Training the Next Generation of Craft Butchers

Reader Contribution by Familyfarmed.Org
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Kari Underly of Range Meat Partners and Grrls Meat Camp, was part of the Good Food Financing Fair this year, and we asked Bob Benenson to check in about her plan for a comprehensive butchering academy in Chicago

The farm-to-table movement brings with it nose-to-tail eating as well, honoring animals by being careful to utilize the whole animal. There is great growth right now in the small-farm, pastured meat business, but this means we need more and more well-trained craft butchers.

Portland has Camas Davis, southern California has Lindy and Grundy, and Chicago has The Butcher and Larder and now we bring you Kari Underly who has a plan to train the next generation of craft butchers. 

Kari Underly, an Indiana native and Chicago resident, is known nationally for her mastery of meat cutting. Her skill at butchery led her in 2002 to start Range, a consulting firm based in Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood that provides education and training, research and development, merchandising, and creative services for the fresh meat and perishable food industries.

Kari and her James Beard Award nominated book, The Art of Beef Cutting
Photo courtesy: Range Meat Partners

Now Underly has drawn up a business plan and 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.”

Underly made her case for this project at the Financing Fair staged by during its Good Food Festival and Conference held March 14-16, 2013 in Chicago, and said she gained confidence from the fact that a number of people stayed after the presentations to learn more about her project. “It’s more affirmation that this concept is right on target,” she says.

Underly plans to reach out to angel investors who put capital into new business, and says she will also inquire to see if there are restaurant groups that will want to put some money into the Academy. She is all ears if someone wants to partner on the project: “This is bigger than myself. So if somebody shares the passion and wants to partner, I’m also looking for that too. I need like-minded people who can help.”

And Underly hopes the project might attract public grants and/or tax concessions because of its educational mission, its job-producing potential and its link to the heritage of a city long known, through the poetry of Carl Sandburg, as “hog butcher to the world.”

She says, “I’d like to find a way to get to the mayor [and] Michelle Obama. People say, ‘Kari, you’re crazy.’ But I say, ‘No, this is a big idea.’”

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.”

Underly’s vision for the Academy includes a restaurant at which students would learn how to cook the meat they cut, and a retail meat counter. In each of these facilities, students would learn how to interact with customers, a skill that ultimately would help them succeed if they go into business for themselves.

Underly also says supporting a sustainable meat industry is one of her three goals for the Range Meat Academy, along with establishing the industry’s premier butcher training and certification program and elevating the value of the butcher’s trade.

She wants to build her school in the West Loop neighborhood in part to help preserve the area’s history as a food processing and wholesaling center, which in recent years has been challenged by gentrification. But she also foresees a possibility of providing economic development, jobs and healthful food options to distressed parts of the city, including some that have been labeled “food deserts.”

Says Underly, “The school could produce some of the products and then open up satellite businesses on the South Side and the West Side and bring these good quality meats and skills into these neighborhoods.”

The star of Grrls Meat Camp, Chicago: A 205 lb Duroc Hog
Photo courtesy: Lily Baker

There are few butchers today of either gender who have the experience or family history in meat processing as does Underly. She is a third-generation meat cutter and learned the trade from her father at the family-owned Underly’s Market, which was located in Lydick, Indiana, just west of South Bend and about 90 miles from Chicago. Underly put her skills to print with a book titled The Art of Beef Cutting (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2011), and has made numerous television and radio appearances.

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,” along with Kate Hill, who runs the Kitchen-at-Camont, a culinary retreat in southwest France.

The latest Grrls Meat Camp took place April 12-14 at Napoleon Ridge Farm in Napoleon, Kentucky, located about 40 miles southwest of Cincinnati. Underly is also scheduled to lead a Women Working in the Meat Business Retreat in Chapel Hill, N.C., May 20-22, which is being presented by the organization NC Choices and sponsored by the Farm Credit Associations of North Carolina.

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 — from relatively benign (suggestions she focus on ‘women’s jobs’ like the deli) to passive-aggressive (male co-workers who would not speak to her) to hostile, including inappropriate touching and “men who dropped trou in the cooler.”

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.” Underly said she knew of five butcher shops that have been recently opened around the nation, and they’ve all been opened by women.

Want to know more about Kari Underly and her plans for Range Meat Academy?  Get in touch with her for more information!

We at and the Good Food Festival & Conference are proud to support her efforts to reinvigorate the art of butchery in the Midwest and around the country!

Author Bob Benenson is a journalist specializing in food and drink, with a focus on sustainability. Prior to relocating to Chicago in 2011, he covered elections and other things political at Congressional Quarterly in Washington, D.C., for 30 years. An avid home cook and fan of farmers’ markets and craft beverage makers, Bob lives with his wife Barb and cat Gracie in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood.

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