Lone Star Food Service is easy to miss on the booming East 6th strip, but the unassuming plant plays a major role in the Austin restaurant scene. The high-end meat processor does everything from aging steaks for fine dining restaurants like Jeffrey's and Qui to creating patties for Austin classic Dan's Hamburgers.
Keith English has been a meat cutter with Lone Star for sixteen years, and spent twenty-three years before that working grocery meat departments. He sat down with Eater to talk about how he cuts a perfect steak for chefs and diners, as well as why he gets such satisfaction from his job.
When did you start at Lone Star Food Service?
Sixteen years ago – 1998.
I was in the retail business for about 23 years, in the grocery stores. It's one of those jobs where you work when everyone else in the world plays. One thing was very appealing to this place, it was Monday – Friday.
What's a typical day like for you here at Lone Star?
I usually get here in the building about 5:30 am. I get all my clothes on – we dress in layers because it's about 40 degrees here. Then I drink coffee for 10-15 minutes. We just jump in and get going about 6 am.
The plant manager will bring us the orders from our restaurants. Based on those orders, we will go in and pull the meat out the coolers and start processing. We might bring top sirloins out for a big account. It may be a whole pallet of sirloins, could be 2000 – 2400 pounds. We have to open the boxes, and then open each individual primal, and then separate those primals muscle by muscle. We have five to six guys involved in that process, and it will take about an hour and a half, and that's only the beginning.
It's eight hours of meat processing. We have a pace we try to maintain. If you slack off during the day at a slow pace, you could get really busy in the afternoon with late orders. Sometimes restaurants will need a hotshot delivery, and we'll have to double-time to get it out.
What's your favorite part of your job?
Camaraderie with the other guys. And the satisfaction every day when you leave here that you've been very productive. It feels like a job worth doing.
What's your least favorite part?
When you have to cut something in real small tiny pieces. It takes forever, it doesn't add up very fast, and it's a grueling number of cuts to produce to small items like stew meat. You don't feel like you're getting anywhere, but you actually are.
Does cutting meat all day get repetitive in general?
It is repetitive, but it's rewarding at the end of the day to see all you have processed. When I think of all the steaks I've cut, and all the plates it will end up on, and you add up all the people who you hope enjoyed it – that's a job well done.
What's the most challenging part of your job?
You have to work together and that can be a little challenging. We have people from Mexico, Cuba, Congo, Bosnia. What we've learned is, even if you don't like the person next to you, you've got to respect them and work together. Ten to fifteen years ago a lot of egos would rub against each other. [The plant manager] Tony insists on respect.
What can you do to piss someone off?
If someone's under the pressure or under the gun on an order, and you ignore that, you're not pulling your weight. Or there's a deadline in packaging. It doesn't matter what you do, we get paid by the hour. We're all here to be helping each other. I'm at a point in my life where I like serving others. I like helping.
Is meat cutting the most coveted job here?
Meat cutting is kind of like baseball: everyone wants to be the pitcher. You only need on pitcher per game, some people have to be in the outfield or be a catcher. The meat cutting is the ultimate goal for most of the guys. That's the macho thing, the top thing to do. And other than going to a management position it's the highest paid thing you can do here.
Is this considered a dangerous job?
Years ago, it was dangerous. We didn't have lot of the safety equipment we do now. The primary piece of safety equipment is a metal mesh glove that we wear on the non-knife holding hand. Before that, I probably have had 30-40 stitches on this left hand over the years. The knives are very very sharp and one slip –the metal mesh glove has saved many many many lacerations.
The only other thing that would be a little hazardous is there's a lot of equipment in there. We actually wear a hard hat. There's racks in the back made of iron and sharp metal. Without the hard hat, I probably would have knocked myself out several times.
Cutting high end steaks must be really challenging, since they're so expensive.
Meat is so expensive these days. The price is just astronomical. It's hard for me to conceive how high its gotten. But everybody in the world wants meat now. Asia has an insatiable appetite for beef right now, and a lot of our cattle are leaving to go there.
So every time you cut a steak, if you miss it by half an ounce, you could be talking four, five, six dollars. Lots of chefs want steaks within half an ounce or an ounce of the target weight.
You can look at a piece of meat and think, This looks like five ounces and cut it?
Sure. And once you cut one and have an example in your mind, the rest of them just fall off.
So the price of meat has impacted your job because there's more risk.
There's more risk and you have to be so very cautious. I'm working for two different people. I'm working hard for Lone Star and working hard for the restaurant. I actually work for chefs.
Do you ever go to restaurants where they serve meat you've processed
Dan's Hamburgers is one of our accounts. As far as I'm concerned it's the best hamburger in town. It's fun to take people out for a hamburger and say, my company produces these.
Have you seen different cuts become popular?
One that comes to mind is called flat iron steak. It's a muscle that traditionally went into a roast but now that muscle is being separated out of what used to be a roast cut and now used for a premium high end steak in restaurants.
There's another one too -- I'm not sure what they do with it. Pork belly. More and more pork bellies are being sold. What's interesting abut that is the last two restaurants had pork belly on the menu. First time I've ever seen that. All I ever knew that people did with was make bacon.
One thing that's been trending the last couple years is chefs attaching themselves to specific ranches for a specific type of cattle the way they're raised. That seems to be a niche for a lot of restaurants these days. We work for two to three different ranches.
What's your take on grass-fed versus corn-fed beef?
The only experience I've had with grass fed beef suggests it's going to be very very good. My grandfather used to raise cattle and his was grass fed. We always had meat on the table on my grandfather's ranch. You might have to chew it a bit but it was always very good. It seems like grass fed beef had a sweeter flavor than the corn-fed beef.
This neighborhood has changed a lot.
The 6th street entertainment district is coming this way. You have the – what do you call these high rise things?
Yes, the condos are going up everywhere, the music district is moving in. You see the Broken Spoke how it's being swallowed up? I kind of feel like that. But I'm from Austin, and I'm glad to see it get spruced up. It's a fun town.
Why do you call yourself a meat cutter instead of a butcher?
Butcher's not a bad word – I just don't like it. I like meat processor.
I think butchering is from the old days when you took the whole cow hanging on a hook and you cut it down, piece by piece and broke it down. It wasn't a very clean, exact thing. I've done that, too. When I first got going into the business we were starting from the whole cow.
My first experience in the meat department in the grocery store, we a had a lot of meat hanging in the coolers. The forequarters could weigh anything from 170-200lbs. The manager said, Go back there and grab me a forequarter and bring it out.
Here I am 16 years old, 135 pounds, I tried to pick it up and couldn't. I told my manager, I need some help. He was having a bad day and said, What good are you? That got me kinda angry, so I went in there go the thing off the hook, and dragged it in.
Now, that was the wrong thing to do. We had to clean it up and trim everything on the floor. But he was so impressed, we've been good friends ever since.
Do you know about the butcher shop over on 7th street, Salt & Time? They butcher whole animals. There's a movement toward doing that again.
Yes, I've heard of Salt & Time and I've been meaning to check it out. In a big processing plant, it simply won't work any more. But I think in a small niche shop,it would be outstanding. Sort of like the Volkswagen Beetle that came back. It would be cool for customers to see that in the window.
You can see where they butcher the meat!
I think that's fantastic. That would be wonderful to say this cattle came from this ranch, here's the rancher' mission. What a wonderful way to build a good business.
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