Words: Susan Fletcher
Photos: Becca Simonds
Jason Nauert is a central figure in the renaissance of the field of butchering in Colorado. As the Director and Instructor of the Rocky Mountain Institute of Meat, he is teaching Colorado Springs about butchering through training courses, consulting work and his culinary talent. For Jason, this journey toward his dream job has been a combination of life experience, persistence and an entrepreneurial spirit.
I first met Jason when he was consulting for a farm-to-table butchering program at the Fountain Valley School. During that week-long course, Jason and the FVS faculty member Paul Lilley helped high school students break down a pig and a goat and then cook several meals from this meat. This kind of hands-on instruction is one of the many opportunities that Jason is providing to communities along the Front Range.
Jason was born in Aurora, Illinois and moved to Woodland Park when he was three years old.
“From the time I could hold a BB gun or shoot a bow and arrow, my dad started us hunting and fishing and all the Colorado outdoorsy stuff; knowing the basics of butchering and knowing how to process it in the field,” Jason said.
He played football from third grade through high school with the goal of playing professionally until a knee injury forced him in a different direction.
“I was always the adventurer in the family,” he said. “I’m all for adventure. Land where the wind takes you.”
With that spirit, in 1997 he entered the Police Academy and became a Deputy Sheriff in Teller County from 1997 to 2001. A few years later, he moved to Kosovo where he served as a contract security officer until a broken heel bone sent him back to the United States. Upon returning home he earned a Master Gardener certificate through Colorado State University and went into landscaping. In the meantime, Jason had returned to his love of hunting and he enjoyed cooking wild game for his friends. In 2012 he grew restless in his landscaping career, and his wife Jess suggested that he think about going to culinary school.
In the fall of 2012 Jason signed up for the Rocky Mountain Institute of Meat program on butchery at the Cook Street School of Culinary Arts in Denver. The founder and director of the Institute, Mark DeNittis, was the instructor for the course. Jason recalls feeling nervous about the prospect of being in class with the other culinary students, but he quickly forgot this fear. Inspired by his teacher and encouraged by his own knife skills, Jason fell in love with the field of butchering. After the course, he shared his vision for opening a wild game shop, making butchering his intended career path. Mark eventually invited Jason to help with the Recreational Whole Hog Butchering Course. Jason helped with that course four times, and eventually the two began working on other projects together.
During those days he and Mark were doing recreational classes for sausage, turduckens, whole hog classes and a disassembly dinner. Jason worked in landscaping until the end of 2012, when he realized he could teach butchering full time. At the end of 2013 Mark handed over the leadership of the Rocky Mountain Institute of Meat to Jason, while staying on as a consultant himself.
Being the Director of the institute is a multi-faceted job. Jason is part butcher, chef, teacher, consultant, CEO and entrepreneur. He was the featured chef at the recent Colorado Collective Whiskey Dinner. The RMIM offers a variety of courses including a Professional Butcher course and a Field to Fork course.
Jason’s talents have earned him national attention. In 2014 he had the honor of being the featured butcher for the COCHON 555 at the Ritz Carlton Denver, where he demonstrated his skills in front of 400 people. He has also been featured at Denver Food and Wine, Bacon and Bourbon and Beer and Bites at the Governor’s Mansion. Jason has served as a consultant for a variety of restaurant projects in the booming markets of Denver and Boulder. He designed the meat curing room of Blackbelly in Boulder for Top Chef Season 5 winner Hosea Rosenberg. In addition, he provided butchering training for the sous chefs at Beast + Bottle in Denver.
In March of 2014 Jason and Mark received an email from Warrant Officer Erik Iwai of Fort Carson’s U.S. Army 10th Special Forces Group, which proposed an entirely new direction for the growing institute. Erik was looking for a way to provide butchering training to the group in order help the cooks feed their teams in a field environment. After agreeing to help, Jason spent the summer developing a field butcher book. He created an American Culinary Federation accredited Practical Field Butcher for the Army that teaches how to harvest and field dress cows, hogs, goats and other animals. The course also educates students on how to identify healthy animals, sanitation and curing and storing meats. He held the first course in August 2014 and it was so successful that the Army scheduled four courses in the past 10 months, with more to come.
For Jason, working with the military in this capacity is deeply fulfilling.
“I've been in the law enforcement and most of my best friends are in law enforcement,” Jason said. “I get it - I get the sacrifices and I just love being around those guys. They are good people."
Jason is also providing his students with opportunities to practice their culinary skills in the civilian world. He took some of his guys to Beer and Bites at the Governor’s Mansion in Denver. For the Colorado Collective Whiskey Dinner in May, he brought his students Sgt. 1st Class Myron Billingsley and Sgt. 1st Class Ramey to assist him in preparation of the meal.
"I love having them do the dinners with COCO and taking them to places,” he said. “You can just see the look on their faces – ‘wow, we get to do this?”
A few of his guys are even interested in becoming butchers or restaurant owners themselves.
Jason seems to thrive on his busy schedule.
“It's very chaotic - I love it. When something comes together it's really rewarding,” Jason said. “I just plow through. For every five things that don't work I end up getting something."
For all of the attention he has gained in his culinary skills and the other opportunities that have come his way, Jason remains true to his core passion.
“I love to cook but I'm a butcher at heart,” he said. “I didn't know I was a butcher at heart until I took the program, and I thought ‘Why wasn't I doing this 20 years ago?’ It so fits me. Even the military guys were like ‘The first day we met you we were like "that guy's a freaking butcher. He looks like a butcher and acts like a butcher. He's a butcher."’
Looking to the future, Jason has a variety of goals. He is currently writing a book on field butchering and said he is constantly on the lookout for a place to do a butcher shop to do charcuterie; to make capicola, salamis and prosciutto.
By the end of the year he hopes to have his military contracts set for the next three to five years.
“The most fulfilling part for me is working with the military guys,” Jason said. “If nothing else came to fruition and that's all I did for the next 20 years, that would be the most fulfilling job ever.”
Well, that and also being a celebrity guest judge on television.
In light of all he has accomplished and all he hopes to do, Jason has the following advice for other entrepreneurs or people looking to make a major life change:
“Do your research and just go for it. You can't be afraid. You can't be afraid of failure....if you don't fail you'll never succeed.”