Spend an hour with Kari Underly, and you will be inspired. Not so much to dress better or take up French, but to go out and buy a really good cut of meat.
Underly is a third-generation meat cutter, amazing in itself in the male-dominated world of meat lockers and cleavers. But she's also a businesswoman — founder of Range, a Chicago-based consulting company that specializes in meat industry innovation — a teacher and an author, whose "The Art of Beef Cutting: A Meat Professional's Guide to Butchering and Merchandising" (Wiley) was nominated for a 2012 James Beard Foundation award.
At 44, she has become a leading figure in the industry; for example, she helped develop new cuts of meat: the flat-iron steak and the Denver cut. And she is helping bring the industry back from the monotonous, prepackaged niche it had been relegated to.
"The business model changed, and no one wanted to put money into a trade that was turning into a factory product," she says of the recent near-extinction of the old-school butcher.
That is slowly changing, Underly says, as consumers wise up and seek out quality meat products (her company, book and seminars are, without question, factors in this rebirth). And she wants to continue the renaissance with a full-range school in Chicago.
"I want to teach students how to do everything by hand," she says. "How to cut meat, how to make good sausage, charcuterie, curing meats. Master butchers … it would be nice to bring the craft back."
She recently talked about her life in the business and where it's headed.
Q: What do you like to be called? Butcher? Meat cutter?
A: My father (Butch Underly) prefers "meat cutter." Consumers prefer "butcher," but in the profession, that's a negative word. When people make mistakes, they butcher things. So we prefer meat cutter.
Q: How'd you get into the business?
A: I grew up around it (her family owned a butcher shop in South Bend, Ind.) It was the job you did after school. I was just trying to make a few bucks in high school; I never thought I'd stick with it. I come from a blue-collar background, and I knew you'd never get rich being a meat cutter.
Q: How young did you start?
A: Probably not till the fifth grade. I'd stand on a milk crate and push meat through the grinder.
Q: Was your father glad when you followed his footsteps?
A: When he found out, he wasn't happy. What dad wants his daughter standing around a cold meat locker? He didn't realize I was going to do more. I was able to put myself through college, and I started my own company by myself.
Q: Not many women do what you do.
A: No woman had ever been a journeyman meat cutter. I apprenticed for three years and became a journeyman meat cutter (in South Bend). Then I had difficult challenges. I had been turned down (from apprentice programs) a couple of times; I'm sure it was because I was a woman. I was told I couldn't do it. ... I had a knife thrown at me. I don't even know what the fight was about. In the meat industry, if you have a problem (with a co-worker), you take it into the cooler. So we were going back to the cooler, and I went in first, and ssssshoosh — a knife flew by my head.
Q: The meat-cutting industry has changed greatly in recent years. Now it's mostly a factory job, really. They got rid of that neighborhood butcher.
A: Being a B.K. — a butcher's kid — I remember when the industry switched from hanging beef to boxed beef. I knew something was changing. The skill was no longer about the art, taking the whole animal and giving the consumer what they want. It was about opening a box and slicing it up.
Q: How do you shop for meat?
A: I look to see if something is marked down or mismarked. I'm always searching for deals in the meat case. My advice for consumers, I usually tell them to buy what's featured. It will be the freshest, because they'll buy a lot for the sale, and you'll get a good value too.
Q: What's your favorite cut?
A: The rib-eye cap, spinalis dorsi. It's hard to find unless you do it yourself. Something that's more available is the top sirloin cap. In South America, it's a delicacy. You go to the steakhouses and you see a big picture of meat on a skewer, that's it.
Q: If you hadn't done this, what would you be doing?
A: I'd be a landscape architect. I love to garden. I like the technical side of things. It's like what I do now, mixing the technical and creative side of things. I'd love to have some dirt.
Q: Do you have the happiest dog on the planet?
A: I have two. But my dogs don't get people food. (Laughs.) One time, a customer came up and wanted to know if I had any more dog bones. I said, "I'm sorry, I just cut up my very last German shepherd." And she was horrified. I thought it was a good joke. The manager came over, "What did you say?" I told him, "I was just joking."
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