Editor’s note: This story was originally published on July 9, 2008.
Sebastien Bonneu knows he has a dirty job.
Raising fowl and rabbits is one thing, but slaughtering and processing them for sale is another, more gruesome and intimate task.
“It’s like any other line of work, ” he says recently while walking among chickens at Countryside Farm, his small farm near Bastrop. “Sometimes you just don’t feel like doing it.”
But somebody’s got to do it, and 30-year-old Bonneu, who grew up on a 2-acre farm near Bordeaux, France, would rather do it himself and do it his way, raising by hand and processing by hand everything from chickens and ducks to quails, pheasants, geese and rabbits. He sells the meat at farmers’ markets and to high-end restaurants in Austin.
With the slow food movement — an emphasis on appreciating food, which includes cooking with locally sourced foods – growing in recent decades, this concept isn’t exactly foreign in the United States now. And someone has to do the plucking and worse labor that Sebastien, most of the time, enjoys .
He landed in Austin via the Rio Grande Valley, where he moved for a pastry job at a French bakery in 1998. Trained as a baker for two years in France, he was on the same track as his father, who is still working as a chef in France.
In McAllen, Bonneu met Esther, who’d lived and worked in France and who was studying for an international communication degree. Even though the bakery failed (“It was a quickfire, ” he recalls) and his family was still in France, Sebastien Bonneu was in Texas for good.
He and Esther married and set their eyes on an area where he could utilize his chef skills. They moved to Austin in 2000, and on one of their first nights in town they went to dinner at the now-closed Jean Luc’s Bistro, where Sebastien Bonneu met chef/owner Jean-Luc Salles, who hired him the next day as pastry chef.
A few years later, Bonneu started cooking at Vespaio, where he met chef Ryan Sampson. Not long after that, Bonneu, Sampson and fellow local chef Jesse Griffiths got their hands on a whole pig and set out to process it themselves.
Growing up, Bonneu watched his parents raise rabbits and pigs as show animals. “But not all of these were good enough to show, ” he says. So his parents, often with the help of neighbors, would kill, clean and butcher the animals.
“The day I started doing it (with Sampson and Griffiths), I just started remembering” how it was done, he says. “They would start Friday night and by Saturday they would have pâté. Everybody helped out. We shared the bounty. This is how they used to do it.
“Now, people buy what they need for the day. Fifty years ago, it was a whole different deal, ” he says.
Sampson, who has been the head chef at Vespaio for six years, says Bonneu kept talking about knocking out the pig, so “I brought a gun ’cause I knew that that wouldn’t work, ” he says. “(Killing the pig yourself) gets you down to earth when you realize it’s going to squeal, ” no matter how you do it, he says.
After processing that first pig with his fellow chefs, Sebastien Bonneu decided he wanted to not only process meat, but revive that way of thinking about food — where nothing is wasted and you know exactly where what you eat comes from.
He knew from working in the restaurant industry that the demand for this type of fresh, local and well-grown meat was there, so he started butchering other people’s animals. A pig here, a rabbit there. A few dozen chickens, then a handful of ducks.
He and Esther had been wanting to get out of the city, so a year ago they moved to start Countryside Farm on 8 acres in Cedar Creek and put in orders for chicken eggs and duck hatchlings.
When they moved to the farm, their daughter, Margaux, had just turned 1. It was important to both Esther, 32, and Sebastien that Margaux stay connected to the process, from feeding and watering the birds from birth and gathering eggs every few days, to answering her question of “C’est mort?” (“Is it dead?”) after she had seen her father’s work in the butchering room.
“We want her to understand where the food comes from and how to treat animals humanely, ” Esther Bonneu says. “As she grows, she sees that we give her good things and she’ll be more healthy as a person because of it.
“Plus, it’s so much fun for her, ” Esther Bonneu says. Margaux, now almost 2 1/2, calls the ducks “quacks quacks” and the chickens “pio pios” — Spanish for “cheep cheep.”
Sebastien Bonneu got over the cute factor a long time ago. “You look at it and it’s a cute bunny, ” he says after passing a dozen white-haired, red-eyed New Zealand rabbits. “When it’s 6 pounds, it’s not that cute anymore.”
And when he’s working overnight to process nearly 70 rabbits to meet customers’ growing demand, he doesn’t have time to get caught up in cute.
He has a few machines that help him clean the thousands of birds he processes a year, but a lot of the work is done by hand. Plucking the fine duck feathers, for example, requires a dexterity that even Margaux has mastered.
Predators also present a challenge. One coyote can ruin months of work. Sebastien Bonneu has killed two bobcats and countless coyotes. He sets traps along his fence and hangs up the ones he catches as a warning to others. Can’t do much about the heat, though, which was the culprit in 40 chicken deaths earlier this summer.
It’s expensive to feed the animals the high-protein diet he knows produces the best meat. He says it costs $40 a day to grow the hundreds of ducks because the soybean-based feed costs so much.
“Almost all of these ducks are ready to go, ” he says, walking among the full-grown, black, brown and white Muscovy and Mullard ducks cooling off in the shade of a tree.
Many of the ducks roaming around the farm come from France, although they are hatched in California. “They are pretty expensive from the beginning, ” Sebastien Bonneu says. He’ll sell the whole bird for $6 a pound, a breast for $13 a pound and a leg for $12 a pound. Whole chickens are about $5 a pound.
“The way that I work on this is like as a chef, ” he says, pointing out which ducks are close to being ready for slaughter. “If it looks good on the outside, it will look good on the inside, ” he says. He knows that chefs around town want duck meat with lots of yellow fat streaks .
He calculates how much protein to feed which birds to guarantee tender and rich meat. He knows which varieties of duck work best for confit and which rabbits work for terrine versus those that belong in stew. A flock of baby geese that will be arriving soon signal that planning for Christmas dinners is already under way.
“What do you need? What do you not have?” he asks chefs in the area. “If there’s something they want, they might have to wait four or five months, but they’ll get it.”
Sampson says Vespaio is Sebastien Bonneu’s biggest account, buying about $3,000 worth of lamb, chicken and rabbit a week.
Sampson says he chooses Countryside Farm over commercial distributors because Bonneu’s meat doesn’t have hormones or antibiotics and because it’s local. Aquarelle, Cipollina and Wink also buy meat from Countryside.
A more unusual specialty is the young feral pigs Sebastien Bonneu shoots on a friend’s property. Pigs, unlike deer, are not a regulated hunting animal, and they are a nuisance to many Texas landowners. He sells them at market and nearly always runs out, but if you tell him you want one, he’ll make it a point to go out that week and kill one and bring it to market. He outsources the butchering of pigs because of a complicated licensing process.
Business is pretty good for him, too, at the Austin Farmers’ Market downtown and at the Triangle. (Individual customers can call him at (512) 363-2310 for more information or special requests.) “People come up to me and say, ‘That’s what chicken looked like when I was a kid, ‘” Sebastien Bonneu says.
Esther Bonneu says it’s important that the whole family comes out on market days.
“We like to be able to meet the customers, ” she says. “It’s important for them to know who we are and what we believe, so that they know a little bit more about where their food came from and how it got there.”
Buying meat this way costs more for individual customers and restaurants, but it’s an acknowledgement of the amount of work that goes into raising the animals to Sebastien Bonneu’s standards.
He wants to try new birds – he’ll soon be raising guineas and pheasants – because he says he gets bored doing the same breeds, but he’s still a businessman first. He knows that people are always going to buy big-breasted Cornish game hens because that’s what’s popular.
Christina Shideler and Alex Stone-Tharp bought a Cornish game hen from Sebastien Bonneu at last week’s Wednesday night farmers’ market.
“We could get an entire bird for $8, ” Stone-Tharp says.
“And it’s better than chicken, ” adds Shideler, who once lived in France and misses the markets there. Buying local meat at the farmers’ market “is certainly more expensive, but it’s just a part of your life, and you need to take the time and energy” to buy food this way, she says.