Interview with Laura the Butcher
Laura Posiak’s culinary journey has taken her around the world – from New York to California and Italy to the South Pacific. Steamboat Food & Wine Festival Owner, Nicole Jarman sits down the Butcher, Charcutiere and Educator for a candid conversation.
Nicole: Okay, we’re live. Thank you so much for joining us.
Laura: Of course, thanks for having me!
Nicole: Laura the Butcher. So tell me, let’s start at the beginning. Where are you from? Are you from Steamboat?
Laura: No, I’m not from Steamboat. I actually grew up about an hour north of Toronto…Ontario. I lived in Canada until I was about 16 and then I moved to the states with my mother and we went right from middle of nowhere town to living about an hour outside of New York City on Long Island. From there I’ve kinda like hopped around. That big move gave me the bug and I just have enjoyed hopping around the States ever since. I lived in San Francisco, I lived in Boston, Connecticut and Maine and now Colorado! Steamboat! I’ve been here for about 2 years now.
Nicole: You don’t sound Canadian. Say “about”. hahahah
Laura: Sometimes it comes out. You might hear a little twang here and there during this conversation.
Nicole: We’ll give you a glass of wine and then maybe we’ll hear it.
Laura: And then I’ll try to speak French hahahah
Nicole: Love it. So you have a culinary background? You went to culinary school? Am I correct on that?
Laura: Yea, absolutely. When I moved to New York with my mother I was in my second year of high school and just did not know what I wanted to do. Going away to college but I’ve always had an affinity for food. I grew up cooking with my grandmother…a huge polish family making perogies, eating fresh kielbasa and I’ve always loved food so my stepfather at the time was like, “hey you should try out culinary school.” So I did and I loved it! I went to culinary school in upstate New York and at the time it was one of the only four year culinary programs. That’s what drew me to that. I got my bachelor’s in culinary in service management and then I just booked a one way ticket to San Francisco. I started working in some restaurants.
Nicole: And just like, walked in the door in San Francisco and said, “I’m here and I want to cook”??
Laura: That’s kinda how you do it when you’re a young line cook and you just want to start learning. I had a place to stay for about 3 nights and I just had a stack of my resumes. I went restaurant hopping handing those out and said “Here’s my resume, I want to cook for you.” I managed to get a couple trial shifts and I managed to get a job after 2 days. I got an apartment real quick or a room actually and just went for it!
Nicole: Do you remember the name of the first restaurant?
Laura: So the first restaurant I worked out was called the Mission Beach Cafe and they’re not open anymore but what I loved about it was that the chef went to the farmers market every week to get fresh produce. He would go at 5’oclock in the morning before anyone would get there and would just get flats of everything and bring it back. That’s what we would cook for the week and I loved that. That’s what drew me in at first and it was also a really small kitchen so there were only 3 line cooks. That allowed me to learn a lot which was awesome!
Nicole: Oh I love that. That’s the way it should be right, they should be cooking with local produce! It’s the Salt of the earth.
Laura: Yea it was awesome! A chef in college told me that if you really want to learn about food you shouldn’t work anywhere for more than a year because you’ll learn something in the kitchen and another kitchen is going to do it completely differently, it’ll be a whole new cuisine. So I worked at Mission Beach Cafe for a year and then I moved on to the total opposite type of place where there were 12 line cooks. It was a 250 seat restaurant with really phenomenal food. They also bought fresh produce and local everything. That job was more about honing my skills because their menu changed daily. Every time I went into work I would have no idea what I was going to be cooking. Stations would change every day so it really trained your creative brain to adapt and just go! That was phenomenal. That ended up being my last line cook job, not because I hated it, but because I was more intrigued by what else was out there. I was constantly drawn to the farmers markets, and to the farmers. After that line job I decided to leave and begin farming. I farmed for a few years still hopping around because my mom lived on the east coast. I did farming in Connecticut and Massachusetts. I’d farm in the states during the summer time and during the winter I would travel. I worked with the WWOOF program. It allows you to travel and farm in exchange for room and board.
Nicole: I didn’t know that existed.
Laura: Yea it’s called WWOOF (Willing Workers on Organic Farms). There are tons of countries that are a part of it. It’s an incredible way to learn about international foods because you travel. I went to Australia for the first time and you get a list of farmers who are part of it and you just farm and check off countries. You can work here and there for a couple weeks at a time. I worked on an organic fruit farm and some bed and breakfast places with organic gardens. I did the same thing in Europe the next year and lived in France and Italy and worked on a honey farm and I worked in these castles with these gardens. I finally landed on a farm where they were harvesting their pigs. It was a small house and they had 2 pigs they’d harvest every year. I happened to be there at that time. I was so fascinated by it. The town was small and they had a town butcher who would come and harvest your pigs for you. He came to the house and we spent a whole week processing these pigs into everything under the sun. We made prosciuttos and copas and head cheese and skin sausage and salamis. I was completely blown away. We used practically everything. It was my first introduction into whole animal butchery.
That was 10 years ago. I’ve pretty much been hooked ever since. From the culinary side I moved into farming and then I found butchery. That’s what I’ve been focusing on ever since. That town butcher is what I wanted to be.
Nicole: I love that story…that’s incredible!
Laura: It was so cool! From 2 whole pigs, that’s a lot of weight and at the very end there was only about 3 lbs left of unusable product which is phenomenal.
Nicole: Roughly, what did the pig weigh? 200 lbs?
Laura: Exactly…a full grown pig is between 200-250 lbs including skin and all. It was turned into these delectable products.
Nicole: Tell me something we don’t normally think of when we think of a pig.
Laura: They definitely focus on curing more of the pig. Here we turn it into ham or canadian bacons. We’ll cure quickly and smoke it for a ham dinner. There they focus on the long cure where it cures for 6 months to a year. They’ll cure the jowl or they take the pork belly and instead of turning it into bacon they’ll hang it and they’ll make pancetta. It’s all these things instead of consuming this pig in large portions, very quickly they use it in small amounts and make it last through the year. The skin sausage is the biggest mind blowing thing that I hadn’t heard of before I went to italy. I had to do the brunt work of cutting the skin into little cubes. I had to shave the inside of the pig’s ear….I thought it was a joke!
Nicole: Why do you shave it?
Laura: Because we were using all the skin off the head so the hair needed to come off. We mix in some meat and a whole bunch of spices and you turn it into this sausage that if you cook appropriately by simmering it over a few hours it breaks down the collagen and becomes a very rich flavorful succulent sausage. I’ll make it every time I can get my hands on some pig skin and it’s the biggest WOW changer that everyone says is amazing.
Nicole: Can you find it at the store? You look for skin sausage?
Laura: Yes it’s called cotechino and you could find it in an italian market in a bigger city. You could probably find it in Denver but not at City Market. hahahah
Nicole: So you’re in Italy, you don’t speak Italian and the butcher just shows you what he wants you to do?
Laura: Yes! They were having a great time too. The whole thing was a celebration of the pig. Every piece that he wanted to cure, he would put it in a pot and put a layer of salt and spices and then put the next part of the meat in and another layer of salt and spices. He would pour grappa all over it and then he’d drink some himself and pass around the bottle. Meanwhile outside they had a massive cauldron that they boil the pigs’ heads’ in all day. We all stood around a marble table and picked apart the meat afterwards. It was all being mixed together with spices. Then we put all the meat into pillowcases and they had a wooden press they’d use to press it down and let it cool. That’s how they made their head cheese. It hardens up and becomes a meat cake of sorts. It was delicious! You slice it up and eat it with mustard. It was amazing! It was something I’d never seen before.
Nicole: You talked about nose to tail only having 3 lbs left over. I’m guessing that’s not the norm.
Laura: Nose to tail butchery is considered an artisanal way of processing. Here in the states we use the whole pig but it’s not in an exciting way. Yes, the bones are used and put into hot dogs or dog food or who knows where it goes. There’s not that celebration of everything. There’s no excitement about it. To cherish the animal and the meat in front of you is something beautiful. It’s 100% my belief system and what I practice.
Nicole: When I started running farmers markets about 15 years ago I realized that people just assume that the food they’re getting is good, real, ethically sourced and farmed and it makes it so much better when there is love around the production of it.
Laura: Absolutely and overall just making that connection between you and the animal. There’s no doubt about it, if you have an image of that animal in your head and how it was raised…it’s going to change the taste. It elevates the whole experience when you have that connection to the food you’re enjoying.
Nicole: Do you remember the movie “Like Water for Chocolate”? Where the way the food is made and the emotion that goes into it affects how people feel. If it’s made with anger, the people eating it get sick. If it’s made with love…..
Laura: 100%. A bowl of spaghetti is going to taste different if you made it yourself than if your Italian grandmother made it and it’s in a big pot with everyone sitting around together eating it. Same ingredients same everything but it tastes better. It’s that connection to everything. Going to Italy and seeing these pigs (I wasn’t there for the life of them) but I saw where they were raised and how they lived. They were in beautiful meadows and pastures and they had a pond they’d roll around in. Just seeing the owners and how they were treated going to the slaughterhouse. The owners feel like “this is our meat for the year, take care of them. I don’t want stress meat when it comes back.” Seeing the happiness and the excitement when it came into creating this food. It 100% shines through. 100%. That’s something that is a universal emotion. A lot of people haven’t had that experience but it’s changing in the world and it’s exciting.
Nicole: It is. It is. So how did you get from Italy to Steamboat.
Laura: Ever since Italy I’ve been trying to incorporate butchery into my world in one way or another. I came back and I worked in San Francisco at phenomenal deli. They sold local meats. I learned a lot. A lot about animal farmers that way and learned how to talk to consumers about meat. I learned about the different cuts there because it was a custom butcher shop too. From there I moved to Maine and I was working at a whole animal butcher shop there. Meanwhile doing a ton of things on my own just learning. I tried to make head cheese again in my small apartment in San Francisco but it was such a mess! But anywhere I went I just kept experimenting on my own. I started getting into the educational aspect and brought in the culinary experience with that too. I developed and taught one of the first butchery programs at a culinary community college in Maine which was so much fun. They made me really fall in love with talking and teaching butchery and seeing a huge interest and demand for that too. My goal in the back of my head was always to find my community where I can be that town butcher.
Nicole: The town butcher! Yes!
Laura: The town butcher! I just really wanted to help the community really get to know the meat that’s around them and how to cook meat and be that person that they can call and say, “Laura! How do I cook this piece of meat that’s in front of me?!” At that point I met my spouse and we talked about moving to Colorado. We had never been to Steamboat Springs and just heard about it through the grapevine and just heard we would love it here. And we do. We were here for a month and just knew it was the place. I managed at a restaurant for a bit just to get my feet wet in the community. But it became clear very quickly that there was an interest and a demand for these types of services. I was really excited to branch off and start my first business here. It started with one of my big passions which was charcuterie and cured meats. I do really fancy meat and cheese platters, charcuterie boards, things like that. I’m also focusing on a private whole animal custom butchery business too connecting the local farmers to the community. I’ve also been lucky enough to connect with the college, the Colorado Mountain College here. Before COVID started I was teaching butchery class there every month and we would do a fried chicken and biscuits class and breakdown a whole chicken. We were doing sausage making and it was just so much fun. The other exciting project is the boys and girls club in town here…it was supposed to start last month. Sad face.
Nicole: This is meat school right?
Laura: Yes. Exactly.
Nicole: Meat Skool with a K?!
Laura: Yes with a K because that makes it way cooler. Meat education is important to me. I want to teach kids things I wish I knew when I was a kid. Just starting the education at an earlier age. I think that starting the education earlier can help create those sustainable meat eating practices throughout their life. Meat Skool is just a fun after school program for the boys and girls club but I’m hoping to expand Meat Skool at my shop and at another area. I want to talk to kids and make it fun. Where does bacon come from? Why does it taste so good? Where do chicken tenders come from? Why are they not shaped like a dinosaur, you know?! That’s not how they come from the chicken. I just want to teach kids and teenagers the stuff I didn’t know at that age.
Nicole: Well think about when we were middle school, high school age…I think when you were conscious of the environment you just became a vegetarian. At some point in all our lives I think we were vegetarians for a bit because we didn’t want to hurt animals. There was no education around humanely including animals in your life and the life cycle of animals and the integrity piece. There’s a way to still enjoy the protein in a humane way.
Laura: I agree with you 100%. Even in my young journey, especially when I got into the farming world I was a little at a split point in my life where I had a huge distaste for the meat industry that we have in this world. I was at a point where I felt I needed to be a vegetarian or I need to become part of this and help it. I have respect for vegetarians and vegans because they’re standing up for something and they’re not happy with it. I do believe wholeheartedly that there is an ethical way to consume meat. There are tons of people who are raising meat right and in an ethical way. I could go on and on about that but educating people that there is a way to eat meat and not feel guilty about it. That’s something that still needs to happen but essentially if someone becomes a vegetarian that’s fantastic from a belief point of view but you’re taking yourself off the map in terms of standing up for the farmers that are doing it right. The more we can communicate and create those connections to food the quicker this is going to happen. We’re in a really interesting place currently just with where the meat industry is right now with COVID. We’re coming into this massive meat shortage but what’s happening is there’s becoming an increased demand for local meat. People ask “where should I get my meat from now?” and there are all these places, check it out! And they just have no idea. It’s a phenomenal time to get that exposure happening. To say, “here are your local farmers, here’s what they do! They want to meet you. So looking at the bright side of what’s happening right now, there’s definitely an increase in exposure of local farmers which is cool.
Nicole: So could somebody call you and say, “I want to purchase a portion of a pig or a cow?” And you could say, “these are the farmers that you should talk to…”
Laura: Exactly. That’s kind of the system that I saw as a newcomer to this town. How can I put myself in there and help aid these connections. I’ve connected with a number of local farmers so when a customer calls me up and is interested in a quarter or half a cow or pig or lamb then I go through and call the farmers and see what is available. I’m starting to get to know them more and now know what they usually have throughout the year. Then I connect the customer and they purchase the animal from the farmer. Or if they only need a portion then I try to connect other people to get the whole thing sold. It’s working! I tell them that we start this unless we sell the whole thing so then they ask their friends and we all start talking about it. The next thing I know….we sold the whole cow. Then we get it to the slaughterhouse. l pick it up from there and I process it. I try to bring a really exciting stance to processing it so when people get their box of meat for their freezer they feel excited about it. Every cut is really clearly labeled with a diagram of where it came from on the cow. Cut they may have never heard of with a tips and tricks sheet on how to cook it. I give them flavor combinations and tell them how to cook the beef and temperatures and how cooking grass fed beef is different than cooking grain fed beef. All kinds of fun stuff like that. In the past buying bulk animals can be daunting. Yes, it’s an economical way to fill your freezer with meat but a lot of times these cuts you’ve never heard of our cooked a lot of end up in the bottom of the freezer. Taking an exciting approach to it and knowing you can call and ask questions about how to cut it or cook it makes it easier. Then there’s the burger! I make these banging gourmet burgers! Yesterday I was cooking carmelized onion and aged provolone burgers with truffle pecorino burgers and jalapeno cheddar. Just making an assortment of gourmet burgers that can stay in your freezer too so you don’t just have 40 lbs of ground beef sitting there.
Nicole: I wouldn’t have even thought you need to cook grass fed beef differently than grain fed beef. I would have no idea.
Laura: Yes just little things like that. The protein develops differently and tends to be a little bit leaner so it cooks quicker. Some cuts just do better with a marinade or more tenderizing. For example, 100% grass finished beef definitely has a super rich flavor and there are things you can do to bring that out even more.
Nicole: I just heard the Canadian accent by the way!
Laura: You did?
Nicole: “Out.” I heard it. hahah. Ok so a whole cow. If you’re a family of four you don’t need a whole cow?
Laura: No a family of four would probably need a quarter and that would last you a quarter of a year depending on how much meat you eat. But what’s really common is that people will split a quarter of a cow with their friends so they get 1/8 of a cow or something like that. You only need a small chest freezer is a great investment for anyone. Then you can get your quarter of a cow and your half pig and half lamb. You can create a bounty of rich goodness in your freezer.
Nicole: I love it. Ok so you do the catering business, you do the Meat Skool, you’re opening a wine bar?
Laura: Yes. A charcuterie board with wine.
Nicole: How are you going to do all these things?
Laura: What I’m excited about is to bring more people into this. Ive had a few people come up to me and say they’d love to whole animal butcher and I would love to teach them! Just bringing more people into it because I can’t do it all myself.
Nicole: Right now you do it all yourself?
Laura: Right now it’s just me and I’m having a great time! Living in Steamboat makes it so I have to work with the ebbs and flows of seasonality. In the winter and summer time the charcuterie business is going to take off and the catering business is going to take off. In the mud seasons, in the fall and spring most farmers are harvesting their animals anyways so it’s a great time for me to focus on the butchery end of things and to work on the classes, the locals, the community, the people who are here year round. Focus on the kids, you know?!
Nicole: It’s a perfect ecocycle!
Laura: So far, so good! It’s really flowing pretty nicely.
Nicole: I love it! I did not know the extent of your story! I love that you got your hands dirty and have tried everything. You’ve got the experience in everything!
Laura: The possibilities in the food world are absolutely endless! I encourage people to go out and work with food in any ways they can until they find what clicks. There’s a lot of pressure in culinary school to leave and go get a job and eventually be an executive chef and to own your own restaurant. But that path isn’t for everyone. There are so many other outlets in the food world than just owning a restaurant. I just had to find mine!
Nicole: You do. You think of culinary school and going to work at a restaurant and open a restaurant. It seems very singular.
Laura: I’ve had a lot of young people approach me and say they don’t even know how to get into the butchery world. I didn’t either. I just stumbled upon it and sought it out. The butchery world is growing and it’s starting to trend which is phenomenal. Anyone that has any interest in butchery can approach it the same way you’d approach working in restaurants. If you want to learn something you just go out there and ask. The best people in the food world are people that care about the food they’re working with and they’re interested. If anyone wants to learn how to butcher or work with whole animals just message me and you can come work!
Nicole: I’m going to spread your information to the masses. I don’t know where this is going to go yet but we’ll certainly be seeing you at food and wine.
Laura: I can’t wait! It’s going to be so much fun!
Nicole: I have so many thoughts for you…we’ll keep chatting. I’m seeing some dinners at ranches.
Laura: The space I’m creating, I’m hoping to be just that European style welcoming, educational space that where we can just celebrate food and meat and farmers and wine and all those amazing things. Having farm dinners and having a chef and pairing them with a farmer and having meals that you showcase that farmer. I think that would be incredible.
Nicole: Does the new space have a name yet? Is it secret?
Laura: We are teetering. Part of me just wants to call it Meat Bar but Laura the Butcher is totally up there. It is what it is, my name’s Laura and I’m a butcher so it might just be called LTB Meat Bar.
Nicole: I love it. Laura you’ve done a beautiful job with your branding. I love everything that you stand for…you’re just amazing. I met you at the beginning of last year when you were just starting it.
Laura: Oh yes, you met me when I was still working at Mambo’s…that’s right! Yes! I’ve come a long way. Everything I’ve created here is just what the community around me is getting excited about and if you were to ask me what I was going to be doing, I would have said I’d be catering some weddings or something like that. It’s just that ever since I’ve jumped in it’s taken off. ONly because of my surroundings.
Nicole: Because it was meant to be. You’re so amazing! I love it!
Laura: Thanks so much for reaching out…it was so fun.
Nicole: We’ll talk soon!