Shaun Searley has been at Quality Chop House since its reinvention in 2012. In keeping with the historic site’s name, he wanted to do butchery on site, which he’d learnt in previous kitchens. But the restaurant’s tiny size was a problem: “we did all of the butchery directly on the pass in between lunch and dinner services,” he says with a laugh.
After a year, they bought the decorators’ supply shop next door for retail and employed a butcher. “We wanted to have an element of retail butchery as well as supplying the restaurant.”
So why does the head chef still haul whole lambs onto the vast wooden block to break them down? “I like to keep my hand in – but I do a lot less now than I used to! We are trying to push forward with the restaurant so it’s not the best use of my time to be boning out game birds...”
Searley is arguably best known for the confit potatoes that are a permanent fixture on the QCH menu, but all the meat dishes are equally stellar. He knows and cares about the produce passionately. And despite a permanent shortage of chefs, he passes on the knowledge. “Every chef that comes to work here is expected to do a stint on butchery. Over the next few years we’ve seen a shift and more people are interested, but to do it yourself is still very old- school.”
We do take whole animals where possible, but such is the demand in London you have to mix - we also work with our primary suppliers to get us different parts at different times ... so it may not be all from the same beast but we are still using the entire animal. The problem with a commercial fridge like ours is that you have to use the meat quickly, whereas primary suppliers have chambers that meats can be stored in, it can stay really, really dry.
The tools for butchery haven’t really changed. With a lot of cooking there’s loads of new tools, but for this job it’s a good boning knife, a good slicing knife, a decent cleaver, a saw, a steel and you’re good to go. Oh and obviously twine. So not a lot... and I don’t use the cleaver very often.
It’s all about going through joints rather than going through bone, but if you have to, that’s what the saw is for. Otherwise it’s about going around joints, that’s where the skill is - and I’ve worked with butchers in the past who are way more elegant than me!
I use this Victorinox knife in the kitchen as well as in here - you can get it very sharp and it stays sharp too. All of the knives get a lot of action, so the edge does get depleted very quickly.
We change the blade on this saw every three or four weeks - the fresher the better! This is not work to be taken lightly. I’ve seen some bad saw cuts on people, where the saw blade has jumped out and because your fingers are generally next to it, guiding the way... nasty.
The steels and stones
I’ve got a stone that I use for the kitchen and a finer steel that we use too. This steel in the butcher’s room is to keep it sharp through the day - and if you’ve got time at the end of the night you do a full sharpen... “If you’ve got time” (laughs).
With a steel there are loads of different options, you can go for a coarse diamond steel or a ceramic, but you should only really be fine-tuning or honing any knife during the day and using different levels of stone later. If you have a coarse and a fine stone you should be able to bring any knife back to life.
We bought this block new four or five years ago and it get a lot of use. I remember it arriving - moving it in was a real task, it’s so heavy. It’s end grain, of course, and it’s extremely important the way has been put together - smaller squares of wood joined together and then turned on its side and cut through. That’s to make it hard and not as porous. The wastage is ridiculous on making anything end grain - and I think the price reflects that.
It’s not something you can just pick up and brush down - it gets wire brushed every day , but we don’t oil it or anything, the natural fats in the meat do that anyway. We use sawdust too, to seal any gaps. I’ve heard of people putting salt on their blocks but I disagree -that draws the moisture out and you don’t want it to start to crack!
I got my dad to make me a butcher’s block for home. He does actually work with wood, he’s been a carpenter his whole life, producing beautiful pieces. He wouldn’t call it art, but it is.
This article was first published in Issue 16 of CODE Quarterly
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