‘I didn’t know what I wanted to do coming out of high school. I ended up working part time for Dad as a cashier and thought that while I was there I may as well learn the trade. As it turned out, I really enjoy it! I can’t see anything else that would bring me more joy than this.'
Ash McBean, of Gary’s Quality Meats, is a refreshing contradiction to the image of 'butcher'. From her discomfort with the live export industry to her belief that Australians should eat less but better meat, to her endorsement of lab-grown meat, Ash embodies progressive thinking in a traditional industry. Given her heritage - she is a fifth generation butcher - this might come as a surprise. However, her parents never expected her to follow in their footsteps, so she was able to fall naturally into the business and discovered a great aptitude and deep enjoyment in her work.
'Don’t go to the supermarket and feed your family everyday from there - spend your money somewhere else, with your local butcher. Get to know their story, where their meat comes from start to finish, and cut it down to a couple times a week.'
There's certainly no time to get bored. While in some ways butchery is steadfast and traditional, the industry does evolve. Eating habits and preferences have come full circle in the last few decades - the health push of the 90s and early 2000s saw cuts getting leaner and trimmer in line with the 'fats are the enemy' narrative. Ash's dad had to adapt quickly to new demands, only to see a return in recent years to more traditional cuts. 'We are using the hangar steaks, the flat irons, the skirt steaks, the scotch fillet,' Ash says, 'Whereas everyone used to want the sirloin or the eye fillet. So we’ve held onto that tradition of using the whole beast.'
Ash's perspective fits into a growing narrative of ethical meat-eating. She advocates that when it comes to our meat-eating habits, less is more. 'Eat less, but higher quality, 'she says. 'Don’t go to the supermarket and feed your family everyday from there - spend your money somewhere else, with your local butcher. Get to know their story, where their meat comes from start to finish, and cut it down to a couple times a week.' She also pushes for people to get to know different cuts of the animal, to gain a more intimate knowledge of how the various muscle groups fare in different kinds of cooking: scotch eye fillet is a special occasion cut, but for a midweek meal, hangar or skirt steak is perfect. 'You might have to chew a bit more,' she says, 'But that's fine! And you get people trying it and saying, what is this amazing flavour? Why haven't I had it before? It's win-win, because it tastes great and it's half the price.'
This might come as a surprise for some, but in butchery, it's hard to avoid the problematic ethics of the meat industry in Australia. The environmental impact of mass meat production - the water and the land handed over to cattle farming, the methane produced - is something Ash is keenly aware of. Added to these concerns are ongoing live exports to South East Asia - as a result, Ash and her father are totally in favour of selling lab-grown meat. 'It’s a bit hard to dodge the obvious environmental factors of growing beef. We understand there is a demand for lab-grown meat and we’d be happy to trial it and give it a go.'
'Most people are intimidated by sharp knives but it's so important'
There are a few exciting developments coming up for Ash and her business. Most recently, she has been working with the University of Melbourne in dry-ageing meat. Ash's dad grew up dry-ageing, but strict rules for dry-ageing in Victoria have meant that it's a limited practice in the state - there are currently only around ten stores licensed to dry-age and sell this kind of meat. Melbourne approached the family for their strong reputation in this technique, and wanted to experiment with different kinds of meat, particularly mutton, in an attempt to rejuvenate interest in the meat. First came trials in dry-ageing spring lambs, which were an immense success - 'the University came back saying it was amazing and that everyone loved it!' - before beginning to work with old breeding stock. These cows, once past a certain age, can no longer be used for breeding, and bringing them into the meat industry at the end of their lives can be an efficient way to waste as little of each animal as possible. Ash has been working with the famous Cape Grimm, in Tasmania: 'Along with Robbins Island, they are our main supplier. Cape Grimm has six to eight year old Angus breeding stock, and Robbins Island Wagyu stock is around 12-15 years old. We've been trialing dry-ageing with them and…they're amazing. Incredible. It's really exciting.'
To be taking animals that suppliers don't know what to do with - that might otherwise go to waste - and making something new and delicious fits perfectly into Ash's philosophy of meat production and consumption. A refreshing mix of tradition and innovation, Ash's take on butchery reflects the priorities of an evolving customer base and a more environmentally aware Australia - use the whole beast, embrace unusual cuts (good for the environment as well as your wallet), cook for quality over quantity, and support your local producers. That she loves what she does is the icing on the proverbial cake.
So what's Ash's top tip for butchery? A sharp knife. 'Most people are intimidated by sharp knives but it's so important, so you don’t have to put so much force into each cut, and potentially slipping and cutting a part of yourself. A sharp knife means minimal force for maximum result.'
We couldn't agree more.
Gary's Quality Meat
163 Commercial Rd, South Yarra