Much like the cattle whose beef she works with, Katie Flannery is — excuse the pun — something of a rare breed. She's a butcher, one of the few women working in a largely male-dominated field: a 2012 study by the National Women's Law Center reported that just 24% of American butchers and meat cutters are female.
Of that quarter, some of the best known have been Los Angeles-based: the West Hollywood shop Lindy & Grundy was a sensation on its 2011 opening, as much for its female owners and operators, Erika Nakamura and Amelia Posada, as the quality (and prices) of the meat they sold. But since they closed their doors in 2014, prominent L.A. ladies of the cleaver have been few and far between.
You won't find Flannery herself behind any of Los Angeles' meat counters: The company she works for, Flannery Beef, is headquartered in Northern California's San Rafael. But you can eat the meat she's helped butcher and age in some of this city's more notable restaurants, including Ink.well, Michael Voltaggio's modernist spot, April Bloomfield's new Hearth & Hound, David Schlosser's Japanese restaurant Shibumi and David Chang's just-opened Majordomo.
At 28, Flannery is also still relatively young for her profession. But then, she got her start early: Flannery Beef is her father's business, so she grew up surrounded by meat.
"If any of me or my sisters were vegan, we probably would have been disowned on the spot," she jokes. "That was never an option." She started working at Flannery Beef, then called Bryan's Fine Foods, as a teenager — "putting out olives to put into jars," she remembers. "It's all the menial work, what you start with."
Flannery went to college for two years before deciding that she missed the hustle and bustle of small-business life: "Desk work is boring, I think. Every single day when you're working in a small business there's a new problem, new challenges. It can be chaotic at times, but I would prefer that to something more static," she says of her decision to drop out and go full time at Flannery Beef when she was 20.
It was around this time that the company was starting to expand beyond its local customer base, in part thanks to a few famous fans. Tennis legend Andre Agassi, a regular at Flannery's Marin outpost, was among them, and he was the first to request that they send steaks by mail after he relocated to Las Vegas.
"He called us up one day and wanted to know if we could ship to him," Flannery says now. "We had never shipped meat before. We had no idea what we were doing. I think [for] the first shipment we took an apple box, put some steaks in it, and some ice packs, and took it down to the post office. Probably not the best way to go!" (These days, Flannery has well-established best practices, and they regularly ship to an international clientele.)
E-commerce was the obvious next step. "That was dumped pretty firmly on my lap, because my dad, God love him, is a dinosaur," Flannery says. "He still texts with two fingers. So I kind of took that and ran with it."
These days, Flannery splits her time between the office and the meat lockers, where she manages the team that oversees Flannery's butchering and dry-aging process.
Butchery is a practice that differs between and even sometimes within cultures — it's a matter of tradition, not necessarily anatomical logic, which dictates how you turn an animal into a component for a meal. "We can buy a short loin, for example, and out of that you can get a porterhouse, a T-bone, a bone-in New York, boneless New York: a myriad of things," she says. Flannery cuts wholesale orders in batches for restaurant customers but keeps some primals (the large cuts, which on cattle are the round, loin, rib and chuck) intact so that retail clients can choose cuts on the spot.
Even more subjective is the act of dry-aging, which Flannery also does in-house: It's a variable, finicky process that requires regular attention, preferably from a seasoned professional. It rewards the kind of experiential knowledge that runs so deep it feels like instinct.
A steak in the middle of aging looks, to a lay person, like it's rotting, in part because, well, it kind of is: aging is a "controlled-decay process" that encourages excess moisture to evaporate, and allows enzymes in the meat to break it down from the inside out. Done properly, it produces a more flavorful, funky, tender steak; it's just that "properly" is much more easily said than done.
Flannery learned how to tell if a steak is aging into something delicious by "trial and error. There's not too much scientific stuff online, so it's pretty much the years dad has of doing this, and the eight years I have doing this," she says. A number of factors can affect the process — everything from temperature and humidity in the aging room to a piece of meat's placement on the drying rack.
"It's weird, but sometimes we can walk into an aging room and something will be off: the temperature will be off, and you can smell it. It will smell slightly different than you know it's supposed to, so you adjust. It's just doing it, day in and day out."
While Flannery Beef may be selling to Michelin-starred restaurants, life in the butcher shop remains resolutely unglamorous. "You're covered with blood all the time," says Flannery. "Sharp knives. It's cold. You're on your feet."
But Flannery isn't interested in doing anything else. She's got big plans for Flannery Beef, both in the meat lockers and in the office. She's working to create materials that will help bridge the divide between the name a chef knows a cut of meat by, and what a butcher calls it, which are not always in line with one another. She's also looking to continue to fine-tune her dry-aging technique and instinct.
The best part for her, though, is that as she does these things, Flannery is helping the family business continue to grow: "That's really exciting for me," she says. "To take something that was dad's passion and grow it farther than he thought it ever could go."
A dozen L.A. restaurants with Flannery Beef on the menu:
Alimento — Prime rib-eye tagliata
Angelini Osteria — Grilled hanger steak with arugula and shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano
The Exchange — Wood-grilled reserve Holstein beef with charred eggplant and brown butter
Faith & Flower — Dry-aged rib-eye, grilled over mesquite, bone-marrow bordelaise
The Hearth & Hound — Smokey spice and shiitake-rubbed hanger steak, with kale and smoked beef fat
Ink.well — Holstein New York strip, dry-aged, potato purée with seaweed or raw butter
Kali — Beef short rib, potato kraut, cabbage, red-wine braised
Otium — Rib-eye, porcini, potatoes, Cippolini onions, and Yorkshire pudding
Rossoblu — Grilled Holstein beef tagliata, mashed cauliflower, roasted carrots, black truffle
Rustic Canyon — Côte de boeuf, foraged mushrooms, green garlic popovers
Shibumi — Grilled California Holstein beef strip, fresh wasabi, nara-zuke pickle
Union — Holstein beef short ribs, winter squash, horseradish, crème fraiche