Mackenzie Estes Stewart's butchering hobby may seem unusual for a 13-year-old girl. But when you watch her break down a pig on stage alongside professional, artisan butchers, it seems perfectly natural. The way she sizes up a muscle, wields the knife, and trims fat makes it clear she has been doing this for a while.
In fact, Stewart says she was only 8 or 9 the first time she butchered an animal at her parent's Sebastopol restaurant, Zazu Kitchen + Farm. It was late summer, before school started, and Mackenzie was stuck at the restaurant with nothing to do. "I was really bored," she says. "I had another two or three hours to kill before we went home, and dad said, 'We've got a goat in the walk-in. Do you want to try and cut it up?'"
Her father, John Stewart, recalls that he didn't have to ask twice. "Goat was probably ambitious to start with, but it was what we had." Besides, he explains, "Goat is a strong animal, which means you need to braise all the parts anyway. We weren't looking to make chops for a butcher case, so she could just have at it."
Mackenzie added, "It was kind of weird at first because I'd never done something like that before, but then I realized, 'I can just hack at this thing! It's going to braised. Who will care?'"
Rather than being disturbed by the sight of a slaughtered animal, she was respectfully intrigued. "It didn't gross me out, surprisingly. It was interesting to look at an animal that was no longer walking around, with no hide, and to see how all the muscles fit together."
After her father guided her through the process the first time, she sought out solo projects to support her other hobby: cooking. "I started braising rabbits, and my mom [chef Duskie Estes] said, 'I'll teach you how to break down a rabbit.' It's actually a lot easier than a goat. You don't need a bone saw or anything. You can use a small knife."
In the years since taking up butchering, Mackenzie has broken down her fair share of goats, rabbits and chickens, and helped carve up a handful of pigs, some of them onstage with Dave Budworth, head butcher for Marina Meats. The first time she joined him on stage, it was for a goat butchering demo.
"He said, 'Here's a bone saw. Here's a goat head. Just saw it down the middle.' It took me an eternity to do, but I did it," recalls Mackenzie. "He grilled the brain after the demo. I told him, 'I'll saw it in half, but I will not eat it.'"
"Mackenzie has a lot of maturity for someone her age, and she has a fire in her to get better in butchering," says Budworth. "I have 'cut' alongside her for three or four years at events. Skill-wise, she takes instruction to heart. I love to run her through all sorts of tests. She picks up things well, she gets it, and she is up for a challenge."
For Mackenzie and her dad, breaking down animals is their father-daughter bonding time. "We don't go out and watch movies," she says. "It's not what most kids do, but it's really fun to learn the art of butchering. It's so complex and requires high-level skills."
"Most of my friends have no idea that I butcher. It's not something I really talk about [at school], but I'm not ashamed of it. In fact, I think it's pretty bad-ass."
Still, as much as she enjoys her unusual hobby, she doesn't aspire to be a butcher. "I'll probably do it for a long time, but I don't think I'll go into a career as a butcher, or a chef. It's a very demanding job. Seeing how hard my parents work, I have humongous respect, but I kind of want to be a lawyer."