It’s a beautiful fall evening and I’m seated at a small two-top at Noodlehead in Shadyside. I look up from my spicy Kee Mao to notice that the entire reclaimed-wood-paneled room is full of young, working professionals—on a Tuesday night, no less.
Recently, USA Today named Pittsburgh one of “six small cities with big food scenes.” It’s true that in the four short years that I’ve lived here, I’ve seen the rise of Bar Marco and The Livermore, Meat and Potatoes, Grit & Grace, e2, Tender, and countless other restaurants that love to wrap and infuse things with bacon. In four short years, The Public Market has moved into its new home, farmers markets have moved into the neighborhoods, and CSAs—the wooden crates of produce stacked high on a neighbor’s porch—have become increasingly popular.
While I can still get a beer and pierogies for under $6, I can also now get vegan pierogies, seitan wings, late-night sushi, upscale hotdogs, fried Brussels sprouts, local cheese, local charcuterie, and small batch whiskey. It is, indeed, a big, bold, new food scene here in PGH.
Over cheap bottles of wine and $9 noodles, the Noodlehead patrons talk noisily with friends or quietly with dates. Some diners, however, sit congenially with people they do not know, slurping Chiang Mai curry at the communal table in the back of the room.
I love the communal table and secretly long to be seated there. It’s a space where people who have gathered in the same place for the same food could, perhaps, meet one another. A space where the division between what is mine and what is yours could become just a tad bit smaller, even if only for an hour.
The Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank (GPCFB) has a “communal table” of its own, and it’s big. The organization’s program The Community Table pairs restaurants, food service companies, and chefs with local agencies to provide prepared meals to people in need. The meals—totaling 140, 371 in 2013—find tables all across the Pittsburgh area.
In the eleven counties that the GPCFB serves, over 15% of the residents—or roughly 360,000 people—rely on assistance to keep their families fed. That’s a lot of hungry neighbors, including nearly 70,000 children and 84,000 senior citizens.
So as September—Hunger Action Month—came to a close, I couldn’t help but ask the question: what does it mean to have a truly thriving “food scene?”
Kevin Hunninen, Executive Chef at Park Bruges, is no stranger to Pittsburgh’s new trend in upscale dining. Among the items on the Park Bruges menu are a Local Greens & Shaved Fennel Salad, Gerber Farms Roasted Half Chicken, Bruges Frites–twice cooked, (highly addictive) fries with roasted garlic Dijon sauce—and yes, maple-bourbon house cured bacon.
He’s also a regular donor to The Community Table, helping bridge the gap between “foodie” and food security one disposable roasting pan at a time.
“I feel good that I can use my experience and resources to help a few people right in my community who are working really hard to overcome enormous personal obstacles and to better themselves,” explains Hunninen.
Kathy Hruska helped develop the program for the Food Bank, and has been involved since its inception in 2009. In these five years, she has seen the impact skyrocket from a distribution of about 3,700 meals per month at the beginning, to the now near 13,000 monthly meals that the program provides. The GPCFB partners with 75 monthly, occasional, and seasonal donors—from Six Penn Kitchen to the Consol Energy Center to Burgatory—who prepare food for 27 local agencies.
Restaurants are constantly bombarded for requests for donations, Hunninen explains, often to provide food for events that have 1,000 guests in attendance. “Even 1,000 single tastes of an item at a big event can cost $400-$800 or more, once you factor in labor and transportation. That can be an impossibility for a small business to do on a regular basis.”
The Community Table, however, offers chefs a more sustainable and consistent approach to giving, he says. “[It’s] asking me and my staff to use our culinary skill to prepare the food for an organization in need. The asking for my donation of experience really struck a chord.”
In addition, each donor has the opportunity to select where his/her food will go, choosing from a variety of member agencies that include on-site facilities such as women’s and men’s shelters, after-school programs, and senior citizen centers.
“[The GPCFB] wasn’t only asking for food donations ‘to help fight hunger,’ but was asking me to choose to whom I donated my time and skill.” Park Bruges and its sister restaurant Point Bruges now donate monthly to Alpha House, a small, residential recovery facility within just three miles of the restaurants.
Hunninen chooses the monthly meal and cooks it himself, enlisting help from staff as needed. The meals are picked up frozen and then reheated on-site, which limits what he can prepare, but Hunninen says that he always creates a wholesome meal of a protein, starch, and vegetable. Some recent examples include BBQ pulled pork, collard greens, and mashed potatoes; lasagna, garlic bread, and a vegetable; and Shepard’s Pie—meat, vegetables, and gravy covered with a mashed potato crust. Yum.
Hruska says that the impacts of The Community Table are manifold. “It brings…the community together, it’s a planned & budgeted donation for [restaurants], it gives our clients the opportunity to eat food from a restaurant that they may not be able to afford, and to try new food. It also gives agencies the day off from purchasing and preparing food for that particular meal, while the food bank get meals out to the agencies with ease.”
Sounds like a win-win-win. In fact, Mercy Behavioral Health was so impressed with the quality of the meal they received from Six Penn Kitchen, that they sent the restaurant handmade “Thank You” cards.
So what can diners do to help take their proverbial seat at the table? Look for the program’s new decals on the windows of the establishments you frequent, and encourage your favorite restaurants to become donors. “We are always looking to expand,” says Hruska.
Hunninen and the other donors are doing their part to make Pittsburgh’s big food scene a bit more inclusive. “I feel that the meals that I send help them…just relax and enjoy good [food] that someone else prepared. That’s what makes me more than happy to donate.”