Pin It

The Beefbreaker: Oscar Yedra Wants His Cut of the New Meat-Carving Movement 

Wednesday, Nov 16 2011

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.

About The Author

Lauren Smiley


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment


  • Nevada City and the South Yuba River: A gold country getaway

    Nestled in the green pine-covered hills of the Northern Sierra Nevada is the Gold Rush town of Nevada City. Beautiful Victorian houses line the streets, keeping the old-time charm alive, and a vibrant downtown is home to world-class art, theater and music. The nearby South Yuba River State Park is known for its emerald swimming holes during the summer and radiant leaf colors during autumn. These days the gold panning is more for tourists than prospectors, but the gold miner spirit is still in the air.

    South Yuba River State Park and Swimming Holes:
    The park runs along and below 20 miles of the South Yuba River, offering hiking, mountain biking, gold panning and swimming. The Highway 49 bridge swimming hole is seven-miles northwest of Nevada City where Highway 49 crosses the South Yuba River. Parking is readily available and it is a short, steep hike to a stunning swimming hole beneath a footbridge. For the more intrepid, trails extend along the river with access to secluded swim spots. The Bridgeport swimming hole has calm waters and a sandy beach -- good for families and cookouts -- and is located 14 miles northwest of Nevada City. Be sure to write down directions before heading out, GPS may not be available. Most swimming holes on the South Yuba River are best from July to September, while winter and spring can bring dangerous rapids. Always know the current before jumping in!

    Downtown Nevada City
    The welcoming, walkable downtown of Nevada City is laid back, yet full of life. Start your day at the cozy South Pine Cafe (110 S Pine St.) with a lobster benedict or a spicy Jamaican tofu scramble. Then stroll the streets and stop into the shop Kitkitdizzi (423 Broad St.) for handcrafted goods unique to the region, vintage wears and local art “all with California gold rush swagger,” as stated by owners Carrie Hawthorne and Kira Westly. Surrounded by Gold Rush history, modern gold jewelry is made from locally found nuggets and is found at Utopian Stone Custom Jewelers (301 Broad St.). For a coffee shop with Victorian charm try The Curly Wolf (217 Broad St.), an espresso house and music venue with German pastries and light fare. A perfect way to cool down during the hot summer months can be found at Treats (110 York St.) , an artisan ice cream shop with flavors like pear ginger sorbet or vegan chai coconut. Nightlife is aplenty with music halls, alehouses or dive bars like the Mine Shaft Saloon (222 Broad St.).

    The Willo Steakhouse (16898 State Hwy 49, Nevada City)
    Along Highway 49, just west of Nevada City, is The Willo, a classic roadhouse and bar where you’re welcomed by the smell of steak and a dining room full of locals. In 1947 a Quonset hut (a semi-cylindrical building) was purchased from the US Army and transported to its current location, and opened as a bar, which became popular with lumberjacks and miners. The bar was passed down through the decades and a covered structure was added to enlarge the bar and create a dining area. The original Quonset beams are still visible in the bar and current owners Mike Byrne and Nancy Wilson keep the roadhouse tradition going with carefully aged New York steaks and house made ingredients. Pair your steak or fish with a local wine, such as the Rough and Ready Red, or bring your own for a small corkage fee. Check the website for specials, such as rib-eye on Fridays.

    Outside Inn (575 E Broad St.)
    A 16-room motel a short walk from downtown, each room features a unique décor, such as the Paddlers’ Suite or the Wildflower Room. A friendly staff and an office full of information about local trails, swimming and biking gets you started on your outdoor exploration. Amenities include an outdoor shower, a summer swimming pool and picnic tables and barbeques. Don’t miss the free vegetable cart just outside the motel in the mornings.

    Written and photographed by Beth LaBerge for the SF Weekly.

  • Arcade Fire at Shoreline
    Arcade Fire opened their US tour at Shoreline Amphitheater to a full house who was there in support of their album "Reflector," which was released last fall. Dan Deacon opened the show to a happily surprised early audience and got the crowd actively dancing and warmed up. DEVO was originally on the bill to support Arcade Fire but a kayak accident last week had sidelined lead singer Mark Mothersbaugh and the duration of the west coast leg of the tour. Win Butler did a homage to DEVO by performing Uncontrollable Urge.

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed
  1. Most Popular