The X Factor
An online school for butchers? Kari Underly’s got the chops.
Few positions in the food industry have been as immovably male-dominated as butchery. In 2020, that means time for a reboot. Third-generation butcher Kari Underly, born into the profession when women were rarely found with cleaver in hand, is determined to make it happen.
Underly has never been one to let others do the heavy lifting. Among this master butcher’s accomplishments: creating new, popular cuts of meat at the Beef Checkoff program, and earning a James Beard Foundation Award nomination for her comprehensive industry tome “The Art of Beef Cutting.”
In 2016, her devotion to butchery took a new turn as the local food movement swept the country, exposing a skills and gender gap she aimed to close in the most creative way possible by creating a web-based, meat-cutting school, the Range Meat Academy. With 90 people now pursuing their online certification as meat cutters and clerks, Underly’s on the hunt for an affordable venue where students can complete onsite testing for butcher certification.
Her three-year odyssey building the unique online platform encountered a few major challenges along the way, but the buoyantly optimistic Underly turned them into positives. Like many women, she lacked connections to outside capital, and decided to self-fund the academy.
“It’s risky,” she admits, “but I really believe in this and now I’m only in debt to myself.”
And while obtaining approval from the Illinois Board of Higher Education (IBHE) as a trade school was an unforeseen and lengthy process, it’s brought unexpected benefits.
“I didn’t count on having to do that, but I’m grateful we did,” says Underly. “When people push back and ask ‘who made you the butcher queen of the world?’—and some do—I can now say, ‘IBHE did.’ It also opened doors to other places where I can introduce the program, like high schools and rehab programs for prisoners.”
Currently, one-third of the Academy’s students are women, a number Underly hopes to grow and continually drive more females to the industry.
“The working hours for a butcher actually provide a quality of life not possible for kitchen workers,” she says. “There’s also a creative side to butchery that’s often overlooked.
“It’s like sculpting and you have to figure out what do with the layers. And unlike men, who generally focus on speed when cutting, women will be painting a bigger picture, already thinking how it can be prepared and served.”
Still, it’s not for the weak of heart or body.
Says Underly: “Butchery is hard work and will always be that way. Women have to be smart about using a cart to move the pieces around. It takes patience, practice and the courage to start your day with sharp knives in your hand and 400 pounds of meat to cut!”
What’s next for this passionate defender of the beef? Educating the next generation of meat pros is the top priority, and prophesying the next round of innovation in beef cuts. Her newest pick: a tender cut of meat located in the complexus muscle under the ribeye cap that she’s dubbed the ribeye petite tender. You read it here first!