The New Artisans

Two years ago, Stephanie Gerbier enrolled in butcher school against her parents' wishes. This year, she won a national competition.
Two years ago, Stephanie Gerbier enrolled in butcher school against her parents' wishes. This year, she won a national competition. (By Molly Moore -- The Washington Post)
By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 6, 2007

LYON, France -- Stephanie Gerbier goes to work dressed for combat: She wears body armor under her white apron, steel-reinforced shoes and a metal glove on her left arm. Her weapon of choice is a flat, razor-sharp knife.

She can truss up a garnet-red round of beef to look as exquisite as a gift-wrapped jewelry box, carve $17-a-pound veal scallops so thin that the pink slices are nearly translucent and extract precision cuts from a 660-pound side of beef.

For those skills, the 23-year-old Gerbier this year became one of the first two women to win France's annual competition for best apprentice butcher.

Gerbier is breaking cultural barriers in a trade that mirrors the transformations in the European workplace of the 21st century: The attraction of prestigious white-collar and high-tech professions has steered young people away from Old World artisanal crafts, many of which traditionally have been open only to men for centuries. As a result, women are more able to enter trades that were largely closed to them.

Facing a shortage of as many as 5,000 butchers, France's historically macho meat industry has begun welcoming women. This summer, the national Federation of Butcher Shops is targeting women in a major recruiting drive -- and promoting Gerbier as one of its new female success stories in a field that now has about 100 female certified butchers, according to federation spokeswoman Cecile Mousset.

"The only drawback to being a woman butcher is that you can't carry heavy pieces of meat like a 90-kilo [200-pound] leg on your own," said Gerbier, who just earned her two-year professional aptitude certificate. "I always need to ask for help, but that's a minor inconvenience."

The butcher shortage comes as the French butcher shop -- considered by many French consumers to be the heart of the national culinary obsession -- is struggling to survive in the face of growing competition from supermarkets and an expanding fast-food culture. In the past three decades, France has lost nearly half of its butcher shops: 21,000 are open today, down from more than 40,000.

"People think that being a butcher is gross," said Gerbier, who wears her fawn hair in a ponytail and whose delicate fingers belie her ability to manhandle hefty chunks of pork, beef and lamb. "But it's not the case. We work in a very clean environment. The meat we get is washed before we work on it; it's not all bloody. People have misconceptions because of movies, but it's far from reality."

Gerbier is entering a trade far different from the one her professor, Serge Vialan, 53, joined a generation ago. He was sent to the slaughterhouse each week to kill the heifers and steers needed to stock his butcher shop. But that practice has been halted by rules the European Union imposes on member states.

In recent years, the E.U. has mandated dozens of other health and safety upgrades in this and countless other traditional occupations. For Gerbier, the changes include the body armor and regulations on precisely how shopkeepers must mop their floors. Today, largely because of E.U. rules, butchers can trace every slice of meat that leaves their shops, down to the animal's birthplace, the farmer who raised it, what it ate, when it was vaccinated, what illnesses it had and where it was slaughtered.

Even so, French butchers say the techniques of the traditional boucherie remain unchanged.

"I don't mean to sound nationalistic," said Vialan, who in addition to teaching helps conduct recruiting drives for butchers in local schools and community job markets. "But in France, we prepare meat with much more care than other countries. French cuisine is unique; the cuisine is so precise, you need to have a specific cut of meat for each particular dish."

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