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.