RENDER's Creative Director, Gabi de León, is a designer and aspiring butcher. Therefore, she found it exciting and extremely appropriate for her to interview Heather Marold Thomason, a butcher and designer currently based in Philadelphia, for the last installment of the Butcher's Guild interview series.
Gabi de León: How long have you been a butcher? What got you into butchery, in the first place?
Heather Marold Thomason: I’ve been practicing butchery for about three years now, which seems like forever and just the tip of the iceberg all at once…
Food and cooking is the heart of my home and life together with my husband. We lived in Brooklyn for the better part of a decade and our food community there was built through CSAs, an amazing food coop, and our local Greenmarket. I became friends with some farmers who were raising livestock, and the more I learned about the process of growing healthy animals and eventually selling that meat to customers, the more I became aware of how broken the chain was on the small farming scale. Then, I saw the hugely positive response to a new whole animal butcher shop that opened in my neighborhood and thought that if I learned butchery, I could become a restorative link in that chain.
How has your gender influenced your butchery, if at all?
That’s a loaded question, because of course it has – I’m a woman working in a trade that until recently has been practiced primarily by men – but I haven’t let it hold me back.
It was really hard to get my first break. I turned over every rock and stone in my efforts to find an apprenticeship. Not only was I a girl, but I had no professional culinary experience, or anything beyond my love of local food and determination to support sustainable agriculture. That might sound like something, but when you’re a busy shop owner looking at an inexperienced person who wants to come and learn in your operation, it’s not a huge sell. In the end it was a livestock farmer named Brooks Miller that first took me on.
Here’s the thing, I’ve seen men look right through me—other butchers, farmers, and even customers from time to time. But there are a few men who saw me for who I am and what I am determined to do, and they are entirely responsible for the skills I’ve developed and the work I’m doing today. So, in the end, I think it worked to my advantage that I wasn’t some dude that any old butcher was willing to take on.
When did you join the Butcher’s Guild?
Officially, I guess I joined the Butcher’s Guild in 2013, but I started communicating with the founders, Tia and Marissa, a year or two before that when I was desperately in search of some guidance about how to make my way into this world. They were hugely encouraging, eventually pointed me to Aaron Rocchino at The Local Butcher Shop, and the following year, when I was finally ready to be a working member of the guild, I helped them produce the annual Butcher’s Guild Conference.
For how long were you working at The Local Butcher Shop?
I spent about a year and a half at The Local Butcher Shop, and it will forever be the place where I built my foundation as a butcher. I moved my husband, home, and design studio from Brooklyn, NY to Oakland, CA for the opportunity to train with Aaron and practice at his shop, which is a model of whole animal butchery and sustainable business practices. What I didn’t know was also waiting for me there was a man by the name of Bill McCann, an industry vet of over forty years. I flipped an offer for a three-day-a-week internship into a five-month, full-time apprenticeship in which I shadowed the two of them. Aaron was a patient, thoughtful teacher who encouraged an impeccable attention to detail, something he developed during his time in the kitchens of Paul Bertolli and Alice Waters, and Bill took me under his wing with determination equaling my own to toughen me up and make me a butcher. Eventually, I got hired onto the staff and spent another year as part of a team of butchers that I learned a lot from. I also designed a monthly meat subscription modeled on a CSA program that was implemented just as I left the shop. They tell me it’s been a great success in growing their whole animal business model and continuing to minimize waste.
You and your husband also own the Bad Feather design studio. Did you go from designer to butcher, or butcher to designer?
We do, although these days Brad is running the show with me playing an occasional support/consultant role. I went from designer to butcher, although I’ve learned that I’ll never leave the former behind. I would say now that I’m a butcher and designer.
You mentioned that you're part of a new butcher shop that's opening this week. Exciting! What's it called? Tell me about how it got started.
Its called Kensington Quarters. It’s a whole animal butcher shop, restaurant, and education space all under one roof in the Fishtown neighborhood of Philadelphia. "Exciting" doesn’t even begin to describe how I feel about being a part of this thing.
So, that butcher shop that opened in my Brooklyn neighborhood back when I was trying to get into this game—a guy by the name of Bryan Mayer was the head butcher there and I knew who he was and admired him, but never had an opportunity to connect at the time. Almost two years later, Bryan and I were paired up to plan and teach a butchery workshop at Eat Retreat (an amazing community-driven event for food professionals that I would love to tell you more about, but we’d seriously need a whole other interview) and we had the chance to spend an entire weekend teaching, cooking, eating. and generally bonding over butchery. Eventually, I went home to Oakland and he went back to Philly, where he had recently relocated to and partnered with restaurateur Michael Pasquarello to open KQ. The rest seriously is history—soon after Bryan asked me if I would consider relocating back to the East Coast to work with him and now I pretty much have my dream job. I work side-by-side with Bryan and a team of insanely talented people. Together we’re prepared to make some serious waves in the local and sustainable food movement, all by doing the things we love.
Are you going to be focusing more on butchery than design now that a new shop is opening, or have you found a good balance between the two?
I am. I straddled those worlds during the two years that I was apprenticing and first working as a butcher, but it was pretty taxing, both physically and mentally. If it hadn’t been for the stability of our design business and the support of my husband, I never would have been able to make the transition, but once we decided to move to Philly, and I knew I’d be taking on a role that demanded even more of me, I pretty much had to cut the cord to my professional design life.
Did you work on the design and branding for KQ?
I didn’t, but Kensington Quarters is a designer’s dream come true. A local design studio, True Hand Society, created all of our branding and worked in collaboration with Farmhaus, a local woodworking studio to build out and design the physical space. The aesthetic details in this place where I now spend my days are so damn sexy and seemingly endless—everything from a branded wallpaper that lines our cabinets where we store tools and supplies, to the custom reclaimed woodblock butcher table I cut meat on.
Is there a place where butchery and design overlap, for you? How does design influence your butchery practice?
Definitely. Butchery and design are both craft trades. A butcher requires dexterity and attention to detail, skills that that I spent a long time honing as a designer and definitely cross-over. I love perfecting my cutting for retail and then really sweating the presentation of the case.
Have you found a lot of camaraderie and support in the Butcher’s Guild?
I have. The conference that I was a part of was a really valuable experience because it was the first time I was surrounded by peers as a butcher. But camaraderie has been an important part of my life and work in food overall. I would never be where I am now if it wasn’t for the people who’ve surrounded me along the way. It’s what brought me to Philly and I can feel a really powerful community growing around me every day.
Who do you look up to in the world of cooking and butchery?
So many people...but most of all the mentors I’ve had along the way. Brooks Miller is a superhero of a farmer in my eyes, and Aaron, Bill, and Bryan are butchers and people that I want to model myself after everyday. The women I know and admire are the ones who really put themselves out there to connect people and foster community, like Tia and Marissa and my dear friend Kathryn Tomajan, the founder of Eat Retreat.
What kitchen tool do you think every RENDER reader should own? Any cookbooks or food reference books?
A heavy cast iron skillet and a good set of kitchen tongs. That would be my desert island kitchen and hopefully I’d have a good pork chop to cook with them. As far as cookbooks go, everyone should have a copy of Paul Bertolli’s Cooking By Hand—whether you want to perfect your fresh pasta game, dabble in cured meats, or just curl up on the couch for a good read, that’s your book.
Do you have any advice for designers like myself who are also aspiring butchers?
Get a knife in your hand! You’ve already got a lot going for you. And be patient. Butchery is a steep learning curve that requires a lot of practice and repetition. But finally having a glimpse of what’s around that bend, it’s totally worth it.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
Trust the universe and put some love into everything you do.