An Engineer With a Butcher’s Knife

Tucker Larson, a butcher, talks about taking a break from college in Philadelphia to work at a restaurant in New Orleans.

Tucker Larson  (Rebecca Clarke )

I first heard about the restaurant Bourrée at Boucherie from a friend in New Orleans last year. I was beyond amused that there existed a restaurant with my unusual name, and that I could finally get a taste of what it feels like when the Joes of the world walk into a Joe’s Pub or Joe’s Restaurant. I couldn’t help but take The Atlantic’s ongoing series of interviews with American workers as an opportunity to learn more about my namesake eatery.

Bourrée, the restaurant, specializes in daiquiris and wings. It’s owned by Nathaniel Zimet, a chef, and his business partner James Denio, and the restaurant has its own butcher, Tucker Larson. Larson was pursuing a degree in environmental engineering when he decided to take a break from school and work at a restaurant.

For The Atlantic’s series of interviews with American workers, I spoke with him about what it’s like to change career paths, whether he’ll stay in butchery, and what he’s learned about food and himself by working at Bourrée. The interview that follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Bourree Lam: How did you get started as a butcher?

Tucker Larson: I've been working at Bourrée for just over a year;I started September 2, 2015. Actually, I had just moved down to New Orleans a couple weeks before and was looking on Craigslist and saw the apprentice butcher position. The restaurant expanded—they opened up a new spot and they were trying to do more of a meat-market deal, where they butcher for their restaurant next door, Boucherie.

They didn't have anyone in this position. It wasn't necessarily what I wanted to do, but I thought it would be a pretty cool way to learn a different skill set that I had no clue about.

Before I moved to New Orleans, I was going to college up in Philadelphia at Drexel University studying environmental engineering. It was a five-year program and I was three years through it. When I went in, I was very excited about it [but] I just lost the excitement and I needed a change. I've always thought New Orleans was awesome, and I wanted to work with food. I decided to take a break, and I'm a year into that break and really enjoying what I’m doing now.

Lam: How did you decide to apply to be an apprentice butcher? Were you surprised when they got back to you, because it was a posting on Craigslist?

Larson: I came down to New Orleans to look for work in a restaurant and to do a little more hands-on stuff. I was just looking for jobs; I was talking to friends and I was checking Craigslist every day. I just saw the ad and I sent Nathaniel, the head chef and owner, an email. He got back to me later that day.

I don't really know what I was thinking. I was eating lunch with one of my friends when I got the call. I've always wanted to know how to butcher, and understand the importance of butchery. Instead of starting on the [cooking] line—where you have all these products that are already set for you—I started from the bottom, where you have to create the products.

Lam: What do you think about the name of the restaurant?

Larson: I never really thought about it until this interview. I've thought about the term Boucherie, the parent restaurant, because I've been to a Cajun, traditional-style boucherie. I was sitting here, thinking about it today. It's funny because, in passing by, I've heard customers talk about the card game Bourré and how they played it as a kid. I've heard that it's a term for a drinking. I think it's pretty funny, to be quite honest. I think it's a clever name, and it fits with Boucherie. I think the two go hand in hand.

Lam: Do you see butchery as a possible career now?

Larson: I do, potentially, see it as a career. I don't know if I'd be a butcher for the rest of my life, but I think the skills that I've gained while working here in the past year have definitely changed my direction in life. I would like to go back and finish school, but that's more of a completion thing than it is a desire to do environmental engineering.

Lam: What’s a typical workday like for you?

Larson: At Boucherie, the casual fine-dining restaurant for Bourrée, whole ducks come in. They work with beef, as well. Bourrée gets two pigs a week, and we process them. Most of the meat I work with is duck and pig. Obviously, there's not so much you can do with duck—you can break them down, make duck breast, confit the leg, and other things, but those are the two things that we do at Boucherie.

For the pig, there are different directions you can go. We have a smoker that we run most days, which I'm responsible for. We do a lot of pulled pork for sandwiches. A lot of the pork goes toward pulled pork, but then you have the middle sections and the more desirable cuts that you can turn into different things. We have a curing cabinet where we cure specific cuts from the pig that are extremely valuable, such as the coppa, which comes out of the shoulder. We do a lomo, which is the pork loin.

Basically, what we do is we take the pig and figure out how to best preserve it and create different flavors. I take the raw product and through either curing or smoking preserve the product so that it becomes sellable, as well as altering the flavor to a more desirable, complex flavor background.

Lam: What are some of the challenges of your job?

Larson: When I first started, it was very difficult because I'd never done anything like that. It was tough to get through a pig in one day. Even skinning the pig was challenging. I think that was the biggest struggle was getting my butchery skills to a level to where I could do more interesting and valuable things with the meat. That took a solid four or five months before I was really comfortable breaking down the whole pig, making accurate cuts, being precise, and knowing what I was going to do with it.

Now, the challenge has kind of changed. Recently, it's been more about creativity and understanding more what I can do with the animals: How I can work with Nathaniel to create different products that are more interesting and more useful?

Lam: What do you mean by useful?

Larson: For instance, today we're trying to figure out how to make pork-skin sausage. Traditionally, what we do is we take the pork skin, boil it down, render out the fat, and scrape the skins, then dehydrate them and fry them and they crackle. We'll sell that at Bourrée.

We get so much of it, and I feel there's more ways that we can utilize pork skin so we're taking pork meat and we're cutting the pork skin. We're trying to make a pork-skin sausage that have a different texture because if you cook pork skin, it has a different texture than pork meat. We'll see how the flavors go and how we can make that a good, desirable product.

Lam: Have your friends or family asked you to cook more since you started working there?

Larson: I think they almost expect it—they don’t really “ask.” My roommates are both teachers. The way my schedule's set up is I have Sundays and Mondays off, and I'll work Tuesday through Saturday. I don't know if anybody really asks for it, but it developed into me doing a Monday dinner for some of my friends. Monday is their toughest day of the week. They'll get off work, and I'll cook them dinner. I enjoy cooking for people. My family, they just want to see how far I've come in the past year. It is expected that I cook for them to show them what I can do.

Lam: How does the job that you do now relate to your personal identity?

Larson: I think it's definitely changed my identity as a person. It has to. I went from being a student in a very acceptable college to now being a butcher in a restaurant that's trying to find itself in the New Orleans food scene. I think that transition made me change my personality.

It's tough to say, but I look at things a little bit differently now, especially from a food perspective. That might just be because I work in a restaurant now, or it might be because we get our pigs from farmers that we're actually friends with, so I know them. I've been to the farms where the pigs were raised, and that changes the way you look at how food's produced and the quality of the meat that you get. It’s made me a smarter consumer.

I still have the same ideals. The reasons why I went into environmental engineering haven't changed. I still thoroughly enjoy nature and try to spend as much time in it as I can. Now, I enjoy working with my hands and creating a product in a more instantaneous way, whereas in engineering I didn't really feel like I was creating a product that I could see, initially, or that I could feel. Here, I can taste it.

Lam: Do you think this job, as a butcher, is more fulfilling for you at this point?

Larson: Yeah. For me, especially now at this point in my life, it is. It might be because [working with food] is what I want to do in general. It might be that I still am not totally positive. I guess the reasons why I stopped going to engineering school is I was frustrated with the inability to create things and the inability to be expressive.

This interview is a part of a series about the lives and experiences of members of the American workforce, which includes conversations with an orchid grower, a waitress, and a petroleum engineer.