Published March 20, 2011 in the Rutland Herald
Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo
Cole Ward shows a cut to chef Courtney Contos while butchering a half pig in Johnson recently. The pair collaborated on the new instructional DVD set “The Gourmet Butcher ... From Farm to Table.”
A Vermont butcher is glad to teach his craft
Cole Ward has been butchering for 45 years, but he had no idea, when he started at the market below his family’s apartment in St. Albans at age 14, stuffing sausage for 20 cents an hour, that he would someday be called one of America’s top 50 butchers.
Ward expresses delight in sharing his knowledge of how to carve delectable cuts from unwieldy beef quarters, pork halves and lambs, and he is featured in a new set of instructional DVDs, “The Gourmet Butcher ... From Farm to Table.”
Ward said they’re right in line with the burgeoning local food movement and help people get the most out of raising their own animals.
“If someone is going to put the effort into feeding and caring for their own beef and pork, they should be given the opportunity to get all of the incredible cuts that are available,” he said.
Ward, who is rated “top 50” in the book “Primal Cuts: Cooking with America’s Best Butchers,” worked through his teen years alongside several experienced butchers, but serendipitously received his big break when he moved to Los Angeles in the late ’70s.
Ward said he arrived at 2 a.m. and spent several hours sipping beer and catching up with a buddy. Around 8 a.m., the phone rang. He said everyone else was sleeping, and when he picked up the phone the woman on the other end asked if he had applied for a job butchering.
“I was shocked. I hadn’t applied for any job. I’d only been in town a few hours,” said Ward. “But I told her yes and went in for an interview that afternoon.” Ward said he later found out the woman had misdialed the number on the application.
Ward began working for Tony La Frieda, who was selling the most select cuts of meat to upscale Los Angeles markets. While working in Los Angeles, Ward said, he learned the subtler points of technique for his craft.
Having grown up in a tight-knit family with nine brothers and sisters — with whom he is still very close — Ward grew homesick 3,000 miles from the Green Mountains. He returned home after six years and brought his skills with him.
Ward said he enjoys working in small markets where he can provide service directly to the customers because “there is a certain amount of trust and you’re allowed to be creative.” He most recently worked for Joe Padulo at Green Top Market, in Morristown, where he could not only ply his trade but share his knowledge. He stopped working there about the time Padulo sold the market last fall.
It was after Ward participated in a workshop for local homesteaders, who taped the event, that the butcher thought he could do even better. The idea came together when Padulo connected him with Karen Coshof and Michael Taylor of Montréal-based Stonehaven Productions.
Ward also recruited chef Courtney Contos, who hails from a family of top Chicago restaurateurs but now lives and works in Vermont, to talk on camera about preparing the cuts he would produce.
During taping in Padulo’s kitchen in Johnson, the pair began by taking apart a whole pig and then shared recipes that would best make use of the pork. Stonehaven was so happy with the episode that it ordered three more — one featuring lamb and two on beef — for a total of more than four hours of footage.
In one episode, Ward starts with a side of beef, quarters it, then shows viewers how to create rib-eye, sirloin, T-bone, porterhouse, flat iron and Delmonico steaks. Contos uses the flat iron cut and demonstrates how to make classic steak au poivre.
Ward said the trade of butchering changed when it moved from small markets to supermarket chains. In the process, some cuts that were once popular were lost because it was not as profitable to take the time to get them.
“One of my favorite cuts that we don’t see in the supermarkets is side pork,” said Ward. He said his mother would take the fresh bacon, fry it crispy in a cast iron pan, then make a scorched gravy and serve it over cornbread johnnycakes.
After taking some time to promote the DVDs, he hopes to find another small market where he can practice his trade and still have the opportunity to share his skills.
“I think it’s important for people to know where their meat comes from and to know the farmer,” said Ward. “It’s the best way to know that there are no growth hormones or antibiotics being used and that the animal is humanely treated.”
He also hopes to find several sites this fall where he can host workshops for those who would like hands-on experience.
Ward said the food movement in Vermont is in some ways bringing the profession of butchering back from the grave. “We were becoming dinosaurs, but the local food movement is changing that.”
To see Cole Ward in action, look for the Gourmet Butcher on YouTube. The DVD set is sold online at www.thegourmetbutcher.com.