Photography by William Godwin
April 29 2015
Tanya Cauthen is the proprietor of Belmont Butchery, a European-style storefront butcher shop in Richmond, Virginia specializing in locally and naturally raised hand-cut, house-cured meats.
When did you first start working with food?
Food is what my family has done. Family time means food, whether it’s going out to dinner or cooking together. I went to the University of Virginia as an aerospace engineering major, which has nothing to do with food, but I worked in restaurants while in college. I took a semester off and never went back. I continued to cook and from there had the opportunity to move to Switzerland as a chef’s apprentice. So, at the ripe age of 22, speaking no French or German, I moved to Switzerland and trained as a chef. I came back to the states and bounced around as a chef for about 15 years.
How did you end up becoming a butcher?
Where I worked in Switzerland, we did have a full butcher shop. I would spend all my extra time watching the pigs being carted in and the meat being broken down. They didn’t speak any English and I don’t speak German. I spent lots of time standing in the corner watching. Eventually they let me handle a knife. It was rough because of a lack of words, but I think that sort of imprinted in a way that I didn’t realize at the time.
Before I opened this shop, I had taken a sabbatical. I was a little frustrated and exhausted with the Richmond dining scene. I went to Australia for six months. I learned how to scuba dive, and just sort of learned how to be a person away from being a chef. In retrospect, I realized I spent a lot of time in butcher shops there, just hanging out. I convinced a butcher in Melbourne to let me work there for a week.
Again, at that point, the shop was never an idea. But I think all of these things sort of fueled the idea once I had it. It’s all little stepping stones to give me the confidence and the skills to be where I am now. The biggest thing about opening the shop is that I was very realistic that I was a very capable and competent chef, that I was not a butcher, I was a good meat cutter, and there was a lot that I needed to learn.
How has the craft of butchery changed since you’ve been in the business?
I think our timing was impeccable. Around the time I opened is when the book The Omnivore’s Dilemma came out, and shortly thereafter the movie Food Inc. It was sort of at the beginning of an American food revolution where people became aware of where their food came from.
Completely naively and independently, I had already been working with farmers and was already sort of doing things that would become very trendy. But I was doing these things because I trained in Europe and because my mother cooked real food. And I just wanted to bring restaurant quality food to people in a way that they didn’t have access to prior. Our mission statement has always been “I want to feed Richmond well, whatever ‘well’ means to you.”
What would you tell someone who is shopping at a butchery for the first time?
The first thing that you have to know is that you’re going to have to talk to the butcher. We have become a consumer world of distance where you can click and add an item to your cart, so talking to people and the language of the butcher is probably the hardest thing. For us to get the right meat for you, we have to ask questions. When we ask questions it frequently scares people. I’m going to ask questions to figure out how to direct you to the right meat. It’s much like getting fitted for clothes.
What does community mean to you?
My grandfather was a small town barber, and my dad will sometimes say that coming here on a busy day reminds him of being a boy in his father’s barbershop. We ask people about their kids, we celebrate graduations. We’ve actually had two women go into labor in the shop, and their kids are now four years old. We had one customer who had been a regular customer for four or five years, they had a great opportunity and moved to Seattle, Washington and they said, “You know, since we’ve been coming to you, the quality of our meat has become more important to us, so much so that the neighborhood we chose to live in in Seattle had to have a butcher shop.”That was one of the items on the punch list that they gave to their realtor: access to a butcher that deals with farm-raised-meat.
How do you spend your mornings? I spent seventeen years living in the city and a year or so ago my husband and I bought 10 acres out in the country. We call it a farm, but it’s more of a hobby farm. It’s got a one acre pond. It’s got a barn. My general routine is, we’ll get up. My husband and I will sit outside, I’ll drink tea and he’ll drink coffee. We’ll watch the rooster crow. Then I’ll actually pull on boots and grab the vegetable bin from cooking the night before and I’ll feed treats to the chickens and the rooster, collect eggs, and I’ll go into work from there.
What does the future look like? I think my mission statement still holds true, “Feeding Richmond well, whatever well means to you,” whether that’s at the butcher shop or elsewhere. I always have new ideas, but that’s just part of being an entrepreneur. My grandfather, when he was about 85, he started learning to program in basic. He told the “15 year old me”, “The moment you stop learning is the moment you die.” And what I’ve realized in that, is you constantly need to be open to new ideas and evolution, because then you as a person will evolve and grow.
What to look for in a great steak
First, it depends on what style of steak you are looking for: grain-fed, pastured or grass-fed. Then, dry-aged or wet-aged. In a grain-fed steak, you are looking at marbling (the little white flecks of fat dispersed through the muscle). The better the steak, the greater the marbling. Fat equals flavor and juiciness. A grass-fed steak will be naturally leaner than a grain-fed steak. In a grass-fed steak you want a deep rich red color and tight grain. You want marbling too, but it will never be as much as a grain-fed steak. In grass-fed or pastured steaks, dry-aging is paramount. Dry-aging allows for a loss of water in the meat as well as an enzyme breakdown of the proteins. This develops the full flavor of the meat as well as increases tenderness, but it also means a dry-aged steak will cook faster. Wet-aging isn’t really anything special, it just means it was vacuum sealed. It will have some water loss, but flavor doesn’t develop the same way as dry-aging.
A good steak just needs salt and pepper, but don’t be skimpy! Whether it’s a grill or pan, the same method applies: high heat sear for two minutes per side, then reduce heat or move away from heat for a few more minutes per side. How long depends on thickness of steak and desired doneness. When in doubt, you can always cook it more—you can’t un-cook it.
Our sausages are made with natural casings and no artificial anything—just meat and spices. So, whether it’s on the grill or in a pan, cook gently (medium heat) for about five minutes per side, and then sear at the end. By cooking gently, you allow the proteins in the sausage to expand without the casing ripping. If you cook sausages too fast, the casing rips and all the juices flow into the grill (not you!). So, cook gently allowing sausage to plump, then brown it off when it’s mostly cooked. Our sausages usually take 15 to 20 minutes using this method. We do not recommend boiling sausage—it just leaches out the juices into the cooking water.