TRAVERSE CITY — Students crowded around Christoph Weisner while he disassembled half of a pig using a filet knife, a boning knife and a chainmail-clad hand.
The seasoned butcher's hands moved slower Tuesday morning than they would if he wasn't pausing every few minutes to point out an important cutting technique here and a way to minimize waste there. Still, it took only about 40 minutes for Weisner to disassemble half of a full-grown hog and prepare cuts of meat for use.
The students, many of them accomplished chefs, craned their necks to catch a glimpse of the seams where Weisner separated muscle groups to preserve the tenderness of the meat. The Austrian farmer and purveyor of Mangalitsa hogs was among a cast of experts who made up the instructor corps for the fourth annual Pigstock TC, an event aimed at helping chefs become more in tune with the meat they cook and serve.
"Every chef should go through this," said John Hoagland, managing partner for Cherry Capital Foods and Pigstock organizer. "Chefs are used to getting meat in a box with no connection to the animal. If you're going to be a carnivore or omnivore, you might as well know where your food comes from."
The three-day clinic featured Brian Polcyn and Michael Ruhlman, two men recognized as experts on charcuterie. Polcyn, a nationally recognized chef, and Ruhlman, a renowned food blogger, author and cook, authored a book on the subject together that was released in 2005 and earned them James Beard Award nominations.
The three men and Weisner's wife, Isabell-Christina, worked together to show 22 students how to butcher a whole pig from killing it to preparing refined cuts of meat. They began at Blackstar Farms on Monday and moved inside at the Haggerty Center on the Great lakes Campus of Northwestern Michigan College for the rest of the course.
The idea is to familiarize chefs with the animal and remove roadblocks that may make them apprehensive about buying hogs either whole or half to use in their own restaurants.
"I think it's important they have the chance for the first time to see the animal this way," Weisner said. "You know what this piece of meat had to do in the animal. When we started this I was thinking they would know more."
Both Weisner and Hoagland say the modernization of the American food supply in recent decades has removed many chefs' contact with the animals whose meat they cook. A chef can order a pork shoulder or chops from a supplier and never know where on the pig that meat came from. It is knowledge says is important if a chef intends to cook meat properly.
Weisner looked to the class after he sliced the last morsel of meat away from the pig's left shoulder blade and dropped it in a bin. Put it back together, he said, before walking away to clean his hands.
The dozen students, including Brian Ackerman crowded around the stainless steel butcher table and began to lay the cuts of meat back where they imagined they originated.
Weisner smiled and shook his head while watching the effort from a spot a few feet removed.
The students managed to arrange the largest four sections of the half in order but mixed up their orientations. The bins of smaller cuts that eventually will be made into things like sausage were a little tougher.
After a few minutes of trying to fit square pegs in round holes, Weisner stepped back to the table and laid each bit scrap and morsel in its rightful place.
"It's about honoring the animal," Hoagland said. "If you're going to kill the animal you want to use everything you can."
A few minutes later, Polcyn asked the class to turn their attention to another table nearby where he began disassembling the other half of the pig.
"You cut the pig on how your're going to utilize it," he said. "I just always did my own butchery because I could make more money that way. You can save one to two percent on your food costs. I cut a pig every five weeks."
Polcyn then began to teach the class about the five primal cuts on the pig — butt, shoulder, picnic, center cut loin and fresh ham.
He taught them how to recognize whether the animal was stressed when it was killed and what quality hogs look like.
After watching the experts, the students were turned loose to cut apart their own pig halves.
They are skills the instructors and Hoagland hope will change how the chefs look at the meat they cook and serve.