Meet the meat man
Canadian-born Simon Poole trained as a classical chef before deciding he loved meat and wanted to be a butcher. Now he combines his skills at the Butcher’s Diner in Melbourne’s central business district, a 24-hour temple where wild game meat regularly gra
Tasked with preparing a game dish suitable for camping Simon opted for wallaby tail stew, although the recipe works just as well with kangaroo, which is more easily obtainable.
The wallaby for this dish was sourced from Flinders Island.
“It is based on a classic southern Italian dish which is traditionally done with goat, donkey, or horse. You take your tough cuts and braise them down; you can do it in the field while you are hunting,” Simon explained.
“It is not meant to be elegant, it is something hearty you can cook with limited facilities; just grab a cast iron pot, throw in the kangaroo tail and brown it up, pour in a couple of cans of nice dark beer, add a caramelised onion and some saltbush, put the lid on and go have fun for six to eight hours while it slowly cooks.”
Simon is a classically trained chef who spent a decade working in fine dining before deciding on another path. “Six months before I moved to Australia I decided I didn’t want to do that anymore, and I started a butchery apprenticeship,” he said. “The money wasn’t great but I really enjoyed the work.”
Simon emigrated as a chef because butcher skills were not in demand, but a few years later, he resumed and completed his apprenticeship in Australia.
He started his own restaurant, Back Street Eating, specialising in dry aged beef and charcuterie.
His current venture, the Butchers Diner, does exactly what the name suggests.
Whether it is breakfast or dinner, there’s a deliciously meaty menu for diners while the glassed-in boning room is the hub that supplies meat to more than a dozen venues. “We do a lot of charcuterie here and I run a pickle company as well,” Simon said.
“I’m not a particularly great butcher, but I come to it with a different background and a good understanding of classical cookery, and I’ve managed to parlay that into a pretty good career. “I’d never make a world-class chef or a great butcher, but put together it is a pretty good skill set.”
Interestingly, Simon thinks hunters have a better understanding of butchery than most chefs. “When I was training in a kitchen I thought butchers were just people who cut steaks,” he said. “For a really good butcher the skill set is incredible, the muscle memory and the knowledge of anatomy, it is also a completely different way of using a knife.”
Simon said teaching someone already trained in a kitchen to butcher is like getting a right-hander to use their left hand, it doesn’t work. “As a butcher you look at it a different way, use your knife a different way, use your body differently. “The hunters that I know, my wife’s family, they are all pretty good, they would be better at field dressing wild ducks than I would.”
Simon said field dressing was something most butchers would not experience in a lifetime. “My cousins would hunt deer at Strathbogie and bring them to me. They were dressed better than any game abattoir I’d ever seen; they were stunning carcasses, that just comes with practice,” he said.
When breaking down an animal himself, Simon leaves nothing to waste. “When we buy wild deer the shoulders go into dice, shanks get braised down and folded into deer mince, we have a deer burger with black truffle aioli,” he said. “The femurs and tibias give you marrow bones so you get a roasted plug of marrow with your wild deer cutlet, the belly goes into sausage and terrines, the legs make deer prosciutto, prosciuttini and carpaccio.”
Even when field dressing, Simon said hunters should aim to maximise their yield. “With kangaroos there’s not a tonne of meat but you get a lot from the tail, the loins, and legs,” he said.
Simon said game meats were also great for charcuterie, an art he taught himself. “There are not many variables in charcuterie; it is just basic math, salt to meat weight, I have formulas that work and do not change,” he said. “If you come from an Italian or Maltese background you learn growing up the moon phase signals salami-making weekend, and then it is hung in the attic and they know if the temperatures are normal when it will be ready: it works without having to understand how or why it does. “For everyone else there is a more science-based approach, you weigh your meat, add 3–4.5 per cent salt to meat
weight, crushed juniper berry, bay leaves, or whatever, and seal it in a vacuum pack.”
In anywhere from two to four weeks, take the meat out and rinse it, then hang it in muslin in the shed and monitor water loss.
“If a venison leg after salting and rinsing weighs 950 g, it is lean, so it should lose about 30 per cent moisture, so weigh it every two weeks until it hits 700 g,” Simon said.
“Then vac pack it in olive oil. You have the darker bark on the outside and it is wetter in the middle: over a week or two the oil forces the water to even out through the cells.
“Just practise a few times, it very rarely goes wrong. If the finished product has black mould and is growling at you when you open the door, you are going to know not to eat it.”
Simon Poole loves his meat