Hanging with America's Best Butcher, Tracy Smaciarz

Tracy Smaciarz [sma-chez] is a barrel chested, second-generation butcher with a ready smile. Conscripted into the family business, by the age of 6, he was stuffing sausages in his father's butcher shop.

Following a detour here and there, Smaciarz had a successful stint in the corporate world. By the time he migrated back to the family business, he was poised for action, and armed with a new vision.

Smaciarz bought a 6,000 square foot converted bus barn, and began the application process for USDA permitting.

Word about Smaciarz spread fast, and before long, his meat was showing up in restaurants across the city. He forged a relationship with long time restaurateurs, the Canlis family, and suddenly, he was appearing at New York's James Beard House and events across the country.

People in the business have an uncanny reverence for his work, and until lately, Smaciarz was one of our best kept secrets. But as you know, a well-kept secret doesn't last long. In the past year, Smaciarz was profiled in two books, Primal Cuts: Cooking with America's Best Butchers and Harvest to Heat: Cooking with America's Best Chefs, Farmers, and Butchers.

In the end, he's a butcher. And he loves cutting meat. Suddenly thrust into the spotlight, Smaciarz quips, "It's funny being recognized for doing my job."

Off-handedly he remarks, "Yeah, I'm in some 6-volume book that supposed to come out soon."

I shriek, "You mean Modernist Cuisine?"

"Yeah, I think that's it."

"Tracy, that's the hottest book in recent memory!" (dubbed 'a game-changing cookbook' by the Wall Street Journal)

His fresh-off-the-farm humility is refreshing, "I don't know about that." He paused, and added, "I'm just me, the redneck butcher."

Months before his USDA certification, and long before the molecular gastronomy gurus were knocking on his door, I took a group of chefs down to Tracy's shop. Tracy gave us a tour of his facilities, which included a butchery demo...and culminated with a farm visit.

NOTE: If you're squeamish about meat, now's a good time to get off this ride. (Stop reading here.)

Heritage Meat headquarters, 80 miles south of Seattle. While it looks like a prefab church, Heritage Meats was former a bus barn. It's now a 6,000 square foot USDA-inspected meat processing operation.


Welcome treats: house-cured jerky

Tracy, leading the tour. See that machine on the right? That's a hamburger patty machine, affectionately dubbed "The Bitch."

Tracy launched into a discussion about the impact of grass-finished beef vs. grain-finished beef. Visually, you can distinguish the two by the color of their fat. White fat = grain-finished meat. Yellow fat = grass-finished meat.

Pork bellies, earmarked for bacon. The silver tag is engraved with a number, which serves as a tracking identifier.

This is a vacuum tumbler. Here's how it works: paddles inside massage the meat, and simultaneously, the vacuum creates a protein extraction. It holds 450 pounds of pork belly. While the exact process is a trade secret, making bacon can take up to 8 hours.

On the hanging hook. That's pork belly in the back, and towards the front? Fresh hams, yet to be cured.

The hanging room at Heritage Meats. Average temperature? "Thirty-two degrees, or less." That's a dressed pig (no entrails) hanging in the middle. On the left and right are cow halves. Some are waiting for processing, others are aging (14-21 days).

A closer look at the tracking identification.

Rancher Mike Parish, lending a hand. Mike cuts, as Tracy explains the process and identifies the different cuts. It's like deconstructing a puzzle.

Work in progress.

See the full length of the ribs?

Piecing the meat out.

Large work space for breaking down meat.

A closer look at Tracy's professional gear. The heavy leather-like apron makes for easy cleaning. Notice the knife holster, secured by a chain link belt? The speed at which he works is mind-boggling. Comparing Tracy's way with knives to a rapid-fire gun slinger? Right on target. (I was surprised to learn Tracy still has all his finger in tact.)

Every time Tracy picks up his knife, he sharpens it.

Captain Hook? No. This is called a "boning hook," enabling him to keep a grip on the meat, which tends to be slippery. Using it becomes second-nature.

Cutting meat is physical work. Look at the position of his knife and arm. That blur on the right is the boning hook, entering the frame to pivot the flesh.

Another look at the knife/hook symbiosis.

Portioned meat is placed in a bus tub on wheels. When the bus tub is full, it's moved to another stainless steel table where the meat is then packaged, and wrapped in plastic.

Bone-in meat is sliced here. The slicing blade is fixed in place, while the meat is positioned, moving along a stainless steel slide. (See the tracks?)

Trimming the bone. (See the dust collected, this side of the blade?)

Heritage Meats has USDA-inspected meat for resale and public consumption, but they also process meat for farmers and individuals who buy whole animals. This leg is earmarked for Gary.

See the muscle structure? This bull has been dry-aged. Moisture loss concentrates the flavor. Average hang time? 14-21 days.

Tracy Smaciaz, America's best butcher

Heritage Meats
18241 Pendelton St. SW
Rochester, WA 98570

(360) 273-2202

NOTE: Tracy tells me butcher classes are coming down the pike. Want to jump in on the fun? Call or check the website for details.

The Art in Repetition


the act of repeating; repeated action, performance,production, or presentation.
repeated utterance; reiteration.
something made by or resulting from repeating.
a reproduction, copy, or replica.

What separates a home cook from a restaurant cook?


In a restaurant, they make dishes over and over again. Repeating the same dish 14 times a day, you begin to notice subtle things that impact the final outcome. "Hey, where did this beef come from?" The supplier fell through. We subbed meat from another ranch. Chef could tell by the way it performed in the pan.

Repetition makes you aware of nuances. A subtle change here and there, and it becomes evident. Temperature, consistency, new products. Each change is reflected in the final dish.

Unlike a restaurant cook, there are few recipes I've made 14 times. Cherry-picking recipes from cookbooks, it took me years to understand the patterns.

Eventually I learned the basis for soup involves:

- some sort of aromatic (onions, shallot, garlic, carrots, celery)
- a liquid (water, stock, dairy, or coconut milk)
- the main attraction (meat, vegetables, or legumes)
- seasonings (herbs and spices--fresh or dried)
- a garnish (herbs, green onions, sour cream, etc.)

Sure there are variables, but understanding the fundamental pattern was a huge leap forward.

Pam Anderson is a cookbook author and recipe developer whose name I seldom hear, and that's a shame. Her recipes are rooted by the main attraction, followed by a myriad of deviations. A typical recipe includes directions for, say, a basic pork braise. She includes variations for turning that pork into: Mexican, Italian, or French. The seasonings and liquids change, but the basic recipe is rooted in method. Brilliant.

How does a home cook incorporate repetition?

For years, a group of friends cooked together once a month. One day, Tamara said, "I'm in my shrimp phase." I asked her about that. For a month, she cooked nothing but shrimp dishes. She learned everything she could about cooking shrimp. The repetition of cooking it every day--sauteed, sauced, breaded, and baked, eventually, she developed a level of mastery. And there lies the eureka moment.

Last summer, I was hired to cook for a family. One day a week, I'd cook 7-10 dishes, mostly entrees. The family loved braises and I ended up cooking two, sometimes three braised dishes every week. I began to notice patterns. Instead of following recipes by rote, I paid attention to nuances. How does the final outcome change when I use stock vs. beer or wine? What's the difference between braising on top of the stove, vs. braising in the oven? This recipe calls for a 2 1/2 hour cooking time, this recipe calls for 4 hours. Why? Week after week, I honed my skills.

While I'm no longer cooking for the family, it had a major impact on the way I cook. Like then, I now cook the majority of my meals in one day. I'm still in a braising phase, and have expanded incorporate Middle Eastern, Asian, and Latin American influences. I'm intrigued by a touch of cinnamon or star anise with beef. Mint provides an unexpected, yet refreshing element to savory dishes. And I'm learning to distinguish flavor profiles and heat variables in chilies.

It's amazing how limitations--studying one method, or one cuisine, proved to be a turning point. Initially, I resisted the limitations, but now I realize, it was a tremendous gift. Repetition made me a better cook.

Judging COCHON555

Have you been to COCHON555? The event hits eight cities across the United States and teams 5 chefs, 5 wineries, and 5 heritage breed pigs for a good old-fashioned showdown.

From a chef's perspective, here's what you need to know: there are no rules. When asked I asked about that, COCHON555 mastermind, Brady Lowe, put it simply, "Why would I want to stifle a chef's creativity? Whatever they want to do, is fine with me." That blank slate affords a wide range of creative freedom. I've seen everything from house-cured meats to maple-bacon ice cream sandwiches.

I was a judge for last year's competition and the chefs went over the top. Between five chefs, the average plate consisted of 10 components. Think of a 10-course tasting menu, all on one plate. In the brief time between presentations, it was difficult to taste, analyze each element, and determine the merits.

After the second round of 10+ components, it became even more perplexing. Without menus from the chefs, previous dishes quickly faded from memory. Weighing one contribution against another became a serious challenge. (Fortunately I took photos along the way and reviewed images from chef #1's plating to say, chef #3's plating.)

What also became apparent: of the 10 components, half were be mind-bogglingly delicious, and half were forgettable. How do you assess that?

Reprieve came at the tail end, when James Beard Award-winning Chef Jonathan Sundstrom presented just 3 components. Around the judge's table, there was an audible cheer. While Sundstrom was the winner of last year's competition, were all 3 components a knock out? In my opinion, no. Was he wildly creative? No. In the end, I think his judicious use of restraint tipped the scales in his favor. (Plus, with just 3 components, we stood a chance of remembering them!)

This year, I expect a different a different type of competition. Of the chef line up, Ethan Stowell, Holly Smith, and Jason Stratton are greatly influenced by simple, straight-forward Italian cuisine. Jonathan Sundstrom, winner of last year's Cochon555 is back, and the one possible curve ball will be Rachel Yang. Rachel's food is pure fusion, drawing heavily on French technique and Asian flavors, most notably from Korea. (An example drawn from her current menu, Joule BBQ: short rib steak, sweet chili sausage, and grilled kimchi.)

The Seattle leg of the COCHON555 competition begins today. Since this is my second year judging, it will be interesting to compare the two. Of the five chefs, Holly Smith and Jonathan Sundstrom are regional James Beard Award winners. Ethan Stowell has been nominated for a James Beard Award three times. Jason Stratton is one of the current Food & Wine Top 10 New Chefs in America. And Rachel's restaurants, Joule, and newly opened Revel, are poised for some serious national exposure. The winner? It's anybody's game today.

Worshiping at "The Church of Food" and a Farm Visit with Tom Schultz

Over the past few years, my culinary experience has expanded well beyond recipes. The business of food has many layers, and it can be a nebulous beast to get your arms around, but as Robert Sietsema says, ‎"The Church of Food is an edifice with many doors and no locks." ...And there's a giant welcome mat right outside the door!

In the course of my travels, I've met with everyone from food scientists, culinary anthropologists; coffee buyers, growers, and roasters; cheesemakers, acquaculture farmers, beekeepers, farmers, ranchers, food activists and chefs. I haven't talked about this process much because it's still ruminating in my mind. But rest assured, I've got stacks of notebooks and thousands of photos. Bit by bit, I'm working through my notes.

Along this journey, I've meet some incredible people who have helped lay the foundation for a new perspective. As a city girl, taking a trip into the field has been a fundamental part of my education.

Curious minds want to know.... so, I gathered some friends for a road trip. First stop, we visited with Tracy Smaciarz, a second-generation butcher who was recently named one of the "Best Butchers in America". We toured his USDA-certified processing plant and then, with blazing speed, watched him break down a couple cows. More on that in my next post.

First things first. Meet Tom Schultz. He and his wife raise lamb on a lush farm 90 miles south of Seattle. Tom's got a ready smile and a boyish hint of mischief. I liked him instantly!

Lamb rancher, Tom Schultz

Spring grass and a watering hole near the barn.

Feeding time at the barn. Notice the lamb in the foreground is loosing his winter coat.

The baby lambs are adorable! This one has blue eyes.

Back in Tom's work space, we talk about his farm and the business of raising lamb.

One of the chefs asked, "Is your meat organic?"

Here is where I learn, consumer ideals don't always line up with the reality of life on the farm. On the Western side of Washington state, our moist climate leads to a number of issues. (We experience 150 days for precipitation/year. Cloudy days: 201; partly cloudy days: 98.) The wet climate leads to a number of challenges, including foot rot.

What is foot rot?

Foot rot, or infectious pododermatitis, is a hoof infection that is commonly found in sheep, goat, and cattle. As the name suggests, it rots away the foot of the animal, more specifically the area between the two toes of the affected animal. It is extremely painful and contagious. It can be treated with a series of medications but if not treated the whole herd can become infected. (Source: Wikipedia)

Tom raises his animals according to organic standards, but because he treats animals that become sick, they are unable to market their lamb as "organic."

Tools of the trade: butchering knives.

Tom's flock, headed out to pasture.

(L-R) The crew: Michelle Clair, Melissa Hogenson, Tracy Smaciarz, Becky Selengut, Tom & his wife, and Chico aka Robert Joice.

Next stop: Heritage Meats. Stay tuned...

Chef Daniel Boulud's Advice to Young Cooks

Executive Chef Daniel Boulud has a long list of accolades, including the James Beard Foundation Awards for "Outstanding Restaurant," "Outstanding Restauranteur," "Best Chef, New York City," and"Outstanding Chef of the Year." With four restaurants in New York, plus outposts in Palm Beach, Miami, Vancouver, Beijing and London, his culinary style reflects seasonal ingredients, prepared in the French tradition. Chef Boulud is the author of five cookbooks and "Letters to a Young Chef."

One piece of advice I offer young cooks is to choose your mentors wisely. It's probably because mine were so influential in my life. From the start, I worked for the best chefs who would hire me and then gave them my all. In each case, they repaid me by in turn introducing me to yet another great mentor.

As a young chef, I had the privilege of working for the top talents of the day. Georges Blanc in Vonnas, Michel Guérard at Les Prés d'Eugènie and then Roger Vergé at the Moulin de Mougins in the south of France. They had incredible palates and technique. Their cooking reflected their regional roots, applied with respect for tradition but also with modernity. They were more than chefs; they were restaurateurs who attended to every detail of their guests' experience.

Strategies to Battle: “I don’t have time to cook”

It was a simple question, posed on Twitter: “When people say, ‘I don’t have time to cook’…what do you think to yourself?”

Responses included:

@SonjaGrosset - Probably the same as me saying, "I don't have time to work out." Excuses, excuses....

@HeatherHAL - I think of what I can do in 45 minutes, which is the average wait time for delivery.

@KimRicketts - Lazy and family/health not a priority

@MelRovins - Get creative, good meals don’t have to take time if you plan.

@Jaydeflix - Since I now work 4x10 + 2 hours of gym, + 30-60 minute commute *and* I need to get a good night sleep, I can believe it.

@CookLocal - I don't believe ppl who work full time jobs + commute can cook every night. I think they can cook often.

The truth is, I enjoy the idea of cooking, but until recently, I did very little cooking. There are a hundred reasons why. I was single and would have leftovers for days. 30 minute meals took me two hours. At heart, I’m a baker. I’d rather spend 2 hours making a cake than making an entre. And of course, as a food professional, wasn’t it my job to keep up on the latest restaurants? In a typical week, I ate out 7 to 10 times a week.

I like to cook…for parties.

Cook on a day-to-day basis?

No thanks.

It seems rather ironic. As the food movement was taking shape around me, I was still dodging dinner.

The Twitter discussion continued, with noted food professionals chiming in. (The following Tweets are extrapolated from that conversation.)

@CookLocal - "Anyone can cook any night, not everyone can cook every night."

@RebekahDenn - Anyone can cook (or learn to cook) but commute/kids/

@RebekahDenn - issues of modern city life mean that it is not always #1 priority. A couple times a week = better than none.

@CookLocal - Yes, and when you do and don't is largely about priorities.

@RebekahDenn - I do wonder how much of this debate is about our definition of "cooking"?

@RebekahDenn - If my kids get fried egg sandwich=cooking, but not pasta with jarred sauce.

@KitchenMage - I love frozen food. MY frozen food. I make vats of soup, chili, marinara, double recipes, freeze half.

While I’ve worked with top-tier chefs, I was ashamed to reveal what I really ate at home. It was comforting to know I wasn’t the only person dealing with these issues, even among my peers.

For me, the pivotal shift occurred last summer. Friends of mine had extremely busy schedules, but they wanted home cooked meals. Would I consider preparing some meals? (Over the years, I've done some informal catering for them.) The idea was daunting. I wasn’t a real caterer. And yet, this would provide an opportunity to cook on a weekly basis, and line my pocket with some much-needed cash.

After a few weeks and a ton of feedback, we narrowed down the goal. Each week, I made 5-7 entrees and 2 side dishes. They rounded out meals with simple salads or vegetables. I spent weekends trolling for recipes and honing that week’s menu. Mondays, I shopped and prepared food for the entire week.

It was a eureka moment that changed my life.

I began to realize, “I don’t have time to cook” really means: “I don’t have time to cook TONIGHT.”

I dreaded cooking on a daily basis, but carving out one or two days a week, working on multiple dishes at a time? That I can do!

These days, I always have something worthwhile in the fridge.

Here’s my strategy:

Double everything. Freeze half.
With minimal effort, this pays big rewards…and ample variety. Currently in my freezer, I’ve got everything from braised pork to French-onion soup base. In the morning, before I walk out the door, I pull something out of the freezer. At long last, now I look forward to dinner at home.

Stockpile soups and braises
Braises take hours—and most of that is unattended cooking time. Once your recipe is at the braising stage, you’ve got time to make a couple more dishes. Think: soups, stews, or a hearty marinara. You’re in the kitchen anyway. A braise in the oven and marinara on the stovetop? This is efficiency at its best.

Make a hearty grain.
Brown rice, barley, and other grains can take up to an hour to cook. This is a perfect time to make a big batch, and nibble on it all week. Whole grains add a heartiness to soups and stews, provide a welcome partner for braises, and serve as the base for deli-style salads and stir-fries.

The night before I cook, I soak a bag of dried beans. Like whole grains, beans become the base for a number of my favorite dishes. I use them in soups and stews, or cook them down to a refried bean consistency and top individual portions with a poached egg. Beans simmered with a smoked ham hock or turkey wing? You’ll be fighting for leftovers!

Once I’ve made the braise, a soup or two, and a pot of grains or beans, I turn my attention to marinades. These pack a wallop of flavor and provide an easy solution for weeknight meals. When I cooked for the family, I made the marinade on Monday, and they used it later in the week for a change of pace. I’d leave a note: Toss the marinade in a Ziploc bag, add your protein. When you’re home from work, throw the meat on the grill or, depending on the recipe, bake it in the oven. Couldn’t be easier!

Oven-roasted veggies
I have never been inspired to eat a whole head of broccoli--that is, until I learned about oven-roasted broccoli. Toss broccoli with olive oil, garlic and a pinch of crushed red pepper and roast in a hot oven…I’m in heaven! This became a launching pad for multiple ideas. From there, I started roasting cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, mushrooms, carrots…you get the idea. There are two strategies at work here…delayed and instant gratification. Option 1. [Delayed gratification] On the day you cook, prep vegetables by cutting them into bite-sized pieces. Toss in a Ziploc bag, save for later in the week. This becomes a quick side dish with the bulk of prep already done. Option 2: [Instant gratification] Roast the vegetables on the day you cook. Caramelized in the oven, oven-roasted vegetables provide a terrific depth of flavor when you add them to soups and rice or grain-based salads.

Roasted garlic
While you’re roasting things, consider roasting garlic. Pop roasted garlic cloves from the skin, add to a jar and top it off with olive oil. This is my secret weapon that ends up in everything from soups to marinades and salad dressings.

Compound butters
If you implement just one of these strategies, let this be the one. Compound butters offer incredible versatility. Take a softened stick of butter and incorporate flavor builders like herbs, garlic (fresh or roasted), sundried tomatoes, anchovies, etc. Dump your seasoned butter on a sheet of plastic wrap and roll it like a sausage. Slide the compound butter into a freezer bag and voila! You’ve now got flavored butter to top baked fish, tuck under the skin for roast chicken, or lob off a knob and add it to steamed clams, mussels, vegetables, or pasta.

And you? How do you get food on the table?