During his 10-hour shift in the Texas Roadhouse on Northlake Parkway, Mark Williams creates his art in a 34-degree cooler. To fend off the chill, he wears two shirts, two pairs of pants and a jacket, and he heats up his gloves on the oven. But giving his customers an expert cut of meat warms his heart.
"I believe if you're paying for a 10-ounce steak," he said, "you're going to get a 10-ounce steak."
Being so precise, Williams qualified for the 2015 Texas Roadhouse National Meat Cutting Competition.
It was the third time in his 10-year career he advanced that far. Although he hasn't reached the final, he believes he is good enough to contend for the $20,000 first-place prize, so he will keep trying.
Williams graduated from Baker High School in 1979. He owned Cinema City Video, first on Victory Drive, then on St. Marys Road, until he was forced to find another job.
"Video Warehouse came to town and pretty much took us little mom-and-pops out of business," he said.
So he went into restaurant management. He was an assistant at Bonanza, Shoney's, Hardee's and Western Sizzlin. Then another decision beyond his control prompted another career change.
"Western Sizzlin was going out of business," he said. "I had to open up my options. There was an opening (at Texas Roadhouse). I came in and showed them what I can do, and they hired me right then."
Williams did cut meat at Western Sizzlin, but that was with machines. Texas Roadhouse trained him to hand-cut steaks to strict specifications: a margin of error of only 0.3 ounces in weight and 1/16th of an inch in thickness.
"We try to get it about exactly," Williams said. "When I'm cutting steaks, say if it's an inch thick, I want to make sure it's the same inch thick from the beginning of my cut to the end of my cut. That way, it gets proper cooking on the grill."
Speed also is important, Williams said, "but there are some things that just take longer to clean, like your beef tenderloin, your filet mignon. It don't take no time to cut one; it's just the cleaning part. You want to make sure you get all the silver skin off. Because if you leave it on there, it can't be chewed, no matter how much you cook it."
It takes him about 3-4 minutes to clean and cut a filet mignon, his longest task. His quickest is the ribeye, just a few minutes.
Texas Roadhouse managers monitor their meat cutters' yields, meaning the percentage of edible steak they get from their slabs of beef. The standards are 59-63 percent for filets and 81-85 percent for ribeyes and sirloins, Williams said.
He won the Newnan, Ga., regional competition in September with yields of 64 percent on his filets, 84 percent on his ribeyes and 86 percent on his sirloins. Only one other meat cutter participated, but Williams insisted, "It wasn't easy. He was a good meat cutter, too."
The good news was that, out of more than 450 meat cutters at U.S. regional competitions, Williams was among the 94 who advanced to the national championship, conducted in February in Kissimmee, Fla. The bad news was that he had to get on a plane.
It was his first time flying.
"I was shaking and stuff," said Williams, able to laugh about it now. "But it really turned out to be not that bad. I think I was just all nervous for nothing."
Williams also was nervous at the national competition.
"You start over-guessing yourself," he said. "You don't want to mess up. Too many people are looking at you."
The national competition was in the hockey rink at the Ice Factory of Central Florida to simulate the meat cutters' working temperatures and keep the beef from spoiling.
Participants had to cut a ribeye in the first round, a filet in the second round and two sirloins in the third round. The winner was the one judged to have the highest yields and the best quality cuts in the least amount of time.
Numbers were drawn to determine the order in which the participants selected their meat -- and Williams got No. 33 out of 33 in his division.
"That's my luck," he said.
When it was his turn to pick his ribeye with the last selection of the first round, Williams saw about eight loins left on the table.
"There was a lot of fat," he said.
No wonder his yield was only 77 percent. But he remained hopeful because the participants picked their meat in reverse order during the second round, so Williams chose the first tenderloin.
The filet he cut from the tenderloin was supposed to be between 5.7 and 6.3 ounces. Williams came up short because he cut it too fine.
"I tried to be too cute," he said of the yield he remembered being 58 or 59 percent. "I tried to get something out I shouldn't have. I messed it up."
In the third round, he had the last pick of the sirloins, and it showed. "Fat all the way around," he said.
Williams tried to find one slab for the 16-ounce cut, and a larger slab to carve out the 6-ounce, 8-ounce and 11-ounce steaks.
"By the time I cut all my fat and mole skin and silver skin off," he said, "I pretty much wasted about 2½ to 3 pounds alone. I was like, 'I don't even have a chance.'"
Indeed, he didn't place in the top 10 to vie for the title at the final this month in Arizona.
"I was disappointed," he said. "I was there for my store and all. I wanted to represent them. I'm better than that. I wanted to get to the next round and show them."
But he was honored to compete among the best.
"Everybody who goes to the competition is there for a reason," he said. "They're all great meat cutters."
Standing and cutting beef all day "gets to your legs and your back," Williams admitted. When asked about his hands, he said, "I ain't going to go there."
Nonetheless, through nearly 10 years of never missing a workday -- cutting an average of 200 pounds of sirloin, 150 pounds of ribeye and 50 pounds of tenderloin on a typical weekend shift -- he proudly declared, "I've never had an accident. Granted, you get a cut here and there, but we wear cut-proof gloves, at least on one hand."
So despite the tough conditions, Williams simply enjoys his craft and his coworkers.
"It's just the thought of putting out a good quality steak and representing the management," he said. "We've got good management staff here and good employees."
Jenna Temple, the Texas Roadhouse kitchen manager in Columbus, said Williams has an assistant who takes over on his days off, but Williams is the restaurant's lone fulltime meat cutter. She called him "super dedicated."
"I know some stores that go through meat cutters here and there, and it's nice to just have somebody that's been here so long," she said. "You have consistency. That's probably the biggest thing. You know what his steaks look like. You know what he's going to produce for you. So the guests know what they're going to get."
Mark Rice, 706-576-6272. Follow him on Twitter @MarkRiceLE.