Once Jason Allen learned to spend eight to 12 hours a day in temperatures between 32 and 36 degrees, everything else was a breeze.
The Chattanooga-area resident is a butcher at Texas Roadhouse, one of a dwindling number of chain restaurants that hand-cut their meat, and his skills with a knife, ruler and scales have landed him in the quarterfinals of the 400-restaurant chain's National Meat Cutting Challenge.
Allen finished ninth in the competition last year, just missing an opportunity to go to the national finals, which this year offers a prize of $20,000 and the title of "Meat Cutter of the Year."
"We're a steak restaurant," says local Texas Roadhouse managing partner Dan Warner. "[Steaks are] contributing 80 percent of our costs" so it's in the restaurant's best interests for Allen to hone his expertise in cutting meat.
In the competition, skills of every competitor will be critiqued by competition judges to help them get better, Warner says.
In September, during the East Tennessee qualifying rounds for the contest, Allen had to cut between 30 and 40 pounds of beef - two sirloins, one rib-eye and one filet - at an ice skating rink in Knoxville. He went knife to knife with 15 or 16 competitors from the 10 restaurants in the eastern part of the state. Meat cutters are judged on quality, yield and speed - as well as Texas Roadhouse specifications for each cut - in the timed cut-off.
However, the time criterion is a little misleading. There are no extra points for finishing well ahead of the 1 hour 20 minute limit.
"If you don't finish, though, you can't win," Allen says.
The same cuts of meat will be given to about 40 competitors in the quarterfinals, set for late February in Orlando, Fla. Those will be whittled down to roughly 16 for the semifinals, held the day after the quarterfinals. From there, about seven will compete in the finals on April 27 in Amelia Island, Fla.
Allen, 28, started as a broil cook at the Hamilton Place area restaurant seven years ago but was quickly asked to be a part-time butcher. Within a half year, he had the full-time job.
"I immediately [took the job] for the raise and for something new to know how to do," he says. "I've always like knives and doing things with my hands."
• Color should be bright red.
• There should be no smell.
• Sirloins and filets should have no fat.
• Rib-eyes should have a marbling of fat for extra flavor.
• Pork chops should be white in color.
Source: Dan Warner managing partner Texas Roadhouse Chattanooga
But being alone in the freezer room was something "I liked it a lot," he says. "I found I could do it for a day. I didn't have people bothering me - just a few people in and out. It was my own little world."
Warner says Allen wouldn't have been asked to become a butcher if restaurant officials hadn't seen something in him.
"You have to be a detail-oriented person," he says. "There's cutting and cleaning, and you've got to have skills [of the proper sizes of the meat cuts] in your head."
Allen also had to figure out a wardrobe for his minimum of eight hours in the cold. After some experimentation, he decided on a T-shirt, shirt and zipped hoodie - with the hood up - in summer. In winter, he trades in the T-shirt for a thermal shirt.
On his cutting hand, a latex glove goes on first, followed by a cutting glove and a second latex glove.
At least, says Allen, there's no wind in the room.
"It makes a difference," he says.
When it comes to cutting at the restaurant, Allen says, he must quickly size up each slab of beef once he puts it on one of his 6-foot cutting boards on the 12-foot cutting table.
"You have to know how many [cuts] you can get," he says. "You have to make the decisions. Otherwise, you have to throw it in the garbage" unless parts of its are saved for beef tips. "And meat's expensive."
Warner, who as managing partner of the restaurant must know how to do every aspect of the business, says a butcher's job is not as easy as inserting a knife and cutting a slice of beef.
"These guys learn on every cut," he says. "It's amazing to watch. They get to within a tenth of an inch. There's a real art to it. And the more you do it, the better at it you get."
To begin his daily cutting, Allen gathers his scales, his metal ruler to measure length, width and thickness, his honing steel, his butcher knife and his boning knife. An electric knife sharpener is nearby if necessary.
Before demonstrating recently how he slices a slab of rib-eyes, he cuts open the package, trims off a ligament and some excess bits of meat that would have fallen on the grill, and removes gristle where bone is up against the meat.
Then, having determined how many cuts - the restaurant serves 10-, 12- and 16-ounce sizes - he can could get from the slab, Allen measures for the proper size and begins cutting. He trims fat to reduce the cut to the right size, though he leaves a marbling of fat in place to give the steak more flavor.
"The amount of meat [needed] changes for every day," he says, "and every day is different."
Contact staff writer Clint Cooper at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6497. Subscribe to his posts online at Facebook.com/ClintCooperCTFP.