RETAIL butchering has traditionally been a male-dominant, if not male-exclusive domain, but the nation’s inaugural National Butchering Apprentice of the Year thinks there is plenty of scope for that to change.
Third-year apprentice butcher Kyla Howard is bemused when a customer asks her if she would mind “asking the butcher to bone something out for them”, but understands the gender stereotype that has existed forever in the industry.
“They often show surprise when I whip out the knife and do it myself,” she smiles.
Kyla on Saturday earned the title of National Apprentice of the Year, decided in front of a large audience of about 150 butchers alongside the Australian Meat Industry Council’s National Sausage Kings finals held in the NSW Hunter Valley.
Representing Western Australia, she was chosen for the inaugural crown over five other state finalists from across the nation.
Twenty-five year old Kyla, who completes her apprenticeship in three months, could not have come better prepared for the competition, having worked since 2011 for legendary WA master butcher Vince Garaffa at his highly-regarded Mondo’s Butchers shop in the Perth suburb of Inglewood.
To earn the crown, Kyla and the other state finalists were given a “Mystery Box” of selected beef and lamb cuts and other ingredients, with which they had to develop a series of value-added retail products that were not only appealing to the eye, but good eating and economically attractive as a retailing proposition.
This year’s mystery box contained an MSA beef rump and a bone-in MSA leg of lamb, plus an assortment of herbs, garnishes and other ingredients. The contestants had an hour and a half to devise and execute a series of products for the display cabinet, and as can be seen from Kyla’s work pictured here, an extraordinary array of diverse, appetising items was generated from just two cuts.
“I was lucky, because Vince and Mondo Butchery take a lot of pride in their value-adding work. So it wasn’t something that was new to me, and we did a lot of training before the competition,” Kyla said.
“Vince really encourages us to think outside the square, to be creative, and look a bit differently at how we interpret value-added products in the shop,” she said.
“I’d say I enjoy that value-added products part of butchering most of all, even more than working out-front with the customers. It’s the way independent butchery is trending – it helps them stand out from the supermarket meat offers, and provides customers with both convenience and variety.”
Kyla thinks one of her best assets in her work is her background in the cattle industry, having shown stud cattle, worked in a feedlot and being brought-up on a farm in southern WA.
She originally started a course at Uni after completing school but found it “a bit dry” and takes much more satisfaction out of the hands-on skills required swinging a butcher’s or boner’s knife.
Her long-term goal is to experience work along the beef supply chain – literally from paddock to plate. Having worked with cattle and in lotfeeding in her earlier years provided ‘so much’ from a butchery perspective, she said.
“Even being able to accurately reply to a customer’s inquiry about grass or grainfed cattle diets is a huge advantage in the shop, and something I’m very comfortable with,” she said. “Equally, knowing the butchering side means I now evaluate an animal a little differently, on the hoof,” she said.
An obviously confident and accomplished communicator, Kyla is equally at home manning the front counter talking with customers as she is out in the prep-room.
“I like talking to people, especially with my farming background. A lot of the time, I find them still really quite uneducated about the production side of the industry. It’s my chance to fill in some gaps, correct them if necessary, or clarify things that they weren’t too sure about. It’s all about instilling confidence in the integrity of the product.”
She said the retail market in WA was now really breaking down into a whole series of niches, rather than simply supplying commodity beef, with some retailers specialising in grassfed, natural or Organic supply, for example. The Mondo shop in which she works supplements its regular beef supply with a couple of Certified Organic carcases each week, to service customers keen on that end of the market.
“It’s definitely becoming more popular among our customer base,” Kyla said.
She said it was hard to escape the fact that females working as professional butchers remain a rare sight in Australia.
“Everybody still comments on it,” she said. “But growing up at home and in my earlier working life, I always tended to be in bloke-dominated environments, so it’s never bothered me.”
So does being a lone female butcher mean she has a different relationship with customers than that of her male counterparts?
“Some treat me a little differently. Some like the boys better, because it’s more familiar, but generally, it works very well having the mix,” she said. “A lot of our customers think it’s great.”
While there are obviously a lot of female staff working as counter-hands and in cooking and preparation in the retail butchery industry, Kyla has struck only two other females working as butchers in the trade in Western Australia. “It’s fair to say we’re still rare, but I like it that way,” she said.
“Even my fellow competitors in the national finals on Saturday were surprised when I showed up.”
Long-term, Kyla wants to complete her ‘supply chain’ employment journey, either gaining experience in cattle buying, or wholesale meat sales for a processor or meat broker.
“I love butchering, but it would be nice to think that at some time I could experience work right from one end of the chain to the other,” she said.
- Runners-up to Kyla for the inaugural National Apprentice of the Year title on Saturday were Tasmania’s Josh Sharner, from Vermey’s Quality Meats, Sandy Bay (second), and Robert Smallman, the Gully Meat Service, Tea Tree Gully, South Australia, (third).
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