What is the local farming scene like in the Pittsburgh
area these days, and how does it compare with what you found in California?
The thing about farms here, compared with San Diego, is that very few are geared towards working with restaurants. They
are geared towards farmers markets and households, and this area,
Pennsylvania, is a poor part of the country. In
Southern California, there are just so many farms, and all they do is work with
restaurants. They are doing really high quality produce. There is
less of that here, but it is getting better. I have noticed a shift
since we started, and we have only been here for three years. There
are just starting to be more farms that want to work specifically
with restaurants. There is one organization called Penn’s
Corner Farm Alliance, which has been around about a decade now.
I think they have been really important in pushing this forward.
Do you contact farmers in advance with specific requests or
do you wait and see what they have to offer you?
I am usually not looking for anything out of the ordinary. It
doesn’t have to be an exotic variety. What I am looking for is, of course,
flavor, and I am interested in working with farms
that are working with living soil. Not all
organic farms necessarily are really building their soil. The farms
we seek out are doing that. There’s a farm doing that called Who
Cooks for You Farm that we just started working with this spring
before we had a chance to talk about specific things. Many of these niche farmers are going
after interesting things I never would have heard of, so
it’s more interesting to let them decide, and I make do with
what they offer. If the quality is there, I don’t really care
what it is.
What are some of the things that you have discovered that
Well, this year and last year, the Hakurei turnip.
They are just awesome. It is a
little bit juicy and it has a real nice mouth feel to it, like an
apple. You can eat it raw or do a quick sauté. It is really wonderful and full of
the farms we get them from are working with great soil.
What do you have on your menu from local farms this month?
It is the time of year when summer produce is meeting fall produce. We still have tomatoes and corn, but we are also
starting to do winter squash and pumpkins and apples and cabbage and greens. There is so much this time a year it’s more a question
of what is not local.
Every Scrap of Whey-Fed Pigs
What are some of the local ingredients that you are most excited
about right now?
I have a guy who does our goat cheese. He has been raising
some goats for us that are going to be ready pretty soon, so we are
going to be getting goats from him. When the weather is a little
cooler, and I can start butchering animals in my basement again, I
will start getting whey-fed pigs from the same guy. It is just such
a beautiful thing. He has left over whey from the cheesemaking
process, and he feeds it to his pigs. It is one-stop to the butcher
and one-stop to me. I don’t think you could make tofu with less of
a carbon footprint than that.
Hooper seasons a pig's
Will you be using the whole pig in your restaurant?
Yes. We have a pretty good reputation for our pork products
here. Like the paté we make, and pork chops are always an easy sell.
We do a pork goulash in the fall with sauerkraut. And with the
bellies, we make our own bacon. We will use every scrap of it.
Does using the whole animal tie in with the mission of your
Absolutely, because when you get in boxes of animal cuts --
let’s say you get a box of 10 pork shoulders -- you forget that
it’s an animal, that it was a living thing. When you work with the
whole animal, and you spend some time butchering that animal, you
just have, I think, a little more … respect would be the word.
Respect and appreciation. Right now,
because of our size, we are not able to do that all of the time
with every animal, but that is a goal.
Is goat a hard sell with your customers?
I have the best customers in Pittsburgh. They will try everything. We are in the
East End. People here are well-educated and well-traveled. I am really proud
of how adventurous our customers have been. And plus, when they come
here, they will know they will have a goat that was healthy. They
know that it is good meat. A lot of people are attracted to the
basic quality of our food, so they will try it
What do you do with goat?
It is tricky. I
would like to do the chops, but a lot of times they are
tough because of the way they are processed and hung. A lot of the
time, they are cooled too fast so that the muscles don’t become
tender and they can’t be cooked quick like a chop. So I mostly
just roast it whole, and I will put it into like a pasta dish.
Wonders of Over-Wintered Vegetables
I noticed that in the dying days of this past winter, at one
point you had over-wintered
vegetables on your menu.
Yes, that is something that we have worked with farmers on. We
have talked about over-wintering things. We want to be doing real
food all year, and more than just a garnish of micro greens from a
greenhouse on the factory-farmed piece of meat. That’s a challenge
in a season when things aren’t growing for four months. So we are
really trying to find farms that will over-winter things for us.
Penn’s Corner had been really good about that. They are offering
more and more things like parsnips and turnips and even carrots and
of course potatoes and cabbage. They have things growing late in the
ground. When you over-winter parsnips they become a whole other
thing. They are sweeter. Their flavor is a lot different and
wonderful. Just because things aren’t growing, it can still be
very interesting with old-fashioned ways of preserving things.
Did you discuss that with farmers last year, letting them
know in advance that you would be interested in getting over-wintered
vegetables in late winter?
I have asked several farms that I have worked with and Who
Cooks for You is the most interested. Also
Grow Pittsburgh. They over-wintered salsify for me two years in a row. That was
Do you buy anything from any of the Amish farmers in this
Yes. For example, I want to do a cassoulet and I want to know
where everything in my cassoulet comes from. We make our own sausage
so we know where all the pork comes from. We know where the chickens
come from and the chicken stock. The tomatoes we process ourselves.
This year, I talked to an Amish farmer, too late to do anything this
year, but hopefully next year, he will grow some Great Northern
beans for us, so that we can say that we have a direct relationship
with the growers of every single ingredient in this simple dish of
pork and beans.
Are some of the interesting urban farms in
Pittsburgh that you buy from, such as Braddock
Farms, just gimmicky showpieces or are they serious agricultural
enterprises, in your opinion?
All I know is that their quality is outstanding. It is always
picked at the right time. The flavor is good. They choose good
varieties of vegetables to work with, and the managers, Susanna
Meyer and Marshall Hart, really know what they're doing. So that’s how I look at it. Sometimes quantity is an issue with
Grow Pittsburgh. So sometimes they can’t match what we can get
from Who Cooks for You, which has had plenty of everything and it
has just been outstanding, and it’s the same thing with Penn’s
Corner. But I like working directly with farmers, and Grow
Pittsburgh is great in that respect. It’s nice that you can
actually talk to them about it and if something isn’t right, they
will go fix it.
Undercurrent of House-Made Vinegar
Can you name one ingredient from local farms that you are
especially looking forward to in the next couple of months?
I would say the apples, because they are so phenomenal this
time of year, just eating out of hand. And then they are still good
for a long time. And we make our own vinegar here and age it in
barrels. Part of that is because it is so delicious. But we also
think about the fact that every culture has their own fermented food
product, whether wine or soy sauce or fish sauce, so we make vinegar
from local apples and we make things with this vinegar. It is in our
pickles. Is it is in our salad dressing. We may finish a soup with
it. It is this really subtle undercurrent to everything we do. Maybe
no one even notices it consciously, but it is such a difference
between just opening a bottle of vinegar, and you don’t know where
it is from. That’s not the only vinegar we use, but I really like
the idea of a locally fermented product finding its way into a lot
of our foods. I think that’s a special thing we do. But
specifically, I am really excited about the whey-fed pigs. It is
very traditional in the fall to butcher animals, and I am looking
forward to that.