A cut above
Danny Johnson, head butcher at Taylor’s Market
Taylor’s Market owner and head butcher Danny Johnson may “break whole animals,” as they say in old-fashioned butchery terms, but Johnson and his meat-slicing crew at this neighborhood market pride themselves in ensuring the animals brought through their doors are always from sustainable farms and are treated humanely from birth to death. Although Johnson prefers barbecuing a whole fish with grilled vegetables for dinner nowadays, after nearly 30 years in the meat industry, he admits to loving the ongoing education butchery holds for those dedicated to the craft.
Where did you learn your butchering skills?
I went to a meat-cutting school, that’s where I started, October 4, 1982. I knew there had to be a school for everything. This school in Cottage Grove, Oregon, they give you a six-month, real intense program, everything from how to kill it, to how to grill it and everything in between. I came to work at Taylor’s right after school, and it’s still an old-fashioned butcher shop as it was 30 years ago, almost. … It’s a continuing education; you’re constantly learning new stuff and watching the industry evolve.
It’s what I wanted to do when I was a little kid. My grandfather used to own an orchard in New Castle, and he used to take me to the fruit shows and deliver his fruit. There was a meat shop across the street, so the butcher would baby-sit me while my grandfather was doing his business. … That was in 1967. I was 4 or 5 years old, and I just would sit there and eat hot dogs and watch him cut meat. I was fascinated by it. I wanted to play pro baseball or be a butcher. Pro baseball didn’t work out, so I’m a butcher.
What do you think about butchery’s future with the influence of mass production within supermarkets?
I think the future is actually pretty bright. It’s coming back to what we do. There’s always going to be a certain segment of people that want to know where their food comes from, how it’s handled, is it sustainable, is it raised humanely, all those good things. And there’s the population where they don’t know where their food comes from. I’m not after that. I’m not after warehouse people and people that want to shop at their megastores. We have a niche that we fill, and I think it’s always going to be there.
What is your favorite meat to cut?
Cutting up a whole lamb. I just got done. It’s very detailed, very meticulous. You could either make it look really, really good or really, really bad with just a slip of the knife. Cutting lamb is pretty cool; I like cutting lamb. I used to hate it, but now I love it.
Is there really a difference between grass-fed or grain-finished meats?
There is a difference between 100 percent grass-fed, and then there’s grass-fed and grain-finished. Everything is started on grass, all the animals. Now, how they’re finished is different. Grass is going to be higher in omega-3s; a lot of people don’t like the taste. It’s going to be a stronger, richer, gamier flavor. We sell both.
Have you ever been a vegetarian?
No, but funny enough, the older I get, the more vegetables I eat. I don’t eat as much red meat as people would think; I’m more of a fish guy. I love fish. We grill all the time and probably my favorite thing to cook is a whole fish and grilled vegetables, believe it or not. Whole fish and grilled vegetables, I mean, it sounds odd coming from a butcher, but …
What should customers look for while purchasing quality meats?
Look for marbling for tenderness, that it’s not dark and, preferably, not in a package. You can only see one side of it. At an old-fashioned type of butcher shop, you can see both sides. As far as fish goes, if the butcher doesn’t let you smell it or it doesn’t smell like the sea, run. You do not want to do business with that person.
Does the right knife really make a difference?
Knives are hugely important. I only have two. I have a 10-inch, what I call a 10-inch steak knife, [and] a 6-inch boning knife. I sharpen them myself, no one touches them. I’m very particular. And I have my steel. I can do everything with just that.
What’s the difference between an old-fashioned butcher shop and modern butchery?
The old-fashioned is we still break animals. I guess modern is when it comes in a Cryovac package. We call them box cutters because it comes in a box, you open the box and cut steaks. I can teach someone to do that in 10 minutes. As long as you have hand-eye coordination, you can cut a steak. But to look at a whole animal and know, “OK, I’m going to get a certain cut from here,” there’s a certain art and technique to it. To a certain degree, we like to think we’re artists.