Meat: How I got here

Welcome to the latest installment of our newest series in which some of Richmond’s greatest food artisans share what they love about what they do. Here charcutier Chris Mattera gives a firsthand account of how he ended up making sausage, both professionally and recreationally.

Welcome to the latest installment of our new series in which some of Richmond’s greatest food artisans share what they love about what they do. Here, charcutier Chris Mattera gives a firsthand account of how he ended up making sausage, both professionally and recreationally.

I have always cooked. In fact, my whole family has always cooked. I can’t conceive of my life without food, without the smell and taste and feel something delicious and real as a driving force behind nearly every action. I remember spending snow days in the sixth grade cranking out fresh ravioli. Summer afternoons in high school passed making fresh sausage. I catered my own senior prom: chicken involtini with mushroom sauce, pasta with fresh pesto and a mixed green salad for 14. In college I spent $50 (nearly a week’s pay as a part-time bus driver in Blacksburg) and an entire night trying to make mozzarella from scratch. It didn’t work out, but the next day I cranked out pizza for 60 people from my apartment’s galley kitchen and melted the heating element in the flimsy oven.

In looking at it now, it seems foolish that I never wanted to work with food professionally. I went to college and studied Sociology, with an emphasis on Labor Relations. I thought I would head to grad school, get a white-collar job and be content cooking for family and friends on the weekends. Maybe sneak in the occasional dinner party to show off to coworkers. I wanted to be the guy who could cook, not the guy who was a cook.

During college, I spent two (non-consecutive) years as a vegetarian. I was vegan for five of the longest days of my life. The whole time, all I wanted to do was eat hot dogs. I did a lot of reading about vegetarianism, animal rights, and the ethical implications of being an omnivore. What I realized is that I don’t object on moral grounds to the killing of animals for their meat. It’s what we do. Humans (and a whole host of other animals) kill things so that we may eat them and continue living. It just seems to make sense to me and it can even be a sort of sacred thing, the absorbing of one living thing by another. What I do object to, however, is the unnecessary sadism with which industrial meat production accomplishes that natural goal. The relationship between humans and the animals they eat began to fascinate me. Also, those animals can be outrageously delicious, and after a year of vegetarianism, the urge to make and eat sausage, pork chops, steak, and especially hot dogs returned with a vengeance.

At about the same time I realized that sensible meat-eating on my part was probably not going to bring on the end of civilization as we know it, I began looking at job prospects for my post-college life. I spent some time during one summer working in the basement of an office building, dressed in khakis and a polo shirt, alphabetizing employee files in a windowless room full of cabinets, so I knew that office work was not my cup of tea. I looked into jobs with the National Labor Relations Board, but found that they required a) quite a bit of travel and b) the wearing of ties. By this point I was already working in two restaurants in Blacksburg, washing dishes and making pizzas. Afraid of getting stuck as a minimum-wage line cook, I enrolled in culinary school in France. Paris was a dream come true for a recently-reformed-vegetarian-aspiring-chef. France (like Italy and Germany and Spain) is a nation of meat-eaters who take their flesh seriously. Pates and terrines, galantines and ballotines, stuffed cabbages, and sausage, sausage, sausage. The French even have a word for this whole class of animal-derived deliciousness. It’s called charcuterie, from the old French for cooked meat. I ate whatever I could get my hands on and tried to learn as much as possible with my reasonable but limited French language skills.

When I got back from Paris, I took a job in a small European-style bistro where I worked five lunches and two to three dinners a week. The work was hot and the hours long and my love affair with restaurant work was quickly over. I will be the first to tell you, I don’t have what it takes to excel in a professional kitchen. I began to think of the beautiful and delicious meats I had seen in Paris and to imagine what it would be like to open a small butcher shop here in Richmond where I could make and sell all of my favorite foods. I mentioned this idea in casual conversation to an acquaintance and the next thing I know, Tanya Cauthen called me on the phone. Turns out, she was in the process of actually opening just such a place and was much further along than I was. We spoke a few times, and I agreed to come work with her at Belmont Butchery.

It has been nearly four years since the Butchery opened and in that time I have honed my skills and gained an even greater appreciation for the craft of charcuterie. In addition to Paris, I have been lucky enough to spend time in Italy, working with a fourth-generation Tuscan butcher, learning the traditional Italian methods of making fresh and cured meat products.

My job, and for that matter my whole life today looks nothing like what I thought it would when I was growing up. Even up through college, if I had been told that I would end up a butcher and sausage maker rather than an astronaut, cab driver, archeologist, private detective, tap dancer, zeppelin pilot or Batman (all actual former aspirations, some shockingly recent), I would never in a million years have believed it. I must say though, at the end of the day, it’s not a bad gig.

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Chris Mattera

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