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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GROWING TOGETHER: WHO COOKS FOR YOU FARM + LEGUME
It started in 2009 with a conversation about kohlrabi. Trevett Hooper’s Legume Bistro, then located in Regent Square, was 2 years old. One Monday afternoon, he noticed an organic grower, Who Cooks For You Farm, had set up a table at the East Liberty farmers market, which at the time was populated primarily with conventional produce farmers. “I kind of had a crush on them. But I thought, ‘There’s no way this organic farm is going to work with a restaurant. The supply and pricing won’t work out,’” Hooper says.
A few weeks later, Hooper noticed the kohlrabi; the UFO-with-a-crown-of-leaves brassica was at the time an uncommon crop. He struck up a conversation with Chris Brittenburg, who runs the New Bethlehem farm with his wife, Aeros Lillstrom. “It’s been a symbiotic relationship ever since that day,” says Hooper.
It was Brittenburg and Lillstrom’s first year at the market. They were a year-old operation learning the rhythms of farming on 1.5 acres. “We’ve really grown up in this together,” says Lillstrom.
Over the past decade, they’ve grown Who Cooks For You Farm incrementally — to 3, 7, 12 and now 30 acres. Their relationship with Pittsburgh restaurants has grown significantly, too. While Legume remains one of its largest accounts, the farm’s vegetables are ordered by chefs at nearly 30 establishments in the region — Alta Via, Bar Marco, Union Standard, Apteka, Whitfield and Driftwood Oven, to name a few. The couple farms with organic practices (and will be certified this summer) and its focus on crop rotation, as well as ongoing conversations with chefs, means there is always a diverse selection for chefs to choose from.
Hooper says that he gets heaps of field tomatoes from Who Cooks For You Farm. Hakurei turnips, salad greens, garlic scapes, zucchini, eggplant, peppers, potatoes and kale are among his regular orders. Legume’s beloved kimchi is a result of the farm having a bounty of bok choy a few years ago (Brittenburg dropped off boxes, along with a Sally Fallon recipe). The red Korean chili peppers that festoon Legume’s dining room in the fall begin that journey as late-winter seedlings at Who Cooks For You Farm, too.
THE SPECIALISTS: CHURCHVIEW FARM + SUPERIOR MOTORS
Nine years ago, Kevin Sousa was running his first restaurant, Salt of the Earth, when a librarian who’d recently started farming walked through the front door. Tara Rockacy talked to Sousa about her vision of growing flavor-rich varieties of heirloom vegetables at Churchview Farm, a 10-acre plot in Baldwin Borough where her grandfather, Emil, used to grow crops. “Bring whatever you have. I’ll take all of it,” Sousa said.
What Rockacy sees today is a cornucopia of coveted crops. Rockacy’s reputation as a nurturer of nightshades is laudable; her myriad varieties of tomatoes and peppers are delicious. The farmer’s long-term planning for fruit production is paying dividends, too, most notably her kiwi berries. The smooth, bite-sized relative of the well-known fuzzy fruit bursts with sweetness in the autumn; it’s somewhat popular with Italian gardeners and with specialists in the eastern part of the state, but Rockacy is the only one growing them for commercial sale in western Pennsylvania.
Rockacy might have built her business by visiting restaurants, but now the chefs come to her as often as she goes to them. Churchview’s dinners and happy hours are among the most popular on-farm events in the region. Her relationship with Sousa, who now owns Superior Motors in Braddock, continues to grow, and you’ll find Churchview Farm produce on the menus at Bar Marco, Spoon, DiAnoia’s Eatery, Dish Osteria, Independent Brewing Company and more.
Sousa opened Superior Motors in Braddock in 2017. He changes his menu frequently and is creative enough to roll with whatever he’s given, which makes him a perfect customer for Rockacy, as well as for Who Cooks For You Farm, Garfield Community Farm and Grow Pittsburgh’s Braddock Farms. Sousa and Rockacy talk prior to and during the growing season about what’s in the pipeline, which means that he can plan for a dish such as “Summer Harvest,” a stunning assembly of heirloom tomatoes, peppers, beans, eggplants and herbs. He says he’s particularly enamored with Rockacy’s kiwi berries and spice peppers and that her beans ought to get more attention, too. And if Rockacy calls to say she has something worth trying, Sousa says his reaction is, “If she’s excited about it, I’m excited about it. She’s always right.”