Kensington Quarters is a full-service restaurant, butcher shop and bar in the Fishtown/ Northern Liberties neighborhood of Philadelphia. Their mission is to source locally farmed products and to build partnerships with these local businesses – exemplified in their logo of shaking hands. It could be said that the butcher shop is what sets Kensington Quarters apart from any other dining experience in Philly and what sets the pace of their ever changing seasonal menu.
Heather Marold Thomason is the head butcher here. Not only is she a total bad-ass with a knife, but she works directly with the farms to bring in the best quality, pasture-raised, whole animals. On site the meat is broken down for both the retail butcher shop and for the restaurant. Heather collaborates with the kitchen to use all of the animal – head to tail – nothing is wasted! I got to chat with Heather, after an extraordinary lunch, about how she found herself in the unlikely career of butchering…
I’ve read that you used to do graphic design before butchering. When did you make the switch and what inspired you to do so?
It’s true, butchery is my second career. I was always invested in my local food system as a home cook, and through farmers markets and our local food coop I grew to know many local producers. I learned about the challenges farmers raising animals face in getting that meat processed for sale to consumers and became interested in how to repair the supply chain. Eventually I decided I could have the most positive effect by being a part of it.
You’re the head butcher of Kensington Quarters. Is this your first butchering gig, how did you start out?
I started out apprenticing, first I spent a season with a livestock farmer here in PA, and then I moved to a whole animal butcher shop in CA. I spent about six months shadowing the head butchers there and was eventually offered a place on their staff.
As a butcher, what criteria do you have for a farm when you’re sourcing local meat? Are there some things you’d love to get but just can’t find in our area?
I care about farmers who are raising animals on pasture, allowing them to have a natural diet and to exercise their instincts to root, forage and graze. These practices are also healthy and restorative for the land and ultimately produce what I believe is the best quality meat – it’s nutrient-dense and tastes really good. I’m finding more farmers all the time, most recently I’ve been excited to discover more pastured poultry. I’d like to see more goat and lamb raised in this region.
What are some indicators of meat that is telling of how it was raised and it’s quality of life before slaughter?
I think the fat tells you a lot. When the animal had a healthy diet and lifestyle you can really taste it there, you’ll want to eat the fat cap on your pork chop because it’s creamy and flavorful. And the fat on a piece of grassfed beef, well it tastes like grass.
In your opinion, what’s the most underrated cut of meat? Is there something you think people should be cooking more of at home?
My work is all about using whole animals, so I just want people to consider all the cuts, as well as the organs, fat and bones. Before you go for a familiar steak or chop, maybe ask your butcher about an off cut from the shoulder or the leg. And try some offal! I personally love heart – beef heart is great on the grill or in a braise. I cook everything in lard because it’s a healthy fat with a high smoking point, and stock is a really useful thing to have around in your kitchen.
Are there any makers or farms that you are looking forward to seeing at Fest this year?
The cheesemakers! I’m definitely excited about all the cheese that will be there.