With the Rocky fight theme blaring from an iPod speaker and a modest crowd shifting between watching intently and applauding fervently, six butchers gathered at the Cherry Creek store yesterday to compete for the top spot in the Whole Foods Top Butcher Competition. Attractive men wielding big, sharp knives laying artistic waste to prone slabs of protein made for a morning of primal stimulation and produced some tender, well-marbled flatiron steaks -- cut in less than three minutes. These creative animal-slayers included representatives from the Belmar, Capitol Hill, Colfax, Colorado Boulevard, Washington Park and Cherry Creek stores, and each had a very manly and almost pro-wrestling-inspired nickname. Tyson "Pork Chop Express" Amon, Matt "El Terror Del Mar" Youngkin (affectionately known to his co-workers as simply "Flounder"), Chris "The Crusher" Garland, Tony "The Tenderloin Terror" Potorski, Mike "Steak Slayer" Bear and Gavin "G-Force One" Pinto were all presented with solo work spaces and slabs of raw pork and beef, and given three minutes to carve them into accurate and marketable cuts.
Meat cutting has evolved from taking an axe and a pig behind the woodshed into focused industry specifications, and, lucky for consumers, this also includes guidelines for safety, sanitation, labeling and storage. Professional butchers have an extensive, on-the-job training regimen to ensure that they can wrap, rotate for freshness, setup, use and break down the visually intimidating equipment, merchandising, display excellent and fast customer service skills and, of course, cut meat without severing digits.
Contestants were graded on presentation, efficiency and profitability, with scoring breakdown categories. Workmanship and visual appeal, cleanliness and knife-handling skills, trim specifications, utilization, product selection and merchandising were scrutinized and marked, and after round one, the field was narrowed down to two finalists: Flounder and Steak Slayer. They had six minutes to cut freestyle and impress the judges.
They took their spots, sharpened their knives, and poised over their mounds of beef. Six minutes is a short amount of time to decide on cuts, cut, trim and display, so watching these two guys work was like watching two surgeons -- but lucky for us and them, their patients had no recourse if the wrong sinew was snipped.
Start time was called, and they got straight to business.
As I watched Mike and Founder carve through succulent, bleeding pounds of beef, I think I actually went through puberty a second time. I turned to a couple of female spectators next to me and asked, "Am I the only one who is getting kinda turned on by this?"
They both silently shook their heads, and we all went back to watching these two guys handle their meat-business.
Stop time was called and the contestants presented the judges with two neat, arranged trays of steak and stew beef cubes; Flounder had also produced a strung roast. The judges weren't easy on them. Both were chastised for leaving too much meat in the trim. Poor Flounder got tagged with a lousy score on this one, but made up for it by scoring high on visual appeal. Mike swept the scores for efficiency, and the contest was close. They were one point apart when the dust settled, with Flounder at 14 points total and Mike at 15.
The "Steak Slayer" had taken the prize, which was a large cutting board and the prestige of going on to represent Colorado in the regional competition to be held at the Whole Foods in Boulder in June, and for a chance to kick some serious meat-ass at the nationals in New York this summer.
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I voiced my hopes for a swimsuit competition in the finals to Heather Larrabee, marketing and community relations for Whole Foods, and we asked Mike and Flounder if they were in.
"I brought my Speedos!" said Flounder. He's all heart, that one.
Mike looked visibly stricken: "Oh my God!."
So probably no swimsuit for Mike, but if you can cut meat with the kind of speed and precision that he can, you can wear whatever you want.