All the chefs at the Culinary Institute of America wear a tall white hat, except one. Chef Thomas Schneller dons a hardhat before he ties his apron strings. “Like in a real butcher’s shop. With meat hooks,” he says.
Schneller came of age in such a butcher’s shop, Schneller’s in Kingston, started by his dad in the 1950s, and eventually Tom ran the attached restaurant. When his brother sold the business in 1998, Tom came to the CIA to teach “the meat class,” passing on the ageless – but newly trendy – skill of identifying quality meat and breaking down a carcass.
Eighteen second-semester freshmen gather in a horseshoe around the butcher block table, notebooks in hands or the pockets of their chef coats. Among them is Eddie Anderson, 18, of Greenwood Lake, N.Y., who’s been working in restaurants since he was 15. Anderson’s previous experience in meat fabrication might be described as trial by fire. He was washing dishes at Breezy Point Inn when the chef grabbed him, brought him outside, gave him a 15-minutes lesson in breaking down a whole pig, and walked away, leaving Anderson to finish the job. That makes Anderson one of the more experienced students coming into this class.
Today’s subject is a lamb raised locally and processed 26 miles away in Pine Plains, N.Y. “It was probably fed a grain/hay mixture because there’s not much out in the field now — if you can find the field,” said Schneller.
The flank bears a USDA stamp but hasn’t been graded, so Schneller starts there, examining the fat marbling and meat-to-bone ratio. “There’s quite a lot of fat in here. This is going to hit a nice high grade... Choice number two.”
The six-foot-four-inch Schneller begins sawing, a performance he likens to “a bad magic show.” While brainstorming each part’s culinary possibilities, he keeps up a stream of banter, occasionally in a French accent, and tosses out questions, like: “What time of year would you get a grass-fed lamb?”
“Spring?” mutter a few students.
“Spring?!” Schneller bellows. “The grass is just starting!”
“Summer,” the students venture. Right, mid-to-late summer.
He doesn’t get into politics — not that there’s time — but he doesn’t shy from them either, keeping a blog on which he pushes for country of origin labeling and against the Keystone pipeline. “I’m a Green Party member,” he says, almost forlornly. A philosophy comes through, though, a sort of Jewish mother-ness. Do not waste. Source quality product and use every bit of it. Never pay a premium for a “fashionable” cut.
“I’m like a double agent,” he says. “I was a chef; I understand the mindset of chefs” focused on presenting dishes in a particular way. “But then I’m a butcher and I say, why can’t you use all of this? Total utilization is key.”
Lamb is pricey, but cuts that most people don’t know what to do with are more reasonable. Like the neck. Treat it like oxtail, he suggests. “Cook it low and slow and do like a curry.”
Schneller puts down his saw. “Lamb square cut. How many bones are there supposed to be?”
“Four,” the students chorus.“One-two-three…” Shneller counts slowly. “This one I cut in half. Which means what? It means I robbed you. Is that typical?”
Yes, say the students in unison.
After Schneller makes the final cut, the students spring to life, looking eager to be moving again (it’s chilly down here). In no time the butcher table has been wiped down and those smartphones I knew must be hiding somewhere have emerged, held high above the white hats to get photos before the lamb rolls out on a cafeteria rack.
“We’re never going to be able to see a whole lamb broken down again,” said Rachel Bindel, 18, of Baltimore. “So it’s a great experience.”