There is beef hanging in the cutting room at Local Yocal, but I can’t identify exactly what it is, other than the fact that it appears to weigh a couple hundred pounds and was clearly a large part of what was once an entire cow. There are several of these on the rack – they are hindquarters, I will soon learn – and despite my lack of experience in the butchering arena, I do know that these will eventually be deconstructed into steaks, roasts, ground beef and marrow bones, among other things. I know that large, heavy-duty power saws will be involved, as will sharp knives, a hack saw and an industrial strength meat grinder or two. I look at these massive quarters of beef and I know all these things, yet I still have no idea how it’s going to be done. But then again, I suppose that’s why I’m here in the first place.
Matt Hamilton’s hat is always on, it seems. It is, unsurprisingly, a cowboy hat, and he’s got a red bandana on. He looks like a cowboy, which is fitting, because he is – at least, he’s the closest to the stereotypical cowboy that you’re going to find today. He works with the cows; he raises them to harvest them. Local Yocal belongs to Matt and his wife, Heather, as does Genesis Beef, the ranch where they raise the grass-fed beef that can be found at their downtown McKinney butcher shop. Along with the grass-fed beef from Genesis, he also sells Wagyu beef, pork, lamb, and other meats sourced from local farms and ranches with philosophies similar to his own. Matt likes the idea of hosting me for a Kitchen Quixote feature; at least, that is my assumption after he immediately agrees to my proposal of spending a few days with the butchers and the beef.
“Yeah, that sounds great,” he says. “We’re killing on Tuesday, so why don’t you come in on Wednesday?”
I am going to work in a butcher shop. The casual reference to putting down the animals shouldn’t surprise me, but it’s an aspect of conversation to which I am unaccustomed.
“You can grab a smock if you want,” Ernie Vance tells me. I do, and then put on an apron. As I attempt to mask my struggle with tying the apron, I begin my hard-hitting reporting.
“So those knives are pretty sharp, huh?”
“Yeah. We get ’em sharpened pretty often.”
“And the different knives are for different purposes?”
“Yeah, pretty much.”
While it will soon become clear that my career as a butcher is as promising as my career as an investigative journalist, the learning curve is nonetheless steep as I observe the first couple of hours of Ernie working. Probably knowing better, but still expecting knives and cleavers to be flying haphazardly amid beef scraps and sausage stuffing, the atmosphere in the shop this morning is calm; Ernie works quickly – at least in my assessment – but deliberately. I have no idea what part of the cow he started with five minutes ago, but as he makes his last cut, a steak suddenly appears – it will be a cube steak after tenderizing, Ernie tells me.
It is a strange moment for me; I have disassembled my share of poultry and some small game, but only now does it strike me just how much meat, how many different cuts there are, in a single head of beef. Ernie started with a piece of meat that weighed maybe five pounds, cut the steaks and had a little scrap left over. Five pounds. The hindquarters – that’s only a fraction of an entire animal – appear to weigh at least a couple hundred pounds each. This isn’t butchery, this is Blade-Intensive Anatomical Navigation; I am a Webelo with a compass and everyone else here is sailing with Magellan.
I’m a quick learner, however, with the hacksaw and the band saw. Big, indelicate operations with a more forgiving margin of error have always been my specialty. That isn’t to say the errors can’t be costly: a thumb across a moving band saw will do significantly more damage than a little nick with a knife could ever do. But it’s easy to get the job done – just push the 15-pound piece of leg (in this case) through the blade (that’s moving at what appears to be at least 23 million RPM) sans fingers. There. We now have a three-inch thick shank. Three more cuts, three more shanks, and I still possess every finger I held so dear when I began. Everyone wins.
Mark Kaltenbach, another butcher at Local Yocal, has been walking me through the process.
“Okay,” he says. “Good job.”
My verbal response is laden with enthusiasm as I observe the lack of injury-related incidences the process involved.
“Well, that’s the idea,” Mark responds.
As we take the scraps left from the leg and begin to cut the meat off the leftover bones (meat that will go into the grinder), I gain an appreciation for the finer aspect of the butcher’s craft. As with most acquired skills, it’s not the big stuff that makes the most difference; any hack can come in and cut a shank into three pieces, but it takes a little more delicacy to take a 7-inch knife and remove all the meat from a recalcitrant bone with 437 different angles. I curse a little under my breath as the bone slips and slides under my tenuous grip, and the more careful I try to be with this knife, the less effective it seems to be. Either Mark doesn’t notice my struggle or he’s too polite to mock me (a character attribute I appreciate) but I eventually get it to the point where I think all possible meat has been removed.
“Will this work?”
“Yeah, that looks good.”
Unexpected music to my ears.
“You can throw the bone in there,” Mark points to a barrel full of random bones, fat and gristle. This barrel will be picked up later for the making of dog food. Not much is wasted here. I inquire about marrow bones, and whether they all get sold.
“Yeah, those don’t last long here,” Mark responds. “I don’t get it. I don’t know why people want the weird things like that. Marrow bones. Just give me a steak. That’s good enough for me.”
I advise Mark of some of the merit of marrow – that the bones are great for roasting, then spreading the marrow on toast. I tell him that The Mansion Cookbook advises their use to make beef stock.
“Well, like I said,” he replies. “I’m happy with steaks. Or burgers.”
To be honest, I find it difficult to argue with a man who prefers steaks and burgers, and regardless of any insistence I may have that he sees the merits of other cuts, I suppose that his proficiency at fabricating them is ultimately what matters. Especially since he’s walking me through the next cut.
“Okay, I’m a little nervous; I don’t want to ruin any good meat,” I observe as he presents a large block of beef in front of me.
“Oh, don’t worry. There aren’t a whole lot of mistakes that the grinder can’t fix,” he says reassuringly.
Relieved, I begin to cut along the path he has traced with his finger. Smooth, confident strokes as I pull the cut meat from the original piece, following the curve of the muscle. I get a little too deep into the muscle, but encouraged by Mark’s words, I continue boldly on.
“Of course with this one,” he says, “You want to try to minimize the mistakes as much as you can. We can get a pretty good price for tenderloin.”
Here’s the thing: if you’re not familiar with the anatomy of a cow, these cuts don’t look like the cuts you see in the display case until the final stroke has been made. I had no idea I was cutting out a tenderloin. It didn’t look like a tenderloin at the time – they don’t have the little dotted outlines like they do on the charts. It just looked like a piece of cow meat. Sure, the marbling was different than the chuck, but I’m at no level of proficiency to tell exactly what a cut is by the marbling. Essentially, the first real piece of meat that I am fabricating for Local Yocal also happens to be one of the most valuable. And I’m pretty sure I’m butchering it, pun completely and wholly intended.
“You’re doing okay, just keep following where you’re going,” Mark says.
I do, and extract the cut. It’s not gorgeous, but it’s pretty good. We take a picture, and Mark chuckles, evidently tickled by the fact that I would take so much pride in the accomplishment. He shows me how to clean the muscle up a bit by removing any exterior nuisance fat and silverskin, and by the end of the tutorial, we’ve got a pretty nice-looking tenderloin and, more importantly, I left the grinder hungry.
There’s a white board in the back of Local Yocal that lists all outstanding orders. It reads like a who’s who of Dallas-area restaurants. They send beef to Bishop Arts and The Design District, Downtown and Highland Park, Greenville Avenue and even to their neighbors in Downtown McKinney. There’s a group of college students in front of that board right now, oblivious to the illustrious names behind them. They’re listening to Matt as he takes them on a tour of the shop, explaining Genesis Beef’s approach to ranching and processing.
… committed to producing a high-quality, grass-fed beef product free of growth-stimulating steroids, hormones and antibiotics …“
They’re words that he’s clearly said before, but that doesn’t take the sincerity from them. The killing is unsavory; I haven’t seen it, but know that in any circumstance the taking of an animal’s life should be no lighthearted affair. Matt makes it clear that he respects these animals not just by how the process ends – a quick stun bolt to the head – but through the entirety of the animal’s life. It’s an approach that applies to Matt on a religious level.
“In Genesis – hence the name Genesis Beef – after The Flood, God gave us stewardship over these animals. The good news is that we get to eat them,” he says with a laugh. “But the more difficult part is that we’re responsible for their well being, and we take that with the utmost seriousness when it comes to how they’re treated, fed, raised and harvested.”
As Matt speaks, Mark takes his knife to a section of the hindquarter as the class watches, and disassembles it into recognizable cuts. Some students hang on every movement, some merely appear hung over. But all ears perk up when Matt asks who’s hungry; there’s a fiery grill out front and a bevy of beef waiting for lunch.
“I love having classes like this come through, because it gives us a chance to define who we are and what sets us apart, and what the merits are of doing this the right way,” Matt says afterwards.
The names on the white board behind him are a testament to his philosophy.
There’s new meat in today – the truck is out back, I’m informed. I walk out to see Brian Shanahan and Derek Bellomy moving massive pieces of beef onto a cart from the truck, and offer to lend a hand. They accept the help, and within seconds I am met with a verbal reproach.
“Whoa! Don’t do that. Don’t put your hand under the meat like that!” Brian has halted the process. I move my hand.
“This thing weighs 180 pounds, and it’s coming down hard whether your hand is on it or not. Keep your limbs out from under it and use one of these,” he brandishes a rather intimidating-looking meat hook and jabs it into the hindquarter. He and Derek manage to drop the meat onto the cart with an impressive thud. Yes, that would have hurt.
They cart the hindquarters in one by one, and hang them on the rack with much exertion of labor. They are not only heavy, but unwieldy, and beef landing on the floor is not an option. Today’s effort requires two – sometimes three – people for each quarter, with one (or two) straining to lift it up and one making sure it lands on the sharp end of the hook.
“Sometimes when these come in and Matt’s here, he’ll just throw them on his shoulder and bring them in,” Brian says. “You’d better be ready, though, because they’re coming fast!” I envision the feat, and am duly impressed.
“You want to try holding one?” Brian asks.
I’ve never been accused of overcaution, and today wasn’t going to be the day to start. I accept the challenge, but before attempting the feat, I show Mark how to use my camera, and beg that he operates quickly. This is going to be a one-time show, and not a long one at that.
Brian and Derek set the hindquarter on my left shoulder and find the balance point. They let go.
It is heavy. I would be worried about my left shoulder dislocating, but those fears are distracted by the possibility of my spine telescoping. I am shorter, I think to myself, than I was three seconds ago.
Click. I hear the camera. One or two more shots to go, maybe. My left arm doesn’t hurt anymore; I can’t feel it, save for the needles stabbing my fingers.
Click. Do I hold out for another? Nope. I’m going down. The beef is going down. It’s all going down. This is the end. Gravity wins.
Mark and Derek jump in and grab the beef before I completely collapse. I stand up a stronger, more compressed man. They’re laughing; I’m struggling.
“Did you get a good shot?”
“I hope so,” Mark responds.
“Yeah, me too.”
It’s unlike a kitchen, this butcher shop – that is to say, not any professional kitchen I’ve been in. The atmosphere is more easygoing, more laid-back. And it’s cold.
There are busy times, sure, but there’s no Grape-At-Brunch or Lockhart-At-Mardi-Gras moment. I chuckle to myself at the thought that these butchers, some of whom shudder at the thought of eating beef tongue and marrow bones, fabricate cuts for some of the most illustrious, popular and inventive restaurants in North Texas. If one of those chefs were to prepare Mark a braised beef tongue, I wonder if he’d change his mind?
But it doesn’t matter, I suppose. What does matter is that Mark – and Brian and Ernie and, to an extent the 19-year-old Derek – can take these massive animals apart with such precision and efficiency. It can be likened to a puzzle, but each one’s a little different, and the task is reversed – they’re designing the pieces. In the end, whether or not they appreciate them is inconsequential.
Because someone else certainly will.