Growing Together: Farmers and Chefs Elevate Pittsburgh Dining

These seven farmer/chef pairings are leading the charge toward more vital vegetable dishes.

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.

 

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.”

 

PHOTOS BY JULIA MENOSKY

GARDEN TO TABLE, PART ONE: BITTER ENDS GARDEN + BITTER ENDS LUNCHEONETTE
“We started a farm, and it evolved into a restaurant,” says Becca Hegarty, chef/owner of Bitter Ends Luncheonette in Bloomfield.

The heart of the 17-seat restaurant is its partner farm, Bitter Ends Garden, which is run by Jason “Joddo” Oddo. In 2017, Oddo was farming with Who Cooks For You and Hegarty was chef de cuisine of Cafe Carnegie. Both were feeling a little frustrated with the state of vegetables in Pittsburgh. They also were inspired by the meticulous sourcing of Rick Easton of Bread & Salt Bakery, where Hegarty worked prior to Cafe Carnegie (and now is located in Jersey City). “When I tasted produce like that, it made me think about what is possible,” Oddo says.

So one day, while talking about the need for local farmers to grow more variety-specific, flavor-forward crops, Oddo said to Hegarty, “Let’s just find a piece of ground and grow some weird things. You’ll bake bread, and we’ll put it on sandwiches.

They found a quarter-acre plot in Verona and started selling vegetable-powered sandwiches at Bloomfield’s Saturday farmers market. Oddo, who first started farming in 2011 at Knotweed Farm, where he worked with other new-generation Pittsburgh farmers Nick Lubecki (Grow Pittsburgh) and Megan Gallagher (be.wild.er Farm), has over the past three seasons transformed a fairly scrappy piece of land into a bounty of specialty crops. He’s particularly fond of chicories such as radicchio, escarole and Variagata di Lusia; he also grows head lettuce, broccolini, kohlrabi, cucumbers and an ever-changing salad mix. “I want people to taste why these ingredients are so exciting to us,” he says.

Hegarty, who, among other honors, is a three-time-running James Beard Award Rising Star Chef semifinalist, runs Bitter Ends Luncheonette with fastidious attention to the provenance of ingredients. She and Oddo talk extensively prior to each growing season, and it’s a constant conversation once Oddo’s farm is producing. “Even if it’s the same crop, a Tuesday harvest is going to be different than a Thursday harvest. It’s about a constant conversation and adaptability,” Hegarty says.

Oddo supplies as much of the produce as he can for the restaurant, but, until he expands the farm, space constraints mean he can only grow so many things. Hegarty also sources from other local farms such as Who Cooks For You Farm and be.wild.er Farm. Gina Merante of the neighboring Linea Verde Green Market brings in organic onions and potatoes from California. Oddo, when he can, sells some of his extra produce at her market. “I feel good about the tiny dent Bitter Ends has made in the conversations but farmers deserve a much bigger voice in all of this,” Hegarty says.


GARDEN TO TABLE, PART TWO: SPORK GARDEN + SPORK
“It’s a baby farm,” Jonathan Corey says of Spork Garden, the quarter-acre plot he farms on the lot adjacent to Spork in Bloomfield. Now in its second year, Corey’s farmette produces a bounty for the contemporary American restaurant — during peak season, produce from the garden can account for as much as 85 percent of the vegetables on the Spork menu.

Executive chef Christian Frangiadis was buying from Churchview Farm, Tiny Seed Farm and Penn’s Corner Farm Alliance when the lot became available. Corey, who was working as a manager, expressed an interest in raising crops on the property. “It seemed like a no-brainer. It would allow us to do interesting things,” Frangiadis says.

Corey, now 34, started gardening when he was 18. He is self-taught and had never farmed with any intention beyond a hobby prior to breaking ground on Spork Garden. He started the first year modestly, but this year has more than tripled the garden’s size. Now he grows on four 30-foot rows, 15 20-foot rows and in a greenhouse. He looks to seed catalogs such as Baker’s Creek Heirloom Seed Co. and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange to populate the garden with tasty varieties of corn, peppers, tomatoes, tender and hearty greens, beans and more. Corey says he’s learning as he goes, figuring out the most efficient irrigation systems and looking for biodynamic solutions for pest and plant disease issues. “The broader the ecosystem, the harder it is for any one thing to get out of balance,” he says.

For his part, Frangiadis says the output from Spork Garden drives the menu at Spork, especially in the warmer months. In late spring, for example, that might mean fava beans, peas and mint become part of a pasta dish; in summer, some of a cucumber bounty will be compressed with vinaigrette and some sent to an oak barrel for pickling. Plus, Frangiadis is preserving vegetables for the winter as he’s using them in dishes. He says the ability to have vegetables picked at peak ripeness and go from field to plate in a matter of hours (sometimes minutes) has energized him as a chef. “We’re not saving money. But we are a better restaurant because we have this garden,” he says.

 

PHOTOS BY HAL B. KLEIN

THE UPSTARTS: TINY SEED FARM + BABY LOVES TACOS
Tiny Seed Farm owner Todd Wilson has a passion for specialty vegetables. Visit his stand at the Bloomfield farmers market and you’ll see an armada of shoots, tendrils, edible flowers and other wee plants that pack flavor well above their weight.

Those accents are part of what Baby Loves Tacos owner/chef Zachary Shell found so appealing about Wilson’s 2-acre Allison Park farm. “He’s growing all sorts of herbs and shoots that I can’t get anywhere else. We’re willing to take whatever he can produce,” says Shell.

The two met through Jason “Joddo” Oddo of Bitter Ends Garden and established a working relationship at the Bloomfield market in 2017. Shell was operating Baby Loves Tacos, located a few blocks up Liberty from the market, as a semi-underground establishment. “We’ve grown together since then,” says Wilson.

Prior to breaking ground on Tiny Seed, Wilson farmed for nearly five years under the tutelage of Don Kretschmann, owner of Kretschmann Farm and a foundational figure in Pittsburgh organic farming. Now, his passion is growing specialty products. He also raises more common crops such as kale and carrots while working to remediate some heavy clay soil; one solution he’s employing is picking up compostable material from the restaurants he sells to. One of his first customers was Jessica Lewis when she ran Carota Cafe at Smallman Galley; now he sells her accents such as microgreens at Spirits & Tales. Wilson also sells to the roving pop-up FetFisk, Reed & Co. and Mediterra Cafe, as well as operating a robust CSA.

Shell’s Baby Loves Tacos is one of the more low-key farm-to-table establishments in Pittsburgh, and he says he’s aiming to go even deeper into that by introducing a seasonal menu later this summer. He incorporates Tiny Seed products as much as he can, whether it’s Bull’s Blood shoots as an earthy garnish, pea tendrils and cilantro for an “it tastes like spring” salsa verde or shredded kohlrabi as the base for a slaw. Shell says that Garfield Community Farm and Brian Greenawalt also supply fresh vegetables. Wilson now is growing uncommon herbs such as epazote and culantro for Shell. “We’re trying to provide them 25 pounds of cilantro a week, but we’re not even close to that yet,” he says.


PHOTOS BY JULIA MENOSKY

THE NEW ESTABLISHED: RIVENDALE FARMS + MEDITERRA CAFE / BAKEHOUSE
Susanna Meyer and Neil Stauffer are foundational figures in Pittsburgh’s contemporary sustainable farming movement and farm-to-restaurant connection. Now, the wife and husband team is using its experience to help spearhead the region’s most ambitious farming venture in recent memory: Rivendale Farms in Washington County.

Meyer worked for Grow Pittsburgh for 10 years, spearheading the development of its Shiloh Farms, Frick Greenhouse and Braddock Farms, and was the organization’s director of Agricultural Production when she left in 2016 to become crop production manager of the farm. Stauffer was the general manager of Penn’s Corner Farm Alliance for roughly the same amount of time prior to taking his current position as Rivendale’s distribution manager.

“The first year was shooting in the dark. What would people want? Neil is good at that because he has relationships with chefs throughout the area. I think we’ve settled into our niche,” Meyer says.

That niche includes monitoring the efficiency of the land — Rivendale is partnering with Carnegie Mellon University on a pilot program to test the efficacy of smaller-scale farms employing robotic assistance in monitoring pest and disease pressure, as well as irrigation efficiency. Meyer also is responsive to her own instincts; parsnips, for example, took too long to grow, didn’t thrive in Rivendale’s wet soil and weren’t desired by chefs. So they got the ax, making way for more specialty cucumbers and salad greens. Meyer’s 11,000-square-foot greenhouse is where she takes advantage of Pittsburgh’s hot, humid summer by growing rosemary, ginger and turmeric.

Early on, Rivendale didn’t have enough freezer capacity while developing its ice cream. Stauffer called upon Mediterra’s Mike Ambeliotis, with whom he had a long-term relationship with from Penn’s Corner, who offered a cooler at its Robinson bakehouse. It’s been fruitful relationship ever since. Rivendale grows specialty wheat for Mediterra, and those herbs and rhizomes Meyer grows are a hit with Jaqueline Schoedel, executive chef of Mediterra Cafe in Sewickley. She uses them to add pop to smoothies, shrubs, lattes and savory dishes. Rivendale crops make their way onto many dishes at Mediterra, and eggs, dairy and other goods are sold at the café. “Our ethos matches up in a way that works so well,” says Meyer.

Categories: Eat + Drink, Food Features