Eugene meat proprietor's expertise a cut above

EUGENE — Meet "Dr. Meat." He's here to show you just exactly where those prime cuts of meat, New York strip steak, flank steak, top sirloin, filet mignon and other great cuts come from.

"Grab hold of the rib with your left hand," Steve Neel instructs 16-year-old Candace Unsain as she grabs a single rib sticking out from the slab of short loin she's holding, then works the 6-inch boning knife into it. "Just keep working on it. Cut meat; leave bone," Neel says.

The CEO and owner of Oregon Natural Meats in Eugene, Neel has a Ph.D. in meat science from the University of Georgia, which explains the "Dr. Meat" moniker, both on his license plate and his white lab coat.

The Culinary Arts Program at the Martin Luther King Jr. Education Center in Eugene, run by Lane County Youth Services, recently became a customer of Oregon Natural Meats. But when Neel learned more about the program — how it takes juvenile offenders in the court system and provides them with food service training — he and his wife, Lisa Neel, who helps run the company, decided to lend their expertise for free.

Some students were clearly appreciative. "If you want to be a chef, you need to know all the cuts of meat," said Eduardo Curiel, 17, who has such aspirations.

Neel held a three-hour session for the students last month, too, and plans to offer it every month for the foreseeable future. The Neels say it's a great way for their business to give back to the community. The program buys the meat at discount, and gets to keep the meat cuts for its catering events. The students earn stipends that begin at $5 an hour, have an opportunity to earn their Oregon Food Handler certification, and cater meals for weddings and for governmental meetings and events.

"It's a great opportunity, because what he's teaching them today, they don't really teach anymore," said Jose Alvarez, the culinary program's food and nutrition services supervisor. "It's a skill that's hard to come by."

Oregon Natural Meats buys cattle certified to have been raised in pastures without hormones or antibiotics. The animals spend the last five months of their lives in feedlots within 150 miles of Eugene, feeding on a ration of grain that includes barley used to brew beer at the Ninkasi Brewing Co. in Eugene.

Neel began one recent training session with an 80-pound chunk of cow — the piece toward the back that has the short loin, sirloin, tenderloin, bottom sirloin and flank — on the cutting table in the kitchen of the center, which is housed in the Lane County Juvenile Justice Center on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

"This is a very expensive piece of meat," says Neel, who grew up in Eugene and first learned to cut meat as a student at Oregon State University, and at Bartels Meat Co. in Eugene, where he worked in the summers while going to college.

"You're always pushing against the bones and not the meat," he tells the students, as they watch the piece separate in two, the center of the cow's back falling away.

Neel shows them how to trim the fat off, then cuts the meat into strips about 1 and one-quarter inches thick for New York strip steaks. Later, he grabs the tenderloin and shows them how to trim the fat.

"All we want to do is take the fat away from the muscle," he says.

"It looks like a fish," Curiel says of the long piece of meat that remains on the cutting board.

"You want to get that silver skin," Neel says, of the thin layer of membrane still clinging to the meat. He slides the boning knife under the membrane, and demonstrates how to push forward with the knife and peel it away. "So, I take virtually no meat," he says. "At $12 a pound, you don't want to waste any meat."

He cuts them into 2-inch-thick pieces, flips them sideways and pats them down with his hand. "If you were at a restaurant, these would be about $35 a plate," he says. "It's premium, premium meat."

Ned Hoerauf, the program's head cook, takes the New York strips and tenderloins outside to barbecue them. When they are done, he brings them back and cuts them up for some taste testing. The meat, cooked rare, is succulent and mouth-watering.

"Oh, my god, that's so good," says Curiel, trying the New York strip steak.

The secret to the taste is dry-aging the meat for 21 days, Neel says.

"That is so tender," says Brianna Deisler-Hicks, 16, tasting the tenderloin. "It's like melting in my mouth."

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