From the outside, the tiny shop in Toronto's Kensington Market called Sanagan's Meat Locker looks like it has been there for decades. But inside it's a different story. The sight of two young men stuffing meat into a sausage making machine is the first sign that this isn't your typical butcher shop. The butchers appear as if they'd be more at home discussing a new art installation, but they approach the task with gusto, smiling broadly at customers and offering to de-bone chickens or tell you about the farms where the birds were raised.
The Sanagan's butchers are a part of a new generation who are remodelling the job to cater to our growing appetite for sustainable food. Until recently, a butcher was an occupation that was primarily referred to in nursery rhymes - it was about as common a career choice as a candlestick maker. Now, people in their 20s and 30s, who trained for entirely different jobs, are choosing this path.
"Butcher has some renewed glamour - strangely," says Peter Sanagan, owner of the Kensington Market shop. The space had been used by a butcher before, but Mr. Sanagan updated it with a butcher block placed atypically in the front window so people can watch the cutting of meat, a practice usually hidden from the consumer. He also launched a Facebook page and Twitter feed where he alerts customers to new shipments of grass-fed beef or tweets about what goes on in the shop: "We're listening to The Weakerthans and making sausages. My life rules."
Similar shops with a hip sensibility have opened in New York and Brooklyn, and the trend is starting to spread - The Manotick Village Butcher recently opened south of Ottawa.
These shops are staffed by unlikely butchers. It used to be that butchery was a job you undertook because your father and your father's father cut meat, but there are no butchers in Mr. Sanagan's family tree. (His mother was a public health nurse and his dad worked in human resources.) While his siblings pursued more traditional desk jobs, Mr. Sanagan studied to be a chef at George Brown and then moved into butchery because he wanted to showcase the meat of the local farmers he worked with as a chef.
James Watt, owner of the Manotick shop, worked as an electrical engineer before he opened his business. While he has a trained butcher on staff, Mr. Watt debones lamb legs and poultry and is currently studying at the Cordon Bleu to improve his skills.
Mr. Sanagan says today's new butchers are likely to have a post-secondary education. "Generally speaking, they have a university education, they are more informed," he said. In fact, it's partly an intellectual curiosity that brings them to the job, along with a heightened awareness of where our food comes from and a dissatisfaction with the industrial food system.
Mario Fiorucci, who used to be a corporate lawyer, now is the co-owner of The Healthy Butcher, with shops in Toronto and Kitchener-Waterloo. A former vegetarian who had been turned off meat by animal rights videos, he and his wife, Tara Longo, a former investment banker, decided they felt comfortable eating meat as long as it was organic and humanely raised. In 2005, they opened a butcher shop to offer locally sourced organic meat. It was so successful they opened two more locations.
Mr. Fiorucci's success is helped by the fact that he offers something not easily found elsewhere. About 30 years ago, the way we process meat changed in North America, says Marissa Guggiana, author of Primal Cuts: Cooking With America's Best Butchers. Whereas butchers in grocery stores and small shops prepared their cuts from an entire animal carcass, by the 1980s meat processing had become something that was done in a factory. Today, supermarkets and even many butcher shops receive boxes of pre-cut meat sourced from enormous industrial farms - from places as far from Canada as Mexico or Japan, says Ms. Guggiana, who is president of a wholesale butcher shop in California. The new butchers take the opposite approach.
"People are trying to recreate local food systems, which means buying whole animals on farms," says Ms. Guggiana. And this means a return to breaking entire animals down from the carcass, which requires knife skills and anatomical knowledge of muscles and bones. It's also hard work.
The physicality of the job has attracted a lot of people from the media and the arts who don't often get a chance to do heavy work, as well as people from a culinary background, she said. "There is something a little artistic about being a butcher. For some people with an artistic bent, it's a nice balance between the creative mind and something concrete."
It was the opportunity to work with his hands and create something for people to enjoy that caught the interest of Paul Gagnon, a 30-year-old who recently approached Mr. Sanagan about working in his shop. In the summer, Mr. Gagnon quit his desk job in the music industry and is now researching butchery courses. "Definitely, the vast majority of people see it as a blue collar, menial job," he says. "I see it as more than that."
But finding somewhere to learn to be a butcher is difficult. There are a few programs in Alberta and Quebec at vocational schools; however, an apprenticeship program to learn the skills to work in one of these new shops doesn't exist.
Yet demand is high. Mr. Fiorucci has a waiting list for positions in his store in which someone can learn on the job in exchange for free labour - an improvised apprenticeship program. He's now talking about creating an official program to help usher in this new generation. "It's an art that should not be lost," he said.
Special to The Globe and Mail