Tanya Cauthen, butcher and owner of Belmont Butchery in Richmond, Va. Mark Heithoff

Tanya Cauthen is the owner of Belmont Butchery, which in the six years since it opened in Richmond has become nationally acclaimed for its charcuterie—“a big fancy French word,” Cauthen says, for cured meats such as bacon, pâté or sausage. In presenting the 2008 Muse Award for creativity in business to Cauthen and her staff, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts praised Belmont Butchery for its “passion for an age-old craft and quality products.” The self-described Navy brat attended UVA for three years as an aerospace engineering major while working in restaurants in Charlottesville. We talked to her about what it’s been like to go from Grounds to preparing ground beef, as one of just a small handful of female butchers in the nation.

There are probably very few former UVA students who are butchers. How did you get into it?

I started at UVA in the fall of ’87 as an aerospace engineering major. My UVA career was not necessarily the most prestigious. In my third year my adviser suggested I take a semester off and figure out what I wanted to do. I was already working in restaurants, as a cook versus as a waitress, even though that's where the money was. The chef and owner of the restaurant ran a chef’s apprenticeship program. He signed me up. I finished the three-year program in two years and was hooked. When I was 23, I went to Switzerland and worked as a journeyman chef. In Europe, you earn your rank; you don’t go to school and graduate as a chef. It was a high-end restaurant that had its own bake shop and butchery. They would break down carcasses into steaks and such and I found myself spending my free time there.

Beef and pork cut charts.
It’s interesting that you spent your free time in Switzerland helping break down carcasses and not, say, hiking the Alps.

My family will tell you from the time I was little I was always very much a “meat” girl. My father was in the Navy, and every Friday night at the officers’ club they would have a steamship round, which was the full leg of a steer (roasted) hanging from carving station. I would hold up my plate and say, ‘Lots of rare please,’ and they would pile it high with the rarest thing they could find. I would go back for more. I must have been about 6 years old!

Speaking of rare, a female butcher is not very common.

When I started I didn’t know any, but now there are probably four or five in the country whom I know about. But when I began at UVA in ’87 there were not a lot of female engineering students, so it’s not unusual to me. My entire career has been in male-dominated fields.

When did you decide to start your own butcher shop?

In 2004, I took a six-month sabbatical in Australia. I had just come back to the States and was working on an article for Richmond Magazine. It was probably 1 or 2 a.m., I was past deadline and I had the Food Network on in the background. Alton Brown was on and said, “Ask your local butcher …” It struck me suddenly that there wasn’t one in Richmond. So I started banging out a business plan right then and there for a few hours. When I woke up later that morning, I looked at it and said, ‘You know, this doesn’t stink.’ So I decided to go for broke. I got a loan, signed a lease and then sat in the parking lot and cried. I had just borrowing more money than I had ever touched in my life. I had put everything I owned at risk. And now, the shop had its sixth anniversary in October.

What is the most unexpected lesson you’ve learned from being a butcher?

Human anatomy. I’ve learned a lot about the mechanics of my own body because I know how to cut up a cow or a pig. There’s a lot of correlation between the two when you start thinking about muscles and tendons and those sorts of things. All of my customers who are doctors keep trying to teach me the Latin names of muscles.

Have you ever considered the sort of philosophical or ethical issues that some people raise about eating meat, since you work so close to the point where animals are killed and used for food?

Yes. One of the things I do every now and then is actually take the staff and go to a farm and slaughter an animal by hand. We slice its throat and drain the blood, the whole thing. I want them to understand that they are taking a life, and we must have respect for that life. We need to be thankful for the food we have. We need food, and I would rather have it raised with compassion and killed with respect by someone who values its life and what it provides for us.