How Six American Butchers Are Training for the “Meat Olympics” in Ireland
In March 2018, Team USA is competing in the World Butchers’ Challenge for the first year ever. "If nothing else, we're groundbreaking," says butcher Danny Johnson.
The World Butchers’ Challenge is an intensely anticipated annual event that can be best described as the butcher industry’s Summer Olympic Games. The challenge started in 2011 as a rivalry between New Zealand and Australia and has since morphed into an ultra-competitive worldwide competition. In March 2018, and for the first time ever, the U.S. will compete against some of the most notable butchers from around the world in Belfast, Ireland. With twelve teams participating, the lineup is the biggest to-date.
Team USA, or Butchers of America, consists of Danny Johnson and Paul Carras of Taylor’s Market in Sacramento, Bryan Butler of Salt & Time in Austin, Lothar Erbe of Lothar’s Gourmet Sausages in Virginia, John Fink of The Whole Beast in San Francisco and Craig Deihl, a chef and award-wining charcuterie maker in Charleston. “The reason this is the first year the U.S. is competing is because we are the first organization from the U.S. that got it together to compete,” says Tia Harrison Holmes, co-founder of The Butcher’s Guild, who handpicked the players of Team USA.
Johnson was collectively named team captain of the group. “We all have our own thoughts and ideas, but it’s Danny’s job to wrangle and herd cats,” Deihl says. Individually, each of them brings a different skill to the table. Johnson and Carras have years of butchery experience under their belts; Butler is a winner of the “Best Butcher in Texas” competition; Erbe is the “German sausage guy;” Deihl is like the “mad scientist” and “secret ingredient” of the group; and Fink is all about open-fire cooking.
Practice makes perfect
Finding the perfect teammates was no simple task, but it didn’t end there. Just like an athlete trains for the Olympics, the elite meat handlers come together once a month at Taylor’s Market in Sacramento to train for the event. During the World Butchers’ Competition, each team will have three hours and 15 minutes to butcher half a cow, half a hog, a whole lamb and five chickens, solely judged on time, craftsmanship and creativity. “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” adds Deihl, as he takes it all in.
“We bonded immediately,” says Johnson, of the team’s first “meatup” in August. “Everyone was just like, ‘Hey, we want to win.’” The first five hours were spent going over logistics and rules and creating a master binder. “On that Sunday, we cut beef—throwing ideas around and breaking it down—not worrying about speed,” he adds. The next day, the team broke down a lamb and a hog. “We play with a lot of meat,” Deihl says. “We’ll talk about it first and figure out how we want to attack it. We also notice things that we could do with different products that we could focus on during the next practice.”
Practice typically takes place over the course of two or three days, back to back, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. “No one specific person does one specific task,” Deihl says, reiterating that the team works together as a whole. Frankly put, everyone’s wearing the pants in this relationship. Johnson says, “It’s a daunting task. Every one of us talks about waking up in the middle of the night thinking about ideas.”
Getting to Ireland
The cost of training and flying a team of six butchers to Ireland is no small feat. The team relies heavily on fundraising to get from point A to point B; they set up a fundraising page to help offset travel expenses. “People love it,” says Johnson. “Our customers are completely over the moon about it and ask us daily about fundraising and what they can do.”
Deihl, Erbe and Fink will be cooking at Meat on Goat in South Carolina on October 14 to raise money for their travels. The evening, put on by Goat Island Gatherings, promises meat-centric bites, music and cocktails. The team will also join forces for the Butchers of America Demo & Cocktail Party, hosted by Taylor’s Market on November 6 for an intimate evening of small bites, wine and beer. A butcher demo and a live auction will take place, and all proceeds will go directly to the support the team’s journey.
The butchered meat that’s produced from every practice plays a huge role in fundraising. At Taylor’s Market, locals line up to for WBC (World Butchers’ Challenge) sausages and quality cuts of meat that comes out of their training sessions. “Everything gets used,” says Johnson. It’s a time to show Sacramento locals what the team is most excited about: the art of butchering and the team’s craft.
Winning the meat medal
“Just pride,” Johnson says, when chatting about the goal of winning. “Winning will be a conversation starter in the industry. We’re just six guys that are going to represent the United States. If nothing else, we’re groundbreaking.” In Johnson’s 35 years in business, he’s most excited to see the enthusiasm of his local community. “Being a butcher went away,” he says. “But it’s alive and thriving again.”