By Carson Gerber
Tribune staff writer
Chevy Owens is wearing four shirts, two hoodies, a pair of thermal-lined pants, two pairs of hunting socks and two pairs of gloves.
He’s got the radio on, his knives are sharp and the walk-in cooler is holding steady at 34 degrees Fahrenheit.
It’s time to cut some meat.
For the last nine months, Owens has worked as a professional steak cutter at Texas Roadhouse, slicing up between 200 to 500 pounds a day of sirloin, New York strips, filets and rib eyes while enduring near-freezing conditions.
And for the last nine months, the 35-year-old meat cutter has had his eye on one thing — slicing his way to victory at the sixth-annual National Meat Cutting Challenge.
The four-round competition brings together some of the fastest, sharpest and most proficient cutters from the nation’s nearly 400 Texas Roadhouse restaurants, where they vie for the title of Meat Cutter of the Year.
The spoils? An all-expenses-paid trip to Hawaii and a $20,000 grand prize.
On Thursday, Chevy will head to John Lindell Ice Arena in Royal Oak, Mich., to compete against 18 other skilled cutters during the first round of the challenge.
Stacy Pasko, a Texas Roadhouse product coach, said the ice arena is usually reserved for figure skaters and hockey players, but the frigid conditions and large venue make it the perfect place to test the skills of master meat cutters.
She said each participant receives 40 pounds of sirloin, filet and rib eye to cut, and judging is based on quality, yield and speed. The cutter who yields the most steaks with the highest quality cut in the least amount of time heads to the next round.
“I’m pretty confident in my skills,” Chevy said. “I think I’m going to go and I’m going to win. But I’m still a little nervous — and a little excited.”
If he does win Thursday, Chevy will advance to the semifinals in February, where he’ll compete for a spot in the 2013 national competition in Maui, Hawaii.
And so far, he said his chances of moving on in the challenge are looking pretty good.
Just last week, Chevy met with meat-cutting trainer Nick Smith for some final pointers on slicing that perfect slab of steak. During the mock meat cut, he said his yields and steak quality were comparable with final-round numbers from previous years.
“I’ve been practicing every day,” Chevy said, noting each steak has to be within 0.3 ounces of the target weight. “Every cut that I make, I try to make it that much better to hit the magic mark every time, and I’m feeling pretty good about it.”
Dan Saunders, manager of the Kokomo restaurant, said he feels pretty good, too, about Chevy making it to the final round.
“I think his chances are great,” he said. “He puts the work in every day. He’s in there, he’s focused, and he wants to get better. I’ve been at the restaurant here for four years now, and he’s definitely the best meat cutter we’ve had since I’ve been here.”
Four years ago, however, Chevy might not have had much of a shot. Saunders said at that time a steak cutter from Fishers named Jeremy Martin was the unbeatable king of the meat-cutting challenge. But he ended up getting promoted to work as a product coach.
“Now it’s a wide-open competition,” Saunders said.
But why host a meat-cutting challenge in the first place?
Product coach Nick Smith said it’s because Texas Roadhouse takes its steak cutting very seriously.
“It’s a huge, important part of what we do,” he said. “Within our restaurants, meat cutters are really up on a pedestal.”
Even though Chevy said he feels good about his chances, he knows the competition will be stiff and the pressure intense. He said he’s preparing mentally for the challenge.
“I’ve been told it’s nerve-racking,” he said. “Everybody’s watching you. You’re on the center stage cutting, and all eyes are on you.”
Even so, Saunders said Chevy has nothing to worry about.
“If he doesn’t win the whole thing, I’d be shocked if he doesn’t come in second,” he said. “He’s ready.”
Carson Gerber is a Kokomo Tribune reporter. He can be reached by phone at 765-854-6739, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.