In 2011, Heather Thomason was living in Brooklyn, N.Y., working in graphic design and spending her off-hours at farmers' markets and food co-ops to fuel her cooking habit. "People asked me did I wish that I worked in food, because I was always talking about food and always cooking," she says. Now - three years and one radical career change later - she's a butcher and manager at Kensington Quarters, the new restaurant, bar, and butcher shop in Fishtown that specializes in carving up whole animals sustainably raised on local farms. We asked her about her approach to butchering and the challenges of a woman breaking into the male-dominated business.
Q. What made you want to become a butcher?
I kind of had an epiphany moment. . . . I became aware of the broken chain for small farmers raising animals and trying to get them processed legally for sale at farmers' markets. There's only a handful of slaughterhouses, and you have to make reservations six months in advance. And when you're a farmer who raises 12 pigs a year and that calendar date comes around, whether they're big enough or not you just have to send them. You get back the cuts, wrapped and frozen. There was just no love and no specialization. Then, a butcher shop opened in my neighborhood in Park Slope that was buying whole animals and selling that meat fresh, and there was a line out the door. It clicked for me that there was demand, and there could be more of these places - but people had to know how to do it.
How did you go about breaking in?
There isn't a school you can go to, so you have to find people that will train you. I spent six months following every lead. I approached a lot of people and told them why I was coming to it, and that I was willing to work in exchange for learning. And I got turned down a lot. Some men looked at me and gave me the eye like, "I don't know if you'll be able to do this." But then there were people who were willing to take me on. One of them was Brooks Miller, a farmer who has a livestock farm and meat CSA out in central Pennsylvania called North Mountain Pastures. Farming is really hard and he never treated me like a girl ever. Then, a guy who runs a butcher shop out in California, he also took me on.
How did you connect with Kensington Quarters partner Bryan Mayer?
Bryan and I got paired up to teach a workshop. I knew who Bryan was because the shop he used to work at was in my neighborhood in Brooklyn. We ended up teaching a workshop on preparing a whole pig for porchetta, and we also did a sausage-making workshop . . . . We were friends by the time we left.
How does whole-animal butchering work at Kensington Quarters?
Every Thursday, our meat comes in. We get two whole cows and four whole pigs a week, four lambs every other week, and about 40 or 50 chickens a week, too. We cut them down into primals and subprimals, the parts you'd take the steaks and roasts out of, and then put them in the case or send them to the kitchen. That's the art that was being lost in the industrialized meat model where it gets processed on a large scale and it's sent to grocery stores pretty much already butchered, and they just have to cut steaks. It used to be that there were butcher shops on every corner and lots of people knew how to do that. Then, in the last 20 or 30 years, that basically went away.
Your meat is all grass-fed. What does that mean for the consumer?
It has a totally different flavor than grain-fed commodity meat. The fat to me is the most telling: It tastes like grass. The texture can be different. And grass-fed beef is really seasonal because grass is seasonal. So, in the summer, when cows are at just about full weight and the really rich green summer grass is going to fatten them up, you'll see marbling. In the winter when there's less grass or they're eating hay, they'll be a little leaner.
What do you think of the food scene here?
The food scene here is awesome. The size of the city is really amenable: It's big enough that there are resources, but small enough that everyone knows each other. I think the second day I was here, there was a talk about the future of sustainability in meat and it was a panel with Bryan and Dean [Carlson], the farmer at Wyebrook, and Ann [Karlen], the director of Fair Food and [Kevin Tucker from] Philly Cow Share. And I was like, "This is great. I'm in the right place."