Camden meat cutter aims to make the grade at competition

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Juan Aguilar stands next to the display case which holds all of its hand-cut steaks at the Texas Roadhouse restaurant on U.S. 13 in Camden. Mr. Aguilar will compete in the chain’s meat-cutting competition starting Tuesday in Florida. (Special to the Delaware State News/Lexi Coon)

CAMDEN — Every Texas Roadhouse restaurant proudly displays their cuts of meat for all of their customers to see. To commend their meat cutters and benefit the organization Give Kids the World, Texas Roadhouse created the National Meat Cutter Challenge in Orlando, Florida.

This year’s competition, which starts Tuesday, will mark the second year that Juan Aguilar, of the Camden Texas Roadhouse, will travel to Florida in an attempt to prove that he and his steaks are a cut above the rest.

Mr. Aguilar has been a Delaware resident for eight years after leaving his home country of Guatemala. What started as a dishwashing job at the restaurant transformed into a profession four years later.

“They said, ‘We need a meat cutter, you wanna try?’ I was scared because I’ve never done that before but I said, ‘Yea, why not?’” said Mr. Aguilar.

His training as a professional meat cutter soon led him to the National Meat Cutter Challenge. Mr. Aguilar first started this year’s journey in a local Texas Roadhouse competition held in Bowie, Maryland with help of his kitchen manager, Mike Donze.

Meat cutters from Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania met to decide the top three competitors who would continue to the national level by competing against each other in a style that is similar to the national format. Mr. Aguilar placed first and was guaranteed a spot in Orlando.

This year, the growing national competition expects to see over 100 meat cutters take part. Every cutter is given 80 minutes to produce eight different cuts of steak: a 16-, 11-, 8-

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Juan Aguilar is right at home in the Texas Roadhouse’s meat freezer in Camden, where he cuts all of his steaks.

and 6-ounce sirloin, an 8-, 6- and 3-ounce fillet and one ribeye. The amount of meat totals to about 30 pounds per round, said Mr. Aguilar.

Once cut, the steaks are inspected by the judges.

“Every steak has a certain height, thickness and width that it must meet or it is a ‘kicked’ steak and will not be counted,” said Mr. Donze. “After judging, they count up all ‘legendary’ steaks and calculate the yield and total that up.”

The winner is the cutter who yields the most steaks with the highest quality cut in the least amount of time.

After the preliminary round, which features the best 107 meat cutters in the country, the top 30 cutters continue on to the semi-finals. From there, the scores will determine which 15 competitors participate in the final round. When all the results are decided, the premium steaks are sold to local Texas Roadhouse restaurants and the top competitors are awarded.

While the overall winner of the competition is given $20,000, all competitors who qualify for the top 15 places earn a company-wide, week-long celebration called the Market Partner Conference. Last year, Mr. Aguilar missed placing in the final round — and therefore attending the national conference — by 0.01 percent.

Now, after being selected again as a competitor for the 2016 National Meat Cutter Challenge, Mr. Aguilar has been honing his skills to outdo his performance from last year.

“I pick out my sirloin, fillet and ribeye and cut the steaks and they’re judged by the kitchen monitor here, Mike,” said Mr. Aguilar.

“He tells me what I did wrong and I try to fix it for next time so I don’t keep making the same mistakes.”

Much like any other professional competition, training plays a major role in success. Mr. Donze said Mr. Aguilar practices several times a week when not cutting meat for the restaurant.

“My role is to challenge and push Juan to get better everyday,” said Mr. Donze. “Myself being a former meat cutter who used to compete in the competitions, I can offer him firsthand insight into what the judges look for and how to go about cutting the most legendary steaks.”

Because this is his second year competing at the national level, Mr. Aguilar knows what to expect.

“I think it’s going to be a little hard because I’m pretty sure all the guys from last year will be there too,” he said. “Some guys from Texas have been going for 10 years. They have a lot of experience from that.”

Out of the 107 meat cutters, he is looking to improve his placement from last year and break into the final round.

“It’s a lot of pressure for me because last year I got 11th place, and right now it’s like I have to do better. If you’re really close, you have to do better next year,” said Mr. Aguilar.

While the rules are changing slightly this year, allowing the top 15 finishers to qualify for the final round and attend the conference instead of only 10, Mr. Donze is confident in Mr. Aguilar’s abilities.

“I’m very proud of Juan. He has progressed so much as a meat cutter and a leader in our store,” said Mr. Donze.

“Considering how close he came last year, we expect great things from him again.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Lexi Coon is a freelance writer living in Camden.

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