Julia Poplawsky Talks About Being a Butcher at Dai Due
People of Austin Profile Series
As a child, Julia Poplawsky loved animals so much that her family was certain she’d grow up to be a veterinarian. Instead, she went to culinary school and became a butcher. After college, the Boerne native headed to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), in Hyde Park, NY, and discovered the nose-to-tail philosophy of cooking and eating espoused by Englishchef and restaurateur Fergus Henderson. It wasn’t long before she realized that she wanted to focus on a career in butchery. After some research, she arranged a stage (a.k.a. stagiaire, the French term for a culinary apprenticeship) with Cesalee and Ryan Farr, purveyors of sustainably and humanely raised meats in the San Francisco area. At their 4505 Meats, Julia wielded her knife for long hours, breaking down animals into primal cuts and honing her skills to offer expertly butchered cuts for the home cook, sold at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and in the Farrs’ brick-and-mortar shop.
The California Bay Area was a fantastic place to connect with talented artisans, but before a year was out, Julia, a Texas gal at heart, got homesick. Dai Due’s Jesse Griffiths was looking for a skilled butcher to help him open his own long-awaited brick-and-mortar Dai Due Butcher Shop and Supper Club (2406 Manor Road), so Julia came down for a stage, and she was hired on full-time in April.
She was drawn to Dai Due’s commitment to the community and Jesse’s laid-back, authentic approach to cooking. “At Dai Due, every day I look at the menu and say to myself, ‘Holy smokes, this is incredible!’ Dai Due is one of the most creative, yet down-to-earth restaurants I’ve worked with. We’re not doing a lot of fancy, modernist cuisine, but food that speaks to our region—it’s simple, delicious, and from the heart.” The menu at Dai Due will focus on food with Texas roots, incorporating elements of our German, Mexican, and Southern culinary history, and offer retail cuts of meat from local farms and wild game ranches, butchered in-house.
Julia has a bright smile, wide eyes, a fresh, pretty face, and a cheerful belief in the power of American craft butchery to reconnect our communities to local farmers and purveyors and rescue us from the fate of mindless and soul-dimming over-consumption of factory-farmed meat. A brief conversation is all it takes to know that it will be all but impossible for even the most committed vegetarian or knee-jerk Costco bargain hunter to resist her.
For a girl who once kept prairie dogs as pets, Julia’s choice of career is perhaps unexpected, but at the end of the day, a love for animals still informs what she’s doing. We met up recently to talk about the connections between butchery and the humane treatment of animals, Frenching chops without a “butcher’s build,” and the pleasures of a good beef heart.
WHAT’S THE FUNDAMENTAL DIFFERENCE BETWEEN WHAT YOU DO AND THE WAY MEAT IS NORMALLY CUT FOR HOME COOKS?
Dai Due is a “whole animal” butcher shop. We receive the animal in the most whole form possible instead of boxed or cryovaced in plastic. Beef comes in quarters; pigs come whole or in halves; goats, lambs, and chickens come whole. After receiving the animal, we break it down into portions for the customer. I also deal directly with the farmer and have visited most of the ranches and farms that we get our animals from. This just makes the relationship more personal for the farmer, the customer, the animal, and those who are working to connect the three.
WHY IS WHAT YOU’RE DOING IMPORTANT?
The act of eating together is a basic human need that has been lost over time. And when I say “eating together,” I don’t mean just at the dinner table. I mean it in a larger perspective of communities supporting each other to appreciate one another and the land that sustains us. Harvesting from the earth is another form of “the human touch”; it’s what connects us and it needs to be handled responsibly and respectfully. I think that butchering has allowed me to enter a community of people who are trying to reestablish that connection. As the great J.R. R. Tolkien once said, “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”
HAVE YOU FOUND THAT THERE’S MUCH FOCUS ON YOUR GENDER FROM THE CUSTOMER SIDE? WHAT ABOUT WITHIN THE INDUSTRY?
I think there’s an element of surprise I face when I tell people I’m a butcher. I’m 26 years old, 5’2” and 115 pounds, so sometimes I don’t think customers expect it. I haven’t ever experienced anything negative, more interest and support. I think that sometimes “local, sustainable, organic” food can be a bit intimidating, so I hope that my position in a more male dominated field will only make local meat more approachable.
When I first started cutting meat, I remember, a position was available and I kept hearing the phrase “a butcher’s build”’ (implying a muscular male). That was the only time something got under my skin, but it also motivated me. However, one of the most beautiful aspects about being in the food industry is that hard work and persistence pay off. While men and women can have different experiences in the kitchen, I think opportunity and respect are granted to those who go for it and work hard, regardless of gender—or build.
YOU’VE HAD A LITTLE TIME TO EXPLORE THE AUSTIN FOOD SCENE NOW. WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR FAVORITE VENDORS AND PLACES AND WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT THEM?
Oh, jeez. Hard question… I’ve mainly been getting my produce from my friends’ farms, like Ten Acre Organics and Whirlaway Farm. And I honestly think you can get some of the best food in Austin at HausBar Farms in the garage with Lola, Dorsey, and Samuel. I’m also a sucker for hamburgers, tacos, and wine. I think Salt & Time has a great burger. It’s all about the toasted bun… and throwing some sobrasada (Spanish sausage) in the mix ain’t gonna hurt nobody. My heart will always be with the Torres family at Mi Madre’s—you can’t go wrong with the #0 with extra Diablo sauce.
DOES YOUR MEAT CASE HAVE A PERSONALITY?
I’ve joked around about wanting a meat case that was set by an Italian grandmother. I want it to be rustic, simple, and something that rings familiar to the customer so that it’s accessible and not intimidating. Frenching chops is cool and all, but eating the meat off the bone from that chop is cooler—and tastier—and more fun.
BESIDES FERGUS HENDERSON, WHO ARE SOME OF YOUR “BUTCHER HEROES?”
The people who inspire me the most are those that I have worked with and encountered on this crazy journey. I had the privilege to watch Oscar Yedra from Canyon Market in California break down a forequarter of beef, and he was like a meat magician. Three quick flicks of the wrist and he had broken down a quarter of a steer. And he’s incredibly kind and willing to teach his craft at any given moment.
WHAT ARE SOME DELICIOUS BITS THAT NORMALLY GET TOSSED OUT?
For the people who enjoy offal, I would highly recommend beef heart. Marinate with garlic, olive oil, and herbs and you’ve got one incredible beefy steak.
WHAT IS THE ONE THING YOU WISHED PEOPLE KNEW ABOUT MEAT?
It’s not all about the meat—it’s more about supporting your local systems as best as you possibly can. I recently read an article that dropped a perfectly articulated, giant truth bomb: “Knowing where your meat comes from is a luxury.” It’s unfortunate that we live in a society that has polarized and exploited certain parts of today’s food reform. Outreach and education are essential. Even if it’s just a visit to the farmers’ market, creating and supporting a community is the most important part of meat.