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."( more from washington post )
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