Food Column: Kitchen makes good, and not just the food

A new food service provider in Pittsburgh offers more than regular old cafeteria food.

Pittsburgh Community Kitchen's founders, Jennifer Flanagan and Tod Shoenberger, have more altruistic goals in mind, including training at-risk individuals to work in food service, reducing food waste, and opening a restaurant that would serve both paying customers and those who otherwise couldn't afford restaurant food.

What they're envisioning is not mere pie-in-the-sky; it's already underway.

Since July, the new organization has been preparing meals for clients, including the Environmental Charter School at Frick Park, The Neighborhood Academy, and Mercy Behavioral Health. With a staff of 12, they're making nearly 2,000 meals per day and bidding on more contracts, as well.

This month, they're enrolling their first class of seven food-service trainees. The scaled-down, 10-week training program will consist mainly of hands-on work with a little demonstration-style classroom instruction on the side. Eventually, training sessions will run 16 weeks with 15 to 20 students per session.

Individuals who typically would face barriers to employment -- such as criminal records, addictions or homelessness -- will be accepted for the training classes and will receive assistance with job placement afterward. Tuition is free for students; costs will be covered by a combination of grants and food service earnings. Eventually, Mercy Behavioral Health hopes to work with Pittsburgh Community Kitchen to develop a training program for adults with developmental disabilities, as well.

Ms. Flanagan and Mr. Shoenberger bring a unique blend of experience to the table. He has been a chef for 20 years, while she works for the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, doing workforce development for individuals exiting the prison system.

The organization's goals are not all about altruism. One thing they're trying to do is simply to fix a really delicious meal. Ms. Flanagan said she has a special fondness for working with schools because they're seeing students "eating some really great from-scratch food" in place of the traditional, cheap, less-than-nutritious cafeteria food of old (see recipe). Pittsburgh Community Kitchen, she said, is "changing the way that looks. We're proving that you can do it inexpensively and still serve a quality meal."

Part of the way they accomplish this goal is by using what they call "rescued food" -- items such as fresh fruits and vegetables that are nearing the end of their shelf life or have blemishes. Staffers can either freeze those fruits and vegetables for later or incorporate them into immediate meals. They're working with the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank to find sources for rescued food, and they'll be able to redistribute some of that food through the Food Bank, as well.

For now, Pittsburgh Community Kitchen cooks its school meals in the kitchen of The Neighborhood Academy and its other meals in space leased from Mercy Behavioral Health. But beginning in March, the organization will lease kitchen space from Pittsburgh Public Market in the Strip District, allowing them to consolidate operations somewhat.

At that point, they'll also be able to offer "co-packing" services -- helping local farmers to turn their produce into salsa, jam or other jarred commodities in small batches of fewer than 1,000 jars.

Near the end of this year, the company also plans to open a 10,000-square-foot, green-technology kitchen in Lawrenceville's anticipated Energy Innovation Center to house its expanding operations.

Another longer-term goal is to open a community diner -- or preferably, more than one -- where needy individuals could swipe cards to pay for meals, and the money could come from a donor fund. The restaurant would serve those paying for their meals as well as needy individuals, and trainees could learn how to wait tables, bus tables and perform other front-of-house tasks. A Chatham University graduate student is researching this concept and scouting a location.

Meanwhile, the new organization is already creating some buzz. Ms. Flanagan has been receiving calls from area chefs, asking when she'll have trainees available for hire because Pittsburgh restaurants currently face a shortage of kitchen staff.

For more information, call 412-667-1983 or go to

Dining deals

Pittsburgh Restaurant Week Kickoff Party: 6 to 8 p.m. today at Bill Chisnell Productions, 1111 Penn Ave., Strip District. Cocktails, food samples from Restaurant Week restaurants and charity raffles. $60 at the door.

Pittsburgh Restaurant Week Winter 2014: Restaurants offer weeklong special menus, including three-course fixed-price meals at $20.14, from Jan. 13-19. For information or a list of participating restaurants:

Grape expectations: Six Penn Kitchen, Downtown, continues its wine-and-small-bites classes at 8 p.m. on Jan. 16. First course is bacon and egg drop soup with Cline Viognier 2011; second is house-made mushroom pate with French Pinot Noir; third is braised beef raviolis with a Tuscan blend ($25, reserve at 412-566-7366).

Pork roast with sweet potato and apple

Serve this dish in tortilla wraps for school lunches.

1 tablespoon olive oil, divided

About 3½ pounds pork loin

Salt and pepper, to taste

1½ teaspoons blackened seasoning

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 Gala apple, cored and diced in ½-inch pieces

2 Granny Smith apples, cored and diced in ½-inch pieces

2 sweet potatoes, diced in ½-inch pieces

About 2 tablespoons flour

1½ cups chicken stock

Set oven to 425 degrees and preheat roasting pan in oven. Rub pork with half of the oil and season with salt, pepper and blackened seasoning. Place pork in preheated pan and place in oven. Sear outside of meat. Roast for 15 minutes.

Pull roast from oven and reset oven to 350 degrees.

Toss garlic, apples and sweet potatoes in remaining oil and place on bottom of roasting pan. Set pork on top of apple mixture and roast until pork reaches internal temperature of 150 degrees. Remove from oven and let rest, covered, for 10 to 12 minutes, allowing roast to reach internal temperature of 155 degrees.

Remove meat, apples and sweet potatoes from pan. Add flour to remaining juices and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, scraping pan continually.

Add cold chicken stock and bring to a boil. Whip when mixture begins to thicken. Serve roast, apples and sweet potatoes with thickened pan juices. Makes about 12 lunch-sized servings, such as for filling tortilla wraps.

-- Pittsburgh Community Kitchen


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