Growing Together: Farmers and Chefs Elevate Pittsburgh Dining
These seven farmer/chef pairings are leading the charge toward more vital vegetable dishes.
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photos by laura petrilla
Crunching on slices of tender, grassy stalks of asparagus at Alta Via, the new-ish restaurant from big Burrito Restaurant Group in May, I recalled a conversation I had a few years ago with Bill Fuller, the group’s president and corporate chef. He had used asparagus as an example of a crop that was nearly impossible to source locally when he was a chef at Casbah more than 20 years ago. Things — thanks in large part to Fuller’s efforts to localize his supply chain, as well as broader national trends — have changed quite a bit in the past two decades. The gorgeous asparagus that I enjoyed in May came from Pine Valley Farms in Rochester Mills, and the difference in flavor between these stalks and something that was shipped from California or Mexico made what could have been a fine dish a “friends, it’s finally spring!” dish.
When people think about farm-to-table, the first image that comes to mind often is the old trope of a chef, dressed in whites, poking through the farmers market and filling a basket with a bounty of vegetables. While some Pittsburgh-area chefs do still shop at the markets, that’s typically not the way it works here. Farmers and chefs have conversations via telephone, email and in-person about what’s hitting its peak, what’s coming soon and what’s popular (or not) at the restaurant.
Some of those conversations have lasted years. Legume and Who Cooks for You Farm have a relationship that spans a decade and multiple locations for both establishments. Kevin Sousa helped showcase Tara Rockacy’s emergent Churchview Farm when he ran Salt of the Earth in Garfield; Rockacy now is one of the region’s most successful specialty crop farmers, with heirloom peppers, tomatoes and more on the menu at many of the city’s best restaurants.
This list is by no means exhaustive documentation of farmers who work directly with restaurants and restaurants that work with farms. I chose the seven relationships featured in the story because they represent a rough timeline of how we got to where we are today — and also as examples of how things might work in the years ahead.
Like a sparrow on the hunt for lettuce seeds, Pittsburgh’s farms and restaurants are just scratching the surface in the ways that they might grow together. I suspect that in the next few years, we will see the season for locally grown produce extend into both sides of the colder months and that more flavorful, variety specific crops will be raised for chefs to serve to us.
FOUNDATIONS: PENN’S CORNER FARM ALLIANCE + BIG BURRITO RESTAURANT GROUP
A little more than 20 years ago, Bill Fuller, then executive chef of Casbah in Shadyside, spoke at the Pennsylvania Association of Sustainable Agriculture’s annual conference. He talked to the farmers about they could better work with chefs in western Pennsylvania to reliably supply locally grown produce; the legendary permaculturalist Darryl Fry was the only Pittsburgh-area vegetable farmer with whom he had a relationship. Following the lecture, Fuller was approached by a small group of farmers who told him they might be able to work with him on a new venture they were going to call Penn’s Corner Farm Alliance.
With Fuller leading the charge from the chefs’ side, Penn’s Corner slowly began to fill the black hole in the local farm-to-restaurant supply chain — what was then a scrappy consortium now is a cooperative of nearly 50 agricultural operations whose members raise organic and naturally grown produce, as well as everything from honey to heirloom pork. Overseen by its general manager, Jeralyn Beach, it is the largest supplier of locally grown goods to the region’s restaurants, and, combined with its sales to home consumers, does more than $1.3 million of business per year.
Each week, Beach and her team assemble a list of what the individual farms can provide and chefs then use Penn’s Corner’s online ordering system to pick and choose what they want to be delivered to their restaurants. That means Bethany Zozula, executive chef of Whitfield and Penn’s Corner’s largest client in terms of volume, can order eggs and cheese in addition to seasonal produce, and Sonja J Finn can supplement Dinette’s rooftop garden with, among other things, candy onions from the Amish farmer Gideon Byler.
Fuller now is president and corporate chef of big Burrito Restaurant Group. He says his relationship with Penn’s Corner is like a long-term marriage. In the early years, produce wasn’t consumer-friendly; it would come unsorted and unrefrigerated. “There was a time I’d call and yell about the ugly turnips I got. Now, it’s a mature business. It’s steady. It’s stable.” The chefs at each of his restaurants are responsible for placing individual orders. Eli Wahl of Eleven and Ben Sloan of Alta Via use Penn’s Corner the most often; Casbah, Kaya and Soba get reliable deliveries from the cooperative, too. Fuller, who helps his chefs build relationships with local farmers, says that Who Cooks for You, be.wild.er Farm and Garfield Community Farm are also big Burrito suppliers.