Oscar accompanied Miguel to the Golden Gate holiday party, where they wound up seated at a table with a rancher who'd been leasing floor space at the plant to break grass-fed animals from his Bolinas ranch: Bill Niman.

With Niman's nephew translating, Oscar told Niman he was already getting restless to return to Mexico after failing to find work in his first days in San Francisco. A few days later, Niman offered Oscar a job.

The supervisor of Niman Ranch's four-man cutting crew started Yedra on the grinder, the least skilled work in a butcher's day. "It wasn't my thing," Yedra says. "I wanted to cut meat because that's what I do." But then, an order came in from Zuni Cafe: some 20 pounds of flat iron steaks. The butcher must slice tough tissue off the top and bottom of the steak, and then extract an unsightly vein that runs across without damaging the surrounding meat.

Many in the artisan butcher movement say Yedra is among the best.
Michael Short
Many in the artisan butcher movement say Yedra is among the best.
Every other week, Oscar Yedra (left) cuts meat for B.N. Ranch, Bill Niman’s new venture.
Michael Short
Every other week, Oscar Yedra (left) cuts meat for B.N. Ranch, Bill Niman’s new venture.

"I saw how much they were leaving on the skin and thought, wow, I can do better." Yedra asked to try, and cleanly plucked the vein out.

"He gave the whole order to me," Yedrasays. Within a year, he was promoted to supervisor — a twentysomething Mexican immigrant at the front of the fastest-growing company in the sustainably raised meat movement.

Miguel wrote out translations of the muscles and meat cuts from Spanish, and Oscar studied his first English words.

Today, the culinary scene's praise of Yedra begins to sound like the blurbs on a book cover.

"Hands-down the best knife artist I've ever seen. The man's a genius with a boning knife," says Samiljan of Baron's Meat.

"I'm in awe of his skill. He and his brothers, his whole family. I wish I could clone them," says Marsha McBride, owner of Berkeley's Cafe Rouge.

Yedra says he likes the compliments, but he's loath to brag about himself. Instead, his reflections on his work tend to come out as statements of fact. "I pretty much know where the division is of every muscle. When other people break, they have to look for them." Or, "I haven't met another guy who has the speed that I have to break the whole carcass."

As it grew, Niman Ranch opened its own processing plant in Oakland in 2000, with Oscar overseeing a 40-degree cutting floor of eventually around 25 butchers, including, at various times, three of his brothers and his nephew, Renato.

Starting at 5 a.m. each day, the crew was cutting beef primals, and lamb and pork carcasses, including the shelf-ready pork cuts for Trader Joe's West Coast stores. They also filled custom orders for restaurant clients like Chez Panisse, Zuni Cafe, Oliveto, Cactus Taquerias, and a growing list in Santa Fe, Chapel Hill, N.C., and Birmingham, Ala. — flown out fresh on icy gel-packs by FedEx. "The Niman customers were persnickety to say the least," says Samiljan, who worked for a short time under Yedra. Oscar would cut the most precise orders himself.

Yedra recalls McBride, then the head of charcuterie at Zuni, sending him a cake after he cut her a particularly uniform set of pork chops. But Yedra has always preferred beef — a 700-pound beast with more room for a butcher's creativity — and he introduced the company to "velvet" steak, a cut he'd learned from his father. The cut turns a tender part from the animal's heel usually ground up for hamburger into a $16-a-pound steak.

Yedra was Niman's top earner. "They are like the mutual admiration society," says Yedra's wife, Elisa Magidoff, a funny, laid-back Californian who manages a daycare. ("Oscar cooked me steak every day for a year to win me over," she says. "It worked," Yedra retorts.) When Yedra's parents were denied a tourist visa to attend his wedding, Mike McConnell, a former owner of Niman Ranch, says he called a contact in Sen. Barbara Boxer's office to intervene. Oscar's parents got their visa, and feasted with the rest of the guests at the reception on — what else? — Niman Ranch steak.

Despite the company's progressive ethos of treating animals and employees right, Niman Ranch wasn't immune to the dictates of capitalism. Operating at a loss in 2006, the company brought on new investors and management team, who decided to close the Oakland butcher shop and lay off the 35 employees. The company moved distribution in the Bay Area to Del Monte Meat Company (no relation to the canned-fruit behemoth).

"That's when the company went from overgrown mom-and-pop to larger company, with less of a family feeling, but still viable," says McConnell.

For Bill Niman, losing Yedra and the butchers was a strike against the new management, whom he disagreed with on a range of issues. "It was an emotional time," Niman says. "I was going through hell." Eventually, Niman quit, and was even banned by the company from using his own name commercially.

Yedra used the break as an opportunity. He started his own venture, Oscar Yedra & Brothers Meat Company, employing three family members to break beef from Creekstone Farms on Golden Gate's SOMA cutting floor. Golden Gate's head, Jim Offenbach, let him use the space for free and sold him the primals he needed for a smidge over cost. Yedra bought a van to deliver the meat to customers, like McBride's Cafe Rouge.

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