Juan Pineda of Fresno has been working for the Texas Roadhouse restaurant in Fresno since it opened about four years ago. But the 42-year-old meat cutter already had years of experience butchering meat and cutting steaks, following in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps.
Pineda last month won a regional qualifying competition in the restaurant chain’s National Meat Cutting Challenge. The regional win Oct. 15 in Arizona lands him in the semifinal round, the next step toward competing for the $20,000 top prize in the national finals in Florida in March.
Pineda said both his father and grandfather were butchers in Mexico, and he worked in the family butcher shop before he was 10. “I pretty much grew up with a knife in my hand,” he said. Before going to work for Texas Roadhouse, Pineda worked in the meat departments at grocery stores around the Fresno area, where he has lived for more than 20 years.
Pineda was judged the best in his qualifying round of 11 butchers from Texas Roadhouse restaurants in California, Arizona and Utah. In the restaurant competition, each butcher is provided with a selection of large cuts of beef, including sirloins, filets and ribeyes. They are judged on the quality of the steaks they cut , as well as their yield and speed. The winner is the contestant who yields the most steaks with the highest quality cuts in the least amount of time.
“It requires a lot of accuracy,” Pineda said. “We hand-portion each steak, so for a six-ounce sirloin, it has to be six ounces on the dot. And you want a steak that’s three-quarters to an inch thick, so you don’t want to pick a muscle that’s too big because you have to cut the steaks too thin. The judges check every single steak.”
The Arizona qualifying contest was held in an ice hockey rink where the temperature was a chilly 38 degrees – only a few degrees warmer than the walk-in cooler where he works in the restaurant. “This is what I do every day, but it’s nice to compete against the best,” he said.
He’s looking forward to the March 8-9 competition in Orlando, where both the semifinals and finals will be held. “If I won the $20,000 prize, there are a lot of things I could do with that money,” Pineda said.
As much as he deals with meat every day at work, Pineda doesn’t get tired of a good steak. “I really like a ribeye with the bone in,” he said. “It has enough fat so it doesn’t dry out. Sometimes a sirloin can get dry.”