Photo by Michael Short.
There is nothing subtle about a 200-pound, fat-flanked steer hindquarter slung on a man's back.
The sight brings out the red-blooded Neanderthal in even the Mason-jar-wine and skinny-jeans crowd at Oakland's Eat Real Festival in September. Despite the event's civilized sponsorship partners, like Whole Foods and Prius, the spectators roar and whistle as if a gladiator had entered the Colosseum. The charge is visceral, vaguely sexual. "Kill somebody!" one man yells. Staffers hang up the leg by its heel on a hook.
"Bring on the ketchup!"
"Give us some scraps!"
The crowd sees a naked animal carcass, arguably as provocative to American eyes as porn — long-hidden away in slaughterhouses, glimpsed in delivery trucks at Mission Street markets, revealed in the latest meat scandal on TV.
Yet Oscar Yedra, leader of Team Yedra Brothers, appraises the meat with the cold eye of an anatomist. He sees a map: seams to navigate with his knife, bones to dodge,muscles to contour with the cuts he's been honing since boyhood.
Yedra is a 45-year-old Mexican national with the muscular physique of the steers he carves up. A snorting bull is tattooed on his chest. In an age when meat shows up pre-cut to the supermarket, he is a relic of a former era and another country. He is a craftsman, some say an artist. He is a butcher.
And his profession is suddenly hip. Some 300 foodies crowd before the stage to see the Flying Knives Steer Butchery Competition. Standing in back is Bill Niman, the father of the America's grass-fed meat movement, one of the first ranchers to garner celebrity name cachet. He's there to see Yedra, his head butcher for 15 years on Niman Ranch's cutting floor, and at one point, the company's highest-paid employee.
Yedra will compete against Team Butcher's Guild, a San Francisco-based collective of butchers who cut whole, grass-fed animals from local farms. No hormones or antibiotics or corporate feedlots — they believe you should eat less meat to afford quality meat. They tend to be young, sometimes tattooed. They have book deals and Twitter feeds and write about meat for GQ. Many have opened their own butcher shops, and one drives a roving meat wagon in the city.
To them, Oscar is both a distant role model and outsider, commanding unanimous respect for his skills and brawn. (Says one butcher about a picture of Yedra and his brother Miguel scowling among the other competitors in last year's East Real Fest in a New York Times photo: "They looked pretty angry.") Yedra and his meat-cutting dynasty of brothers and a nephew are the two-time defending champions of the Eat Real contest who last year led a butcher walk-out over a wage dispute with Marin Sun Farms.
Yet other butchers call them "back-room guys," cutting meat behind the scenes both literally and figuratively — not up front promoting themselves. Yedra still hasn't joined the guild, and was left out of the 2010 book Primal Cuts: Cooking with America's Best Butchers, which showcased faces of the new national movement, including six from the Bay Area. Author Marissa Guggiana said she hadn't yet heard of him.
So the next test for Oscar will be pure business: to get a cut of the movement that's caught up with his trade. Yedra dreams of opening his own company, but still works the counter of a high-end supermarket.
There's no time for those thoughts now. As the competition nears, Yedra, dressed in his white apron and coat, clenches a meat hook and gives last-minute instructions to his team. His knives wait in a plastic box attached to the chain around his waist like guns in a holster. His playbook of who will cut each and every steak lies beside the cutting boards on the table. Renato, his 27-year-old nephew with his uncle's buff physique, bounces his shoulders like a weightlifter between sets. Rian Rinn, the non-family member of the three-man team, sharpens his knife on his cylindrical steel: shing shing shing.
"I'm nervous," Yedra says. "I'm nervous now." The crowd counts down from 10. Time to cut.
Yedra doesn't care much about what kind of meat business he starts — a retail shop or a wholesale distributor — just that it would employ his family and have "Yedra" in the name. "It's my dream," he says.
"If someone with the skill set he has couldn't make a go of it, there's something really wrong," says Taylor Boetticher, a butcher who opened the Fatted Calf Charcuterie in Hayes Valley last year. Back when he was learning, Boetticher took a tutorial on cutting from Yedra on Niman Ranch's cutting floor. While the teacher continues to work for others, the one-time apprentice is at the helm of two butcher shops that embody the butcher new wave.
At the weekly "Pork Happy Hour" at the Fell Street shop on a recent Wednesday, the renowned "Dave the Butcher" Budworth was slicing away at a pig shoulder while discussing the provenance of prosciutto with a fan.
A butcher groupie? How else would you describe this retired guy in a "Field of Dreams" T-shirt? He's shown up to see Dave cut at the last seven happy hours, each time taking home a $25 slab of pork to test out the skills he had picked up from Dave's $90 meat-cutting class in the Ferry Building. After Dave cautions against wrapping pork in waxed freezer paper, the admirer says in a hushed voice, "Just hearing that stuff is priceless."
Of course, you used to be able to ask your corner butcher, a neighborhood fixture until the 1960s, when the consolidating meat industry moved animals onto corporate feedlots. Butchery moved to the slaughterhouse, where workers each made one cut on hundreds of carcasses a day on a fast-moving dis-assembly line. With notable holdouts like Drewes Bros. Meats in Noe Valley, the neighborhood butcher died out, and the art of whole-animal butchery was lost. "Most butchers in America, the only knife they use is a box-cutter," announced Anya Fernald, CEO of Belcampo Farms, while emceeing the Eat Real contest.