Leighann Smith was the resident "meat mama" at Cochon Butcher where she ran the butcher and charcuterie department for five and a half years. She recently left to open the pop-up Piece of Meat Butcher (www.facebook.com/pieceofmeatbutcher) with partner Dan Jackson. Together they've been popping up at new Irish Channel beer garden The Tchoup Yard, selling handmade sausages, smoked meats and other snacks. Smith spoke with Gambit about the craft butchery scene.
What drew you to butchery?
Smith: I've always cooked. I'm from San Francisco ... but I came here to try to be a butcher. I felt like New Orleans was so much smaller, so there were a lot more opportunities where you could drive for just an hour and be on a farm. I was really interested in that aspect of getting to talk to the person who was raising my pig. Donald (Link) and Stephen (Stryjewski) had already paved the way for that to happen.
With (Piece of Meat Butcher), we decided that we didn't want to have conventional jobs anymore. Slinging meat on the sidewalks was the best kind of idea and way more successful than I thought when we first got started. We've been talking about opening up a butcher shop-style restaurant ... and this is kind of our gateway into that.
There are few places besides Cochon (Butcher) and Cleaver & Co. where you can get really high- quality handmade sausage at a reasonable price. We're trying to give people the opportunity of (being) at a bar and being able to get high-quality handmade meats instead of a hot dog or hamburger.
I think the hardest part is finding ways to get sustainable, happy, healthy animals to people at a price that they can afford ... and then finding a way to convince people how much better it is for them.
Is the craft butchering movement growing in New Orleans?
S:It's growing everywhere. Butcher shops are getting a lot more popular. In the past five or six years, people are becoming a lot more knowledgeable of how their meat is raised ... and the craft of being a butcher is growing dramatically. The only problem is that to solely open a butcher shop is almost like restaurant suicide. The margins are still not anywhere near where they are on a plate of food. I've noticed that a lot more (restaurants) are (butchering) their own animals, but it's still more of a restaurant-style setting as opposed to the more Old World meat market.
The boucherie style of butchering is so fascinating to me. I like the fact that, especially in Louisiana, animals are really valued. Let's get a large group of people together, pay our respects to the animal and then use every single part of the animal to make a feast and a party.
How accessible is butchery for a home cook?
S: The best part about butchering is that there are zero limits to what you can do. I'll forever be learning about breaking down pigs and cows, or finding easier ways to do it. ... Pigs are the easiest for me to break down because they have such large muscle structure. Cows are too big, but a pig is still manageable for one person on a table.
Sausage isn't the easiest thing to make. You have to make sure you mix the proteins and the fat together, but you can't over mix it because then it will break. It's better to start making loose sausage and learning like that. If you follow a recipe and do everything it tells you to and keep everything cold, you should be fine.
You can put anything in sausage. ... It doesn't mean that it's going to taste good all the time, but it's forgiving. You can pretty much try anything: Every piece of salami tastes different, even if it's in the same room. It can depend on the temperature in the room when you made it or what time of year it was made. Everything will taste different, which is fun and rewarding.