High Steaks: The hero's journey of Bethlehem's competitive meat cutter
BETHLEHEM TWP., Pa. — When Miguel Barragan arrives at work, he goes into a shiny steel kitchen where the other staff step out of his way, and nod at him like a celebrity.
He goes back to a smaller, colder room that's all prepared for him—right down to his favorite-sized cloth under the cutting board so it doesn't slip around.
There is no room for error, because he's going to cut every steak Texas Roadhouse will sell for the next day and a half, and without him, the restaurant wouldn't make money.
He turns on a small but mighty Bluetooth stereo and unlocks his phone. The wallpaper on his screen is a religious painting of the Virgin Mary, and he presses play on Spotify. The song: "Puro Campeón" by Grupo Marca Registrada and Luis R Conriquez: a Spanish-language tune about becoming a winner.
"I've been listening to the song because it's it talks about champions," Barragan said.
In late January he finished in the Top 5 of a national meat-cutting event in New Jersey.
"It's not just me, like all the cutters from here, from other places like New Jersey and New York, I guarantee we all like this song," he said. "I actually posted it the other day on my Facebook with all the cutters in a photo. It describes us."
Barragan translated some of the lyrics for a listener, with a lingering focus on the phrase that roughly translates to, "we started from the bottom."
"It's basically saying how you started at the bottom, and yeah, now you're on top," Barragan said with a laugh as he prepared his cutting equipment, moving quickly and comfortably around the giant, sharp knives.
Barragan sets his own hours, and works in a freezer room that hovers between 33 and 35 degrees for long days. He wears a winter coat, warm gloves, and stands on a piece of cardboard so his feet don't freeze to the ground. Nobody comes in to bother him — it's a faux-pas in the kitchen—unless absolutely necessary—to talk to the meat cutter.
The only exception: sometimes, dining guests specifically request to have their meat cut, or even cooked by Barragan.
He's been a fixture at the restaurant for 17 years, and worn many hats before working his way up to become the king of the kitchen. Yet for someone with such a very specific celebrity status, he carries himself with an appearance of humility and grace.
The making of a champion
When asked if he's ever injured himself or accidentally cut-off a finger, Barragan, wielding a huge butcher's knife, looked up with a serious expression, pulled off a kitchen glove, and flashed his hand: it only had 4 1/2 fingers.
Then, he burst into laughter.
It turned out he lost the finger when he was a little boy growing up in Oaxaca, Mexico, while riding a horse — the reins were made out of rope, and wrapped too tightly on his hands.
"I got it out of the way," he said, jokingly.
On the next finger, there is a black wedding ring, for his wife, his No .1 supporter.
When Barragan was just a teenager, he immigrated to the United States. He worked around at a few restaurants before moving to Bethlehem, and taking a job at the Texas Roadhouse location in Bethlehem Township. There, he moved up the ranks, eventually becoming the highest-paid back-of-house employee.
Barragan makes more than $70,000 a year in base salary, and will be eligible for an additional $25,000, taxes paid by his company, if he wins the next and final round of this year's meat-cutting contest in Kansas City.
"I competed the last few years, but I was too nervous," Barragan said with a bashful smile. He is hard on himself, and took the last few losses as fuel to sharpen up his skills.
Now, watching him move around on the cutting board, he clearly has it down to a science. He moves noticeably fast for someone carrying sometimes two enormous knives, and can be seen measuring sections of meat with his fingers, guessing the exact weight down to less than half an ounce with near-perfect accuracy.
The way this competition works: every year, Texas Roadhouse holds the championship meat-cutting event, and it's both a promotional strategy for the restaurant chain, as well as a training and motivation tactic for the meat cutters. The competition has been happening nationally within Texas Roadhouse for more than 25 years, and Barragan’s manager, Steve Mulligan, said it’s much more than a promotional event.
“It's not only a promotional thing for the restaurant, it's also an incentive for our in-house meat cutter to make sure that he's practicing every day, and meeting our standards and getting as good of a yield as he possibly can so that when we do come time for the competition, he's got a chance at winning,” Mulligan said.
“It’s what keeps them sharp, so to speak.”
The cutters are evaluated on speed, accuracy, and what's called yield. Yield, in this context, means what percentage of meat they are able to chop into regulation-sized steaks, compared to the overall weight of the specimen they start with.
“So lets say they start with 60 pounds of meat. Actually, lets say 100 for easy math,” Mulligan said. “They start with 100 pounds, they cut it to our specifications for our steak sizes, and they end up with 80 pounds of meat, right—so that’s 20% loss—or 80% yield.
"Now let’s say another guy cuts, and he only gets 78% yield. Obviously the one with the higher yield [80%] is going to win.”
This year, at the last showdown in New Jersey, Barragan actually made an error when he measured his own progress, and thought he was eliminated from the contest. But the judges caught it, and determined he rightfully deserved to place in the Top 5—all it took for him to win an invitation to the final round in March.
"When they announced my name, I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I just, I don’t know how to describe the feeling. I was getting all kinds of congratulations, I called my wife, it was amazing.”
When asked what he would do with the money if he wins the next round, Barrigan said, “probably buy a brand new car. I don’t know what kind, probably an SUV or a truck.”
Before every competition—and every normal day at work—Barragan said he prays to God in those moments:
"I ask him to help me concentrate, and I thank him for everything he has done," Barragan said.
He also said it's important that he has a good, nutritious breakfast before a competition—something he said he neglected in previous competitions. At the last showdown in New Jersey, Barragan managed to find a restaurant that served huevos rancheros the morning of the event.
The final event is March 5 in Kansas City, where 25 meat cutters, including Barragan, will take part. He said he is nervous, but excited. Luckily for him, he appears to be surrounded by people who believe in him.
One of those people is his manager, Mulligan, the managing partner at the Texas Roadhouse. A New Yorker with a friendly smile and a wicked sense of humor, Mulligan is among the people at the steakhouse who saw Barragan's potential early on, while he was still a lower-level cook in the kitchen eight years ago, and taught him how to cut meat the professional way.
"Without Miguel, we wouldn't make any money," he said. "He cuts all the meat, he makes sure it's up to spec, he's the, he's the main guy in this operation," Mulligan said, patting Barragan on the back. Barragan smiled.
When asked if he believes Barragan could win the next stop on the competition tour, Mulligan said "there is no doubt in my mind. Hands down, absolutely, yes."
When asked if he believes in himself, Barragan said, "Yes, I believe."