David was born and raised in the Maple Bluff area of Wisconsin, and has always been an animal-lover and an artist. He is currently a whole animal butcher at the Conscious Carnivore, which offers grass-fed, humanely-handled, and hormone and antibiotic-free meats. They work with Wisconsin farmers to provide Madison and the surrounding area with ethically sourced and humanely-slaughtered animals.
When I meet somebody, it always starts off with small talk, but when they ask, “What do you do?” and I tell them I’m a butcher, that’s when it all sort of takes off.
“Oh my god that’s so cool.”
“How did you get into that?”
“How did you learn that?”
Questions like that. And then the whole conversation kinda is all about me. I don’t know—something different, not everybody does it, you know?
When I was 14, I worked at Noah’s Ark pet store one day a week after school. I carried heavy bags of pet food from the truck up these rickety old stairs. There was a butcher’s shop right next door: Jacobson’s. When I was sixteen, I decided I wanted to do that instead. It seemed cooler to do. Later on I met a girl, and we moved down to Chicago. That’s when I really got into whole animal butchery.
The first couple of years were really intense. 10-12 hour days with a lot of not-so-nice people. I was 21 at the time I moved there, and besides me the youngest man there was 50 years old. They were pretty old school…kind of hardened. “Just put it on the chopping block and go at it” type of thing. I kinda learned on my own. And that’s really the only way you can learn—hands on. You can’t read books and know how to do this stuff.
They molded and formed me to become a good butcher, so I’m thankful for that. And they did lighten up to me after a while. But the hardest thing was messing up. I would get very frustrated when I didn’t understand something I was told to do…and cutting myself a bunch at the beginning—that was not fun. Once I was given a forequarter beef, the middle, and I was told to take the bone off of the rib-eye. I didn’t really realize that the bone curved, so I cut straight. That was about a $400 piece of meat that I just basically ruined. That was tough… I was really hard on myself for that one.
So about three years ago I was looking to get back home to Madison; I missed my family. But every butcher shop was so boring and mass-produced — not what I was looking for. And then I was contacted about this position with the Conscious Carnivore. I liked the cause, I liked the fact that we’re supporting local farms, and that the animals were humanely handled and animal welfare approved. That’s why I hopped on it, to get back home and because it’s the right thing to do—because I believe in it. All of our animals are locally sourced, there are no hormones, no antibiotics, no pesticides in the grass, and no feedlots. It costs a little more for the farmer to do it this way. It costs more for me to sell it to you this way, but you can come in here and know that what you are eating is good, and it’s been treated right.
In Chicago, it wasn’t farm-to-table. It was a mass-produced feedlot, but I never thought of it, you know, because I never killed them and I never saw them…coming here really opened my eyes, and I would have it no other way and I would work at no other place because of that.
My previous job at Jacobson’s really didn’t require much training either. I opened a box, cut open a bag that contained the muscle of the animal, cut the muscle into steaks, and put it on the counter. Repeat. There’s no skill in that. Here, on the other hand, you’re getting the whole animal. You’re going to turn red, you’re going to sweat, and you’re going to need to take a break. You have to know where to cut, too. If you cut the wrong area, you could be selling a $19 rib-eye for the price of an $8 chuck. So there is more skill and technique involved. It adds value to what I do and makes it absolutely more enjoyable.
Common misconceptions of butchers…? That they’re mean. That they’re dirty, that they’re bloody (Turns to ask his coworkers) What do you guys think? (They laugh in agreement). Yeah I would say “mean” is the first thing—that you have to be some 500-pound guy with a cleaver over your shoulder, or something. But no… quite the opposite.
Actually a really important thing is personality. And you either have it or you don’t… I really feel strongly about that. If you don’t have a good personality, you are probably not going to succeed. A butcher who has not worked with the public before can come on pretty strong and not be the nicest. You’ll hear about that later, so you better know what you’re doing, or you’ll lose that customer.
You have to know how to sell it, and you also have to know how to cook it. You can’t hand someone a piece of meat and get “x” amount for it and not know how to cook it. And if you tell them the wrong thing, then you’re probably going to get a phone call, and you’ll have to pay them back because you told them how to cook it, and it was wrong. Obviously you need some skills, but I would say personality, being able to talk to the customer, and really know how to cook is essential.
I never was trained in cooking. I honestly learned just by taking stuff home after work when I was in Chicago…I was about 21 years old when I started experimenting. Cooking, grilling, crock-potting, pan frying; all that stuff I just had to learn by trial and error. Now I love going on YouTube and watching cooking shows to learn more and make myself better. But I never had a teacher teach me how; it was all self-taught. I really didn’t learn much from my mother growing up either. No, she never let me in the kitchen; she has a cleaning issue (laughs.). She thought that I would make a mess, and no one else in my family cooks. Part of the process was actually just interacting with different chefs that come in, and wanting to try to do what they do. And if I nailed it, great. If not, I would just have to try to do something different and improve from there.
Working here, not only do you have to know basic cooking skills, but also how to work with unique cuts. Because we use the whole animal, we have to educate the consumer on different cuts that they’re not used to. If you go to a normal grocery store, you can get either a New York strip, t-bone, or rib-eye; that’s it. But there’s so much more to the animal than that. And that’s part of the fun of it—being a knowledge base for the consumer. We offer classes here for the public to try and educate our customers on how to handle different cuts of meat. I teach the bacon, the forequarter of beef, hindquarter of beef, whole hog butchery, and the whole lamb butchery class. Around thanksgiving we do whole turkey butchery as well.
When you are teaching a class, you don’t know what people are thinking because, you know, they’re listening, learning. And then afterwards, when you get a standing ovation or cheers, that’s pretty cool. That’s my favorite part of teaching—that people actually enjoy what they’re doing and don’t feel like they’ve spent too much or that they didn’t get enough out of the class…that’s my favorite part.
I’ve gotten to introduce the teres major to customers, which is actually the second-most tender muscle on the animal, and it is delicious. Quick, high-heat, slice against the grain, tender as can be, and actually has more flavor than a tenderloin for half of the price because of where it lays on the chuck (the shoulder). I really enjoy telling people, “Trust me, take this home,” telling them how to cook it, and then they come back and they’re like, “You’re right!” Then they usually come back and buy another one. People coming back and saying that it’s the best meat they’ve ever had. That’s very rewarding…that’s the top of it right here.
Coming to the Conscious Carnivore was the first time I had had the opportunity to witness a humane animal slaughter. In Chicago, they didn’t allow us to see any of that because they know they are not doing it the right way. If you saw it happen the way they do it, you wouldn’t like the meat. But if you didn’t see it or didn’t know, you’d probably still like it because, well, it’s a steak.
Witnessing Bartlett’s method of animal slaughter was eye-opening. I had been cutting meat for so long—over 10 years—and had never seen an animal slaughter. For it to happen that quick and easy, for the animal to never see it coming and then (snaps) its life is taken away—made me realize that other poor animals in feedlots are watching it happen to other animals before them. The fact that this was done one at a time, that was big for me. If the animal wasn’t ready, we would have to wait. There are no stun guns used, no beating, no pulling, just let it happen. Sometimes we would get ten in one day, other times six or eight… but that really surprised me, the care involved. I’m just such an animal person, you know, so it’s just awesome to find a place like this.
David’s family has always had pets in the house. Mostly dogs, with the exception of a little sparrow they affectionately called “Chirper.” He and his siblings rescued Chirper after finding him stuck in their air conditioning unit in their home, and raised him for the next two years.
— Sarah Kaveggia