On a recent Wednesday evening in Fishtown, Damon Menapace, the executive chef at Kensington Quarters, did something he's done hundreds of times before — butchered half a pig into the cuts the restaurant needed for the week. But this time, he had an audience.
Wielding a sharp knife, Menapace stuck the blade into the pig's neck and decapitated it with one smooth movement before setting the head aside.
"I usually save this for scrapple or headcheese, occasionally," Menapace said. "We like to boil it down first before letting it form into kind of a gelatinous texture."
One of his audience members cringed a little bit.
Kensington Quarters, a meat-centric American restaurant, has been offering culinary classes since they opened a second floor classroom space in January 2015. In the last few years, the restaurant's butchers and chefs have taught Philadelphians how to make perfect pasta, cure their own charcuterie and craft cocktails that you'd find at their bar. One of their most popular classes is the butchery class, during which Menapace demonstrates how to cure bacon and ham, as well as various cooking techniques for different cuts of pork, all while deboning and breaking down the pig.
"We do this because it's important for us to support local agriculture, and we want to educate people about that," he said in an interview. "I would teach this class twice a week if I could, but I also have to cook."
Kensington Quarters is just one restaurant in the handful of farm-driven eateries trying to make conscientious meat consumption something that sticks in the Philly food scene. Josh Lawler, who moved back to Philadelphia from New York in 2011, held pig and game butchering classes at the Farm and Fisherman until the restaurant closed last year. He often served four-course meals alongside his classes to show guests how the whole animal can be used.
"When I first started doing the classes, there was a lot of demand," Lawler, who now runs The Farm and the Fisherman Taverns in Cherry Hill and Horsham, said. "We'd sell out of the classes almost immediately. People were really interested in these parts of the pig that weren't as popular then, such as the jowls or the snout."
For Menapace, the classes are a welcome break in his usual routine in the kitchen. When he was a sous chef at Osteria, he was asked to lead a pasta class. Menapace said he hadn't wanted to teach it at first, but wound up having a lot of fun showing people how to make pasta.
"Since then, I've discovered that this is a way for me to share my passion and knowledge with the world," he said.
Before the class began, Menapace wiped down the wooden table, measured kosher and curing salt into plastic containers, and moved the sausages he was curing into his walk-in meat refrigerator. He fastened a chain around his apron to hold his knives in place before retrieving the pig from storage.
"The pigs we get are usually seven to eight months old, so they're mature but not overly tough and fatty," Menapace said. "They've spent most of their lives running around in wooded areas and eating balanced diets. The meat should be dark and rich when we cut it open, not pale like the pork you see in supermarkets."
Sure enough, when he sliced the pig apart, the meat looked exceptionally fresh, a far cry from the packages you see at supermarkets. First, Menapace cut off the head for scrapple. Next, he removed the tenderloin — the equivalent of filet mignon on a cow — before splitting the shoulder. He also set aside bits and pieces of trim for sausage and charcuterie and demonstrated how he dry-ages the pork chops before grilling them. Menapace reminded his audience that it was important to never "saw" at the meat and make efficient, precise cuts instead. He then carefully walked the class through what parts he throws out (notably the kidneys, after being used to check for quality) and the decision-making process behind the cuts he made.
"We use a lot of bacon in the restaurant, so I often try to scrape the ribs when I'm removing them instead of cutting them like I would a normal rack of ribs," Menapace said. "That way, we get more meat on the belly. It doesn't really make sense for the restaurant to serve ribs in the traditional sense."
The pigs usually hang in the refrigerator for about a week to firm up before they are used. The restaurant pays upward of $3 a pound for a 600 pound pig. Menapace buys a new one every week because about 90 percent of the pork used at Kensington Quarters comes from whole pigs.
"Instead of asking why local meat costs so much, we should be asking why grocery store meat costs so little?" Menapace said. "How can you have a chicken, take its skin and bones out, sell it for 99 cents a pound, and someone still makes money?"
Most people attend the class out of curiosity, according to Menapace. He's seen couples come on dates as well as more experienced meat enthusiasts who buy a whole pig once a year with their friends. (Looking to find your own whole raw pig? Try Cannuli's or Esposito's, both in the Italian Market. But make sure you call a few days ahead.) The class is more informational than hands-on — I don't feel like I could butcher a pig after this class but I can identify cuts and I looked at meat in a different way after the class. One tip that Menapace gave me is to never go to a butcher with a specific cut of meat in mind because they might not have enough of it. Go with a cooking technique instead, and a good butcher will help you find a replacement cut.
Dan Bartoli received the class as a birthday gift from his wife. About six months ago, he had started making sausage at home, so he was particularly interested in finding out what scraps can be used.
"I'm definitely planning on using some of the techniques we explored tonight," he said. "It was so interesting to see where what goes on your plate comes from."