Lynn Freehill-Maye is a freelance writer in upstate New York. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Travel + Leisure, Islands, Culture, Afar, Texas Monthly, Modern Farmer, and more.
The city is engineering its culinary scene to benefit more than just high-end diners.
With an underused steel mill hulking behind him, the chef Kevin Sousa points to a tangle of buckwheat growing on the roof of Superior Motors, his new restaurant. Sousa has a shaved head, a missionary’s intensity, and HARD WORK tattooed across his knuckles. He’s standing above the 2,000-person riverfront town of Braddock, near Pittsburgh. The town struggled after the old steel mills mills scaled down; now, even pawn shops flounder there.
Sousa is building out a high-end restaurant in Braddock. Produce will be sourced from the rooftop he’s planted, as well as from a community garden one block away. Local residents will get living-wage work and free culinary training. “You have to use your imagination,” he says. “This can go from the Wild, Wild West to a golden land of opportunity where, with a little elbow grease, you can build something. That’s how I see us adding value to the community.”
The city has literally bought into his vision. Previously, Sousa ran Salt of the Earth, a perennial James Beard award-winner in Pittsburgh, and other acclaimed restaurants. Superior Motors raised $310,000 from everyday investors in 2014, making it the most-funded restaurant in Kickstarter history. (After Superior Motors' opening was delayed and Sousa canvassed for more funding, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette investigated loans and grants Sousa had received in the past.) Braddock’s mayor and others believe it’s the engine booster needed to jumpstart the revival of a depressed town.
With culinary energy like this coursing in, Pittsburgh has become the Rust Belt’s test kitchen. Bon Appetit not long ago named it the country's most up-and-coming culinary scene, and Zagat chose it as last year's top food town. The Millennials moving in are helping fuel the food boom. Pittsburgh’s median age is 32.8, years younger than the national median of 37.7. Moreover, 25- to 34-year-olds now make up 14.1 percent of the city population, up from 13 percent a decade ago, when twenty- and thirtysomethings tended to jet.
Lots of cities—think Nashville, Austin, and Louisville—are serving great food and attracting young professionals. Yet maybe because of its Rust Belt history, Pittsburgh doesn’t take quality dining for granted as a treat for the moneyed classes. Its food scene stands out for testing not only how good the chow can be, but also for how restaurants can help alleviate some social problems. Culinary projects like Superior Motors and several other notable pilots, like Conflict Kitchen, Community Kitchen Pittsburgh, Smallman Gallery, and 412 Food Rescue, are experiments in social innovation, aiming for micro-local, regional, or global impact. Together, they're examining what a restaurant can accomplish beyond serving meals—from accelerating economic opportunities to revitalizing areas like Braddock to advocating for empathy.
Even Pittsburgh’s chief innovation officer, Debra Lam, spends a portion of her time considering food—and how to distribute it broadly. Lam delivers TED-style talks at confabs like the Manchester Bidwell Big Ideas Conference on how the city of the future can break bread together. “We’re thinking end to end, the full life cycle—where your food is coming from and how it’s distributed to the community,” she says. Lam points to 412 Food Rescue, which connects food providers like grocers and restaurants to non-profits to share food that’s still good but can’t be used. Matches are made fast, and volunteers transport the food. The app came out of a recent Steel City Codefest hackathon, then was given about $10,000 from the Forbes Funds to develop further.
The city kicked off its recent Innovation Week with an event at Smallman Galley, an eight-month-old restaurant incubator with a local social mission it plans to broaden. Smallman Galley's founders, Tyler Benson and Ben Mantica, hope to help economically revitalize the Pittsburgh metro by connecting the startup chefs with space in low-density areas that could use a boost. Many chefs, they hypothesized, have culinary acumen but are never taught the business skills involved in running a restaurant. So they developed a yearlong program to teach those skills to four chefs at a time. Those chefs will simultaneously operate from a food-hall space, allowing them to develop local followings before opening their own places.
Benson and Mantica are both Millennials, which they cite as a reason they’re undertaking social innovation with their restaurant project. “People our age have broadened the nature of what civic engagement is,” Benson says. “We’re searching for other outlets to give back and serve. Business is a natural platform for that.”
One of Pittsburgh’s most ambitious and unusual culinary projects aims to foster everyday diplomacy and empathy through food. The six-year-old Conflict Kitchen serves food from countries with which the U.S. has had hostilities, like Cuba and North Korea. Along with its meals, the restaurant infuses less-heard cultures and viewpoints into the city. The Pittsburgh take-out stand has inspired other far-flung efforts, like International Alert's Conflict Cafe, a pop-up series in London that launched in 2014.
Conflict Kitchen is tucked in a plaza between the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon. On a mellow recent Sunday there, first-time diners Michelle and Michael Harper ordered Iranian cuisine. They sat before warm boxes of khoresht-e hulu, a chicken stewed with peaches and caramelized onions, and balal, a salt-brined-and-saffron-buttered ear of corn. Michelle Harper studied a broadsheet of interviews, prepared by the restaurant, quoting everyday Iranians about their country and perceptions of the United States.
“It gave me a different perspective. There’s so much hate in this world,” she said. “Understanding that ‘Hey, they have really tasty food’ is the first step,” Michael Harper added.
While projects like Conflict Kitchen, Smallman Galley, 412 Food Rescue, and Superior Motors are disparate, they’re all products of Pittsburgh’s communal history, says Tom Samilson, programs director for the social-enterprise non-profit Community Kitchen Pittsburgh. His organization plays its own innovative role. Its contract-meal, catering, and cafe services generate revenue while training people who are overcoming incarceration and addiction for fair-wage culinary work. Yet Community Kitchen Pittsburgh also plays into a larger story in the city, Samilson says.
“There’s a lot of tradition of social movements, a really inclusive antiwar movement in the early 2000s, and this demand for social justice that goes back a really long time with the steel mills,” he says. “Now there is a fever to make sure that the change that’s taking place here is inclusive. If people are going to be eating well here, people need to be living well here.”
Given Sousa’s star power, Superior Motors may be generating the most excitement of any food project in Pittsburgh right now, even before it has opened. (Sousa planned to open in 2015, but later realized even Kickstarter’s $310,000 wouldn’t be enough, he says. Sousa says he has 90 percent of the funding he needs and expects Superior Motors to open in early 2017.) Still, the restaurant is already heading off criticisms, as well. Some worry that it will cause Braddock to gentrify and leave current residents behind. “The g-word has been thrown at me more times than I can count,” Sousa says. But he aims to make the growth inclusive. Every Braddock resident will get a 50 percent discount, he pledges. (If the town’s population grows, Sousa notes, that discount may be limited to certain days of the week).
“We’re not pretending to have all the answers. We’re figuring it out as we go,” he says. “But I’m a chef who grew up in a similar town to Braddock. The thought of having exposure to something like this as a kid—that’s what’s driving me.”