Next, she pulls out a boning knife (also a Forschner). The thin, six-inch blade is almost scary. The fatty pieces she trims off go into the large “bone can” at her left. She places excess meat to her right, on what she calls the “trim pan.” This meat will be ground into hamburger.
“It’s like a craft. So you can always improve. I like New Yorks better than rib-eyes because they’re not as fatty. I broil them seven minutes on each side, sauté an onion and some Baby Bella mushrooms, throw that on top with salt and pepper. That’s a gourmet steak. You can use Worcestershire sauce, too.”
Although she talks quickly and constantly, Elsbury keeps her eyes on her work. She trims each piece and places it on a small black Styrofoam “boat” (four to a larger boat for “value packs”).
Elsbury held the position of meat-and-seafood professional for nine months before she decided to apply to Vons’ in-house journeyman-butchers apprenticeship program. She didn’t believe she’d get the position but was eager to prove herself in the interview.
“I wanted them to see who I am,” she says.
In the end, she landed one of seven spots in the program, but soon after she got the news, corporate decision-makers brought up her parole status, which prohibited the use of knives. The way she tells it today, it was but 15 minutes later that she received a call from her parole officer, informing her that she was officially discharged from parole.
The apprenticeship began with a four-week class at the Vons at Clairemont Square. The first week included eight hours a day of book work, studying from Best in Class Cutting, which is full of diagrams, pictures, and information about the shelf-life of different meats; the names of different cuts of meat and which part of the animal they come from; safety, rotation, ordering; weights and measurements; and so on. During the second, third, and fourth weeks, Elsbury and her classmates learned to cut. They practiced cutting, then were sent to stores around the district to continue practicing.
At the end of the four-week program, Elsbury was sent to train under three journeymen cutters at the Vons on Midway Drive.
“I got a lot of attention,” she says. “Which was good, but it was also, like, ‘Don’t do that. Do it like this. What is that? What are you doing?’”
Training under journeymen butchers can last as long as two years before an apprentice becomes a journeyman herself. At three points within the first six months of Elsbury’s training, her teacher from the classroom and the meat merchandiser for the district called upon her to perform block tests. The first came around the end of the three-month mark.
“They give you a list a week before the test, so you can order [the meat] you need, but they won’t tell you what you’ll cut out of it,” she explains. “When it’s time for the test, they’ll say, ‘I want two London broil value packs, a top round roast, cube steak, stir-fry, stew, and a top round thin.’ And then they’ll stand there and time you. They test you on time and craftsmanship.”
That first block test was for boneless meats. The second, given a month or two later, was bone-in. The final included some of everything. Elsbury still has the report her teacher wrote up and gave to the merchandiser after her final exam.
“He recommended that I was ready to run a small cutting shop. At that point, my strengths were in boneless cutting.”
“When I look at my meat, it looks really good,” she says. “I’m proud of my cutting.”
While still in the apprenticeship, Elsbury was transferred to the North Park store, where she continued to train under two journeymen. After about six months at North Park — by then she had a total of nine months in the apprenticeship — she was transferred again, this time to Hillcrest, where they made her “acting manager” of the meat department. The position was temporary but required her promotion to journeyman.
Three months later, she applied for and landed a permanent post as meat-department manager, the highest-paid in-store (union) position. She began at Tierrasanta, then transferred to Mission Gorge, and then to Girard and Torrey Pines, where she stayed for a year and a half. Currently, she makes $14 an hour more than before she entered the apprenticeship, a total of $22.08 per hour.
“It’s pretty cool to be a girl and have a man’s job,” she says. “I like it.”
When Elsbury finishes cutting and trimming the New York steaks, she places the Styrofoam trays on a cart. One of her five employees, a young man named Dominic, wheels the cart away to be wrapped and shelved for tomorrow’s sale.
“You should talk to her,” she calls after him. “You can tell her what an awesome boss I am!”
They both laugh.
“Last time it was Five Dollar Friday, I came in second place in the district,” she says. “But they had two cutters, and here it was just me, so I feel like I won.”
She explains that the district tracks and reports which meat department (of its 18 stores) cuts and sells the most meat on Five Dollar Fridays.
“It’s not a real competition,” she says. “I just make it a competition because I want to take down all the meat-department managers that have been around forever.”
After she washes her hands, Elsbury’s done for the day. She strips off the apron and sweatshirt and changes out of black shoes, the soles of which have bits of meat stuck to them, and into a pair of black Converse low-tops. Skinny jeans and curveless hips make her look like a skater boy from the waist down. Were it not for the lines around her eyes and mouth, her dress and mannerisms might cause her to be mistaken for someone 20 years her junior.
On her way outside, store employees wave and call, “Bye, Angie!”
For more on this article, read author Elizabeth Salaam's Backstory