Authors: nytimes Diners Journal
Back of House, an occasional column, celebrates the unsung characters who animate the restaurant universe.
It was 55 degrees in the butcher room, and Nancy Perez was intensely breaking down a 25-pound, prime, dry-aged, bone-in sirloin primal, a major beef cut that must be sliced into smaller restaurant portions. Ms. Perez, the 39-year-old butcher at the Lambs Club in Manhattan, glanced again at a sheet taped to the wall by a sous-chef the previous evening. This was her 20-item order checklist for the day’s menus, and included beef, poultry and fish – as well as the pasta Ms. Perez must extrude, and the turkeys and chickens she must brine. “Nancy handles very expensive inventory, $6,000 or $7,000 a day,” said Eric Haugen, executive chef of the Lambs.
She learned the restaurant trade in her native Mexico, and mastered butchery in kitchens and in culinary courses after she moved here 12 years ago. She takes the train each morning from Woodside, Queens, to arrive at work by 7 a.m., often traveling with her husband, Adalberto, chief steward and purchaser at the Lambs. In seven minutes, Ms. Perez had cut and trimmed the primal into 11 perfect 16-ounce steaks and 16 ribs.
It’s hard to be a woman and be a butcher. Just because you’re a woman, many restaurants won’t give you a chance to apply. I’m not a burly guy in a long coat – that’s what they expect a butcher to be. So it’s hard to compete with men.
Good to the Bone
When I’m cutting, I follow the bone. This is a six-inch boning knife. It’s stiff, narrow, with some flex to it. It works like an extension of my hand. For cutting the steak, I switch to a 10-inch slicing knife. I have 15 knives, from a 4-inch paring knife to 6-inch slicers. I wore out six of them in the last three years, and replaced them. They’re all Japanese knives, because they’re lighter and easier to sharpen.
The Silence of the Lambs
I love working with proteins. It’s not monotonous. I just focus in, and don’t say much. It’s a Zen thing.
Pounding It Out
On a busy day, I work on 250 pounds of meat – beef, lamb, poultry – and 200 pounds of fish, from cod to loup de mer to lobsters. The chickens are Amish from Pennsylvania, three and a half pounds apiece. A lot of that goes to the chicken paillard at lunch. I just pound them out.
The Family Business
I worked my way up from salads. I was in the kitchens in Kobe Club, Buddakan and Country before the Lambs. Now my children – Francisco, Adriana and Alexis – all work in restaurants, to pay for their studies.
Do Try This at Home
People are always afraid to work with a really sharp knife, they worry that they’ll get cut. But the sharper the better. It’s less of a struggle with the meat, and in the end it’s safer. As for learning, it’s best to have someone teach you – but now there are so many online videos, and also the cooking shows on television.
Division of Labor
At home, I’m not the butcher. My husband, Adalberto, is. You know? I’m not paid, in my house.
This interview has been condensed and edited.