Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Severino's: From farm to butcher to you

Severino's: From farm to butcher to you

Justin Severino is running a grassroots campaign to become your community butcher. Though there won't be an official election for the seat, he's running on what would appear to be a popular platform for Santa Cruz marketgoers — sustainability, transparency, local growth and zero waste.

He's got the pedigree as well. His grandfather Gene Sandella was a career butcher in the Cleveland area and Severino himself graduated from the Pennsylvania Culinary Academy, excelling there in butchering classes. After school, he continued to build upon his formal training by working the meat and butcher stations in prominent area kitchens such as Marinus, Ventana, Bouchee, L'Auberge and Manresa in Los Gatos. If all goes right, the 29-year-old Severino, in partnership with his wife Hilary Prescott, would like to complement his popular farmers market operation eventually with a small cafe and butcher shop featuring what is currently offered at the market.

A year ago, Severino wasn't yet an independent butcher. He was involved in a venture called The Ol'Factory Cafe in Sand City, for which he was slated to be both chef and partner. The new restaurant concept excited him. From the building's physical structure to the food, all elements of the ambitious business were intended to express a devotion toward sustainable practices, something Severino feels strongly about. While scouting for local meat suppliers, he encountered a gregarious and excitable rancher named Jim Dunlop, owner of TLC Ranch in Las Lomas.

"I met Jim because I had decided I'm going to get everything locally. I'm going to get beef, pork, chicken, eggs, cream. And Jim was literally the first guy I met. We hit it off right off the bat"

Dunlop had agreed to sell animals to the restaurant, but as its opening stalled, economic pressures developed for both men. With the opening delayed, Severino began butchering Dunlop's pigs and selling them at farmers markets as a side job to make money. With no space of his own, he relied on the good will of his friends at L'Auberge in Carmel and particularly those at Stokes Bar and Grill in Monterey, who offered him free use of kitchen space to prepare the animals.

Dunlop assisted Severino by allowing him to have the pigs for free upfront and to pay him back as product sold. Customers responded.

Week after week, the traditional fresh cuts of pork, sausages and pates continued selling, and the nascent operation built a momentum of its own that Severino says he couldn't have stopped, "even if I'd wanted to" Eventually Severino decided to walk away from his future position as a chef in order to work exclusively with Dunlop's animals.

A butcher is born

Initially tagging along with Dunlop's market gigs, Severino is now in charge of them and has added market days in Felton, Sunnyvale and Campbell to the existing Santa Cruz and Mountain View slots that Dunlop frequented, originally under the TLC Ranch banner. Severino's expansion of the market business has increased the amount of pork he is selling and allows Dunlop to concentrate solely on farming and ranching while relieving him of the arduous task [and economic necessity] of preparing for market himself.

"I can't emphasize enough how much I could not do this without Jim. That's for sure. I wouldn't be doing this without Jim. I wouldn't be doing this if I was just ordering Niman Ranch pork. No way. The best thing about what we do is what Jim does. It starts on the farm"

That farm is a 50-acre expanse of open pasture, forested areas and sloping hillsides located in Las Lomas on the backside of the Elkhorn Slough Preserve, and it quietly reveals both the beauty and chaos of human stewardship. Dunlop leases the land from ALBA Organics, a nonprofit organization providing education and resources for farmers seeking to operate or own their own farm businesses and for whom his wife, Becky, works.

Here Dunlop has forged various farm and ranch pursuits, filling a market gap as a local source of both pasture-raised poultry and fresh eggs. These days, Dunlop spends a large portion of his time rehabilitating the long abused and depleted agricultural land, bringing health to it through intensive, careful management of his pastured chickens and pigs.

Severino's support of Dunlop provides what people here are asking for — namely local, naturally raised animals that have been humanely treated and minimally processed. And despite the availability of organic meats in Santa Cruz grocery stores, Severino provides a unique and desired service — the ability to look his customers in the eye and tell them exactly how this cut of meat arrived here today.

"Sometimes it's all about explaining to people, 'I'm Justin, I butchered all this meat and made this sausage. And this is Jim, he raised the pigs.' "

The direct connection to the customer, the devotion to the land, animals and high-quality products are the main tenets upon which Severino is building his business and why many people shop at farmers markets. And though "local" and "sustainable" are common and supported buzzwords here in Santa Cruz, the notion of both an independent rancher and a corner butcher is simultaneously antiquated and subversive, making their partnership that much more alluring.

"The butcher has been lost in our society, and it's been two or three generations, I think. But even more importantly, I think the bigger issue is the reason why the butcher is lost, and I think that has a lot to do with the local rancher being lost"

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