Food for Thought
Alumni Spotlight: Julia Poplawsky ’10
- Todd White Photography
Six years, thousands of miles, and several intersting and challenging career maneuvers later, Julia Poplawsky ’10 now knows exactly what she wants to do with her life. Like her mentors at Southwestern, she wants to be an educator. In 2010, Poplawsky graduated from Southwestern University with a BA in anthropology. Although it may not be immediately obvious how Poplawsky became one of the most skilled master butchers in Austin, her recollections of classes at Southwestern are clearly evidence of her love for education.
“My professors were awesome, I loved them,” Poplawsky said. “I learned to be approachable and accessible, and that came from our discussion-based classes. I never felt uncomfortable speaking up—that was encouraged. The professors created a space where you felt really safe to be yourself and always promoted the idea that you could be an active participant in society and involved in the world. Southwestern gave me a critical lens that has really influenced the way I look at things today.”
Following graduation, Poplawsky worked as a line cook in Austin for two years. “I wanted to learn more so I began a program at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. As part of the course, I moved to San Francisco and interned with a whole animal meat company, 4505 Meats, where I fell in love with the craft of butchery. I had a direct relationship with some incredible farmers and ranchers there, even helping to load up pigs on to the trailer.”
In 2014, chef-owner Jesse Griffiths opened Dai Due in Austin, a farm-to-table restaurant that changed the way people thought about the preparation of local food products. “I was hired as head butcher and butcher shop manager,” said Poplawsky. “It changed my life. My time at Dai Due made me realize that although Austin is a ‘food’ city, it needs to be much more supportive of local farmers, and I think that stems from a lack of education and knowledge about what our state offers agriculturally. We’ve jumped so quickly into a place where we’re known for our restaurants, now we just need to focus on where that food is coming from.”
That revelation saw Poplawsky leaving Dai Due in January 2016 to work for a non-profit three-acre farm in East Austin, Urban Roots, that uses food and farming to transform the lives of young people. “The 14- to 17-year olds that intern there aren’t necessarily working there to become farmers, but we also teach them skills like public speaking and money management,” she said.
Meanwhile, Poplawsky focused her attention on starting a new business, the Central Texas Meat Collective, bringing together farmers, chefs, butchers, and students to provide hands-on education. “I think of this as a passion project,” she said. “I learned about English chef Fergus Henderson who preaches a nose-to-tail philosophy—and he’s right, I figure if you’re going to knock something on the head, you may as well eat it all. We’re working with the Sustainable Food Center in Austin to teach our whole-hog butchery class, humane chicken slaughtering, and sausage-making … and that’s just for starters.”
Right now, her day job is working as a vegetable farmer at local organic farm, Tecolote. But after years pursuing a career in the restaurant industry, Poplawsky has narrowed down her career path. “I want to be an educator, and the first step will be to start a master’s of education next year. I’ve been trying on different outfits to see which ones fit, and now I’m ready to go back to school. I’m captivated by the agricultural aspect of butchery and I want to teach people how to nourish their communities.”
Finally, Poplawsky has two vitally important pieces of advice. First, for students at Southwestern: Always be awake, and appreciate your time there and make the most of it. And for everyone else: Don’t miss the pork chops at Dai Due. “They’re decadent,” she said, “my favorite thing in the world!”
By: Roger Munford