Breaking the Glass Ceiling With a Cleaver
Kari Underly is known nationally for her mastery of meat cutting. Her skill at butchery led her in 2002 to start Range, a firm based in Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood that provides consulting services for the fresh meat and perishable food industries.
Now Underly, a third-generation butcher who grew up near South Bend in northern Indiana, is seeking to raise money to create the Range Meat Academy, which she says will be “the most comprehensive butcher training program in the industry.”
Her goal is nothing less than setting the gold standard for butcher training, while helping to revive a trade that for many years appeared to be dying out as small, independent shops (like the one once owned by her father and grandparents) were replaced by supermarkets that increasingly obtained meat pre-cut and pre-packaged from big industrial packing houses.
Underly says there is no institution in the United States providing the kind of intensive, full-on training for butchers that she proposes for her Academy. She says even top culinary schools, whose core purpose is to train master chefs, lack the resources and space to provide training in ongoing whole-animal butchery.
“These kids coming out of culinary school, paying 50 grand and they’re slinging burgers for 12 bucks an hour, I’d like to offer them an alternative and focus on bringing back the trade,” Underly said. “That means butchery, hanging beef, being able to take that hanging beef, pork, process by hand, and learn different ways of preparing meat. Charcuterie, salumi, smoking brisket.”
And while butchery has long been a trade made up mostly of men, Underly is in the forefront of the increasing number of women who have gained prominence in the field, and she is actively trying to recruit more women to consider careers in butchering.
She has become a featured teacher at the Grrls Meat Camp, described as a “modern butchery for women masterclass and workshop,” the latest of which took place April 12-14 at Napoleon Ridge Farm in Napoleon, Ky. Underly also a Women Working in the Meat Business Retreat in Chapel Hill, N.C., May 20-22. Underly put her skills to print with a book titled The Art of Beef Cutting (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2011) that was nominated for a James Beard Foundation Award, and has made numerous television and radio appearances.
Despite her family’s history in meat cutting, Underly said she faced varying degrees of sexism when she started on her own working for a supermarket chain near where she grew up. But her triumphs over retrograde attitudes have helped establish her as a role model for an increasing number of women showing interest in the butchery trade, including younger aspirants who “don’t see ‘man’ and ‘woman’ as much as my generation does… The perceived stereotype is a little less for them.”
The following are excerpts of an interview with Underly that took place April 17 at her Range office in Chicago.
Q: Where does your planning for Range Meat Academy stand, and what are your goals?
A: These kids coming out of culinary school, paying 50 grand and they’re slinging burgers for 12 bucks an hour, I’d like to offer them an alternative and try to focus on bringing back the trade. That means butchery, hanging beef, being able to take that hanging beef, pork, do it by hand, and learn different ways of preparing meat. Charcuterie, salumi, smoking brisket.
The school also would have a strong retail component to it, the butcher shop and the meatery, but also a demonstration area where we could do tastings and flights, and the students will actually have to present to customers… There will also be a track for consumer hobbyists if they just want to take a couple of classes, that will be when there’s downtime in the school and on weekends.
Another thing I’m thinking about is if we have folks who come through the program that may be from a socio-economically challenged neighborhood, then the school could produce some of the products and then open up satellite businesses on the South Side and the West Side and bringing these good quality meats and skills into these neighborhoods.
Q: I see you have another workshop for women coming up in the North Carolina.
A: Yes, the Women in Meat Business. That’s a perfect model. The state of North Carolina wants to keep agriculture within the state. Animal production, processing, abattoirs/slaughter in the state. What they recognized is they didn’t have the skills available. They hired someone like myself and a couple of industry experts to come in and train and build this up…
All of these workshops are slammed. All these women, and they’re finding their voice is a very male-dominated industry.
Q: In all my years, the association of the word ‘butcher’ was ‘man.’ When you were breaking into this, of course, you had a family, so you had bloodlines. But did you face sexism, harassment?
A: Oh, yeah. You name it, yes. From just being ignored. You walk in the room and you’re just ignored. That’s hard to work with somebody for 40 hours a week and they just ignore you. I’ve had men drop trou in the cooler… I was encouraged to go work in the deli, a very female type job, and I said no.
Q: Is it just part of the general trend, where women are finding activities in fields that were foreclosed to them?
I don’t think younger women see man and woman as much as maybe my generation do. I didn’t really think about it when I was going through it, but I definitely knew I was challenged by it. The perceived stereotype is a little less for them. I know five butcher shops that have been recently opened and they’ve all been opened by women.