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SKIP WHALEY: the journeyman.

In articles on July 22, 2012 at 10:50 am

Skip is my friend John’s dad. I know John from my time living in Tokyo back around the turn of the millennium. I was looking for someone to interview as part of a series for Fork magazine, where this interview was first published in issue #24. Skip lives in South California so this interview was carried out, after quite a few tech fails, over Skype.

Skip Whaley

The Great Food Revival. We hear about it all the time with the next up-and-coming chef reinvigorating another traditional skill. I’ve become more and more curious about who they’re learning these skills from, so over the next year, I’ve decided to find out. I’ll meet six people, food veterans, if you will, who have worked in their chosen trade for my whole life or longer. 1975 is the line drawn in the sand and an idea takes shape.

I found my first, Skip Whaley, through an old friend John who I haven’t seen in over a decade due to the tyrannies of geography. “My dad worked as a meatcutter all his life,” John told me, clearly excited about seeing his dad in print, “he must have started way before 1975.” Skip lives in deepest Southern California, but after much concerned checking of timezones and some technological hiccups, we settle down for a chat.

“It was 1961 when I started out in the meat business as a clean-up boy. I was 15,” Skip has a honeyed Californian accent that makes me feel self-consciously British, “I moved on to Country Boy Market a couple of years after and learnt to break beef. Dad and granddad both sold poultry across Southern California. They knew a lot of people and got me an ‘in’ at Stater Brothers in October ’66.”

Stater’s is a family-run, Southern Californian grocery store that started trading in 1935 and is still going strong. Skip worked there until retiring 9 years ago.

“I drove 45 miles each way in my old Renault,” Skip chuckles, “gas was only 18¢ a gallon so the round trip cost me 86¢. Driving that far would cut deep into your pocket these days. We still live miles from anywhere – it’s two miles of dirt track just to get to our mailbox. I had experience but still, I had to start as a union apprentice and couldn’t cut anything without a trained journeyman present. Stater’s and a store called Michael’s were the only places with a meat counter and they still have the slogan ‘It’s the meat that made us famous’ up over the counter today. Get the first cut wrong and you have to re-cut every piece, so we went to school once a week to learn the trade and how to make the most profit out of every cut. Every one of us had the skills to start up his own business.” I ask Skip if he was ever tempted to go it alone. He pauses. “Well, sure I was. There was a time back in the 80s when we had the idea of a restaurant with a meat counter – choose your cut and we’ll cook it for you. It’s been done successfully since but the truth was, the hours would have been long, the pay would have been too little and the risks would have been high. Looking back, I chose well.”

Over the years, Skip worked his way up to backroom journeyman, taking on the responsibilities of the manager when he was away. “The stores changed drastically over the years,” he tells me, “when I first started, we put sawdust down at the beginning of the week and picked it up at the end of the week. We raked particles out of it daily, so I guess it was semi clean!” he laughs. “In the 70’s, sawdust became concrete and wooden blocks were replaced with fibreglass. Now you spray everything down after every job, maybe five, six times a day. The job’s changed too.” Skip describes a process of consolidation with the small, highly-skilled onsite teams gradually replaced with general clerks and skilled workers concentrated into large off-site warehouses. “Put a skilled breakman out in the warehouse and replace him with a clerk and things get hectic. It’s tough! In my later years, I did the early shifts from 5am till 2pm. I was in before it got busy, did all my cuts and cleaned down my area before lunch. Then I could make sure everyone got home on time. We worked as a team and Stater’s runs a tight ship.”

Skip has a self-effacing manner and I wonder if he considers himself an expert. “Yeah, I probably do, but I’m still learning. If you’re neat and tidy and work well together, it all falls into place.” He pauses, “You know, the most gratifying thing is training someone with a great work ethic who makes it to backroom man. I’ve learnt a trick or two from some of those young guys but it’s good to impress them every once in a while.” He laughs, “‘Oh look!’ they think, ‘this old guy can do something in 45 minutes that takes me 90!'”

I ask Skip if he ever got sick of all that meat but he answers ruefully, “I’m not supposed to have red meat any more but I just love a BBQ. At Thanksgiving, I cook a 20lb turkey if the kids are about. I recommended allmy sons to follow in my footsteps but they got smart on me and went to college,” the pride in his voice is palpable. “Sometimes, I walk up to the counter at Stater’s and say ‘You know, I used to be a meatcutter,'” I can hear Skip’s eyes twinkle all the way from Southern California as he anticipates his punchline, “and they sigh, ‘Yeah Skip, we know'”

We say goodbye and I’m left with the impression of a kind and humorous man who firmly believes in a right and a wrong way of doing things. It strikes me that it takes a vast amount of dedication to devote a lifetime to a trade and I realise I’ll be meeting a group of people with that very special something in common.

This interview is an extract from issue 24 of Fork magazine. Fork is a bi-monthly magazine beautifully designed and filled with interviews with interesting people, reviews of the best places to eat and travel to, plus a few recipes for good measure.
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