: “2011 Healthy Butcher “Top Butcher” Competition Video”.