Farms in and Near Pittsburgh Rise to Challenge Posed by Creative Chef
Supplying Whey-Fed Pigs, Hakurei Turnips, Over-Wintered Root Crops
September 2010 — Restaurant critics have raved about the simple yet elegant cuisine served up by Trevett Hooper at his three-year-old Pittsburgh restaurant, Legume Bistro. The tomato-watermelon soup is “both fruity and vegetal – summer in a bowl,” one reviewer exclaimed.
“I want to do a cassoulet and I want to know where everything in my cassoulet comes from, so that we can say that we have a direct relationship with the growers of every single ingredient.”
Others have proclaimed the peach-glazed pork chops “superlative,” the sweet breads with kale, potatoes and sherry a “marvel” and the rhubarb compote “heavenly.” As for the “very Frenchy” vinegary green-bean salad, with romano and string beans, fingerling potatoes and hard-boiled egg, it is “flat out wonderful.” Legume Bistro is an “exquisite addition” to Pittsburgh, one critic gushed, while another gave it five out of five stars and added, “in this case, we wish we could give more!”
Critics have also marveled that Hooper never went to culinary school. He was a music major at OberlinCollege in Ohio where he met his wife, Sarah, who runs the front of the restaurant. She is from Pittsburgh, which is why they ended up here, after stints at restaurants in Boston, Philadelphia and San Diego.
Hooper describes his cuisine as California French. It is also very definitely a cuisine that is based on what is currently available on local farms. His suppliers include the Penn’s Corner Farm Alliance, a cooperative of 30 farms in the vicinity that are committed to using sustainable farming practices, several Amish farmers, and Grow Pittsburgh, an organization that promotes urban agriculture and produces crops on formerly vacant lots in the self-described “malignantly beautiful” run-down inner suburb of Braddock.
Don’t look for the name of the farms on the restaurant’s spare, one-page menu, which changes daily and is posted on the Legume Bistro web site by 5 p.m. each day. That by-now rampant practice among trendy restaurants “makes the menu confusing and difficult to read,” a FAQ section on the web site explains, adding, “If you’re interested in where anything comes from, please ask your server.”
I asked Hooper himself to tell us a bit about his restaurant, where some of his ingredients come from, and how he makes use of them.
Q: What is the local farming scene like in the Pittsburgh area these days, and how does it compare with what you found in California?
A: 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, western 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.
Q: Do you contact farmers in advance with specific requests or do you wait and see what they have to offer you?
A: 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.
Q: What are some of the things that you have discovered that way?
A: 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 flavor because the farms we get them from are working with great soil.
Q: What do you have on your menu from local farms this month?
A: 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.
Using Every Scrap of a Pig
Q: What are some of the local ingredients that you are most excited about right now?
A: 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.
Q: Will you be using the whole pig in your restaurant?
A: 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.
Q: Does using the whole animal tie in with the mission of your restaurant?
A: 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.
Q: Is goat a hard sell with your customers?
A: 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
Q: What do you do with goat?
A: 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.
The Wonders of Over-Wintered Vegetables
Q: I noticed that in the dying days of this past winter, at one point you had over-wintered vegetables on your menu.
A: 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.
Q: 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?
A: 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 really cool.
Q: Do you buy anything from any of the Amish farmers in this region?
A: 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.
Q: 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?
A: 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.
An Undercurrent of House-Made Vinegar
Q: Can you name one ingredient from local farms that you are especially looking forward to in the next couple of months?
A: 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.