A lady chef behind the pass at a restaurant? Not so common. A lady butcher behind the cleaver at a butcher shop? Even more so. But this is Victor Churchill in Woollahra, Sydney where artistry thrives and you come to expected the unexpected.
If you walk a little further past the precinct boundaries of Paddington, Sydney, you’d stumble on the genteel neighbourhood of Woollahra, with its well-appointed townhouses and generous sidewalks. Fitting right in on Queen Street is butcher shop Victor Churchill, an exquisitely designed butchery that shows off its gourmet meats in the window display the way a boutique would its Spring/Summer collection. Despite its modern appearance, it has a long history dating back to the late 19th century, and is owned by fourth generation butcher Victor Puharich and son Anthony.
Check it out for its state-of-the-art dry-ageing room, sophisticated charcuterie counter and salivating stocks of Australian gourmet meats and artisanal products such as Blackmore Wagyu, Rangers Valley beef, Saskia Beer poultry, Olsson’s salt and more. But just as spectacular is the art of butchery you’d see before your eyes as well-trained butchers exhibit their craft behind glass walls, ever-ready to regale you with the peculiarities of each cut of meat. One of these artisans you’ll meet is Luci Kington, who went from aspiring chef to butcher.
How did you start on a career in butchery?
I became interested in butchery during my time as a chef at Rockpool Bar & Grill. We had an in-house butcher and I always remember being envious of his hours. I ended up moving back to my hometown of Newcastle (two hours north of Sydney) and harassing my local butchery until he gave me a chance to work for him. Luckily, it worked out and we ended up being great friends.
How is your current post at Victor Churchill helping you to hone your craft?
I’ve been at Victor Churchill for about two years now. I’ve had such tremendous exposure to some of Australia’s best produce and chefs. I remember thinking that I was so far out of my depth when I first started and was convinced I wasn’t going to make the cut. I’m so grateful that I’ve had some of the best mentors in our head butcher Darren and second-in-charge Micky.
Describe your day-in-the-life as a butcher at Victor Churchill.
We arrive at 6am to completely clean and re-stock our case. Once we have finished that, we usually jump on to whatever prep we might need during the day. We also fill whatever orders we need for that day or the next morning. I think the most interesting yet challenging part of my job is introducing a new product to customers and building enough rapport with them to trust me enough to buy it. Australians are still learning to cook and exploring different cuts of meat. We have been a little bit spoilt as most of us grew up on primary cuts.
Are there many female butchers in Australia, or specifically in New South Wales (NSW)?
There are a few female butchers that I know of in NSW and particularly Sydney. However I don’t know many personally and have made contact through Instagram with most of them. I believe this is due to many women not considering this trade as a profession. I would absolutely love to change this.
It’s commonly thought that butchers need some degree of strength to handle large carcasses of meat. From your experience, does this requirement disadvantage women in any way?
I actually had a few people tell me I was too small to be a butcher before I started. On one hand, it made me reconsider what I was wanting to get out of this career, however on the other hand, it’s made me twice as determined to succeed. Unfortunately in Australia, it is quite uncommon to have whole bodies of beef in store due to supply and demand of primal cuts. However I have always tried to know my limits when lifting beef and I’ve always felt comfortable to ask for help regardless of where I work. I think potentially, this could disadvantage women, however most male butchers I’ve worked with have always been happy to help.
How do you get to exercise creativity in the work that you do?
A huge part of butchery in Australia is adding value to products as they are amazing to increase sales. For example, in autumn and winter, it’s quite cold, so value-added chicken roasts and lamb roasts are popular sellers. I think at Victor Churchill, we are secretly having a competition to see who can come up with the most creative roasts. [Laughs] As with most fresh food outlets, getting creative is a excellent way to move products that are still good value however may not look as nice as they could (e.g. air dried beef or oxidised pork). This way, the consumer still feels they are getting the value for the money it is purchased for.
Could you explain the difference between the techniques of dry and wet aging meat?
Dry ageing and wet ageing are quite different. Dry ageing is quite a long and rewarding process and can usually only be done on small scales. The beef is broken down into primal cuts on the bone and left to form a crust of healthy bacteria around the meat. From there, all that is needed is time and patience for the moisture to be pushed internally into the muscle and for the meat to get beautifully flavoured and tender. You do however incur a substantial loss in weight with the meat, so that is usually why it is more expensive as more time and care has gone into it.
Wet aging is usually done when the animal has been processed and boned out into primal cuts then vacuum-sealed into bags. The meat will still tenderise over time, however it will not have that strong flavour that dry ageing gives. Wet ageing usually suits more mass-produced cuts as it is more time- and cost-efficient for most larger meat processors.
The meat we dry age at Victor Churchill is predominately beef. We tend to not age our lamb or pork as we don’t have the space to keep it for more than a week. However as a personal project, I did age a lamb rump for two months once. The level of flavour and tenderness it had was astronomical.
Which butchery technique would you say was or still is the most difficult to master?
The most difficult style of butchery would definitely be boning and breaking beef for two different reasons. One being my size as I’m quite a small female (I’m only around 63kg, however I can usually compensate by putting beef on hanging rails and using gravity). The second being the fact that we just don’t get to break all that much beef due to the huge demand of people only wanting primal cuts.
Any interesting misconceptions about grass-fed or grain-fed beef you’d like to clear up?
Most people are learning that grain-fed beef isn’t as bad as it was always made out to be. Very often, I’ll have a customer turn their nose up at grain-fed, however they are more than happy to listen when I explain that it really isn’t as bad as it was made out to be and it actually holds a unique and rich flavour. It’s a credit to the prestige of Victor Churchill how trusting and willing customers are to listen to our advice. Next, we just have to move away from primal cuts like eye fillet and scotch fillet to explore the whole animal and get meat production more sustainable!
Which are some premium meats that are only available at Victor Churchill?
The standout products at Victor Churchill would have to be our Blackmore Wagyu and Kurobuta pork range. Our parent company may send these two products to other butcheries, however Victor Churchill usually gets the pick of the bunch. We also get beef by Rangers Valley (sort of near the Hunter Valley but much further out), however this is not exclusive to just Victor Churchill.
Lastly, which are your favourite restaurants in Sydney and why?
My favourite restaurants in Sydney…wow, I couldn’t name just one, however I’ve always had a special love for Golden Century Seafood in Chinatown/Chippendale (open until 4am, which is very good for the young chef), Firedoor in Surry Hills offers amazing dishes cooked by wood fire, Bodega 1904 in the inner suburb of Glebe has amazing Latin American food for an affordable price. There is an inexpensive Chinese restaurant in Newtown called Happy Chef where you can eat like a god for $15, while Stanbuli in Newtown has amazing Turkish food for a decent price. We really are spoilt for choice here in Sydney as we have every type of cuisine imaginable.
132 Queen Street, Woollahra NSW 2025, Australia. Tel: +61 2 9328 0402