One chef in Pittsburgh wants to open a conversation. It's about GMOs -- genetically modified organisms.
Trevett Hooper unabashedly dreams of a restaurant in his own future that will offer nothing but extremely local organic food year-round, without a genetically modified atom on the plate.
He hews as close to this ideal as he can within the foodshed he's been dealt, getting closer than any other kitchen in the city and most elsewhere.
Mr. Hooper, 38, and his wife, Sarah, own Legume Bistro, a seven-year-old restaurant, in the heart of Oakland's university and art culture. Looking out from the windowed ground floor of a stately 1920s Beaux Arts building, the 90-seat dining room, with its shelves of house-preserved foods, serves lunch and dinner. Its adjacent Butterjoint Bar dishes out polished bar food into the night.
The seasonal menu -- equal parts earthy, homey and sophisticated -- seems to suit food geeks, techies, students, eds and meds, your mom and dad and their grandchildren.
A Maine native and once-serious musician, derailed from auditioning at the New England Conservatory of Music by carpal tunnel, Mr. Hooper ended up at Oberlin College, getting a degree in religion.
He is untattooed and unruffled with an expression that is quick to respond, though he takes a reflective moment before he speaks -- descriptors that could fit a good parent. The Hoopers have four children, aged 8 to 1. The chef's steadiness -- except for an occasional way-hip haircut or a startling but short-lived 1930s moustache -- might have suited a pastoral career.
As it happened he was diverted to another kind of ministry. An Oberlin sustainable-agriculture course in 1998 introduced him to GMOs, just three years after the first pesticide-producing crop, a potato, was approved in the United States. The encounter set off internal combustion that fuels his food thinking to this day.
"GMOs have a lot to give concern. The approach taken by our government that GMOs are innocent until proven guilty doesn't mean it's not harmful. It is scary the speed this is going in -- funded by people who stand to profit."
He says, "I was heavily influenced by [the farmer/philosopher/poet/essayist] Wendell Berry." This quote from Berry's "The Miracle of Life" introduces an essay he's been tweaking the past year, destined for his blog, about his personal battle in the restaurant with GMOs: "In the process that carries knowledge from the laboratory to the market there is not enough fear. And in the history of that process there has not been adequate accounting."
"Legume has the sort of reputation that people -- if even 2 percent think about GMOs -- think they'd never get a GMO here," Mr. Hooper says.
"I had a rolled up poster in my office for over a year I had waited to hang in the dining room: 'Resist Biotechnology,' from the Beehive Collection.
"I'd been waiting to be able to say with certainty that we weren't serving any GMOs at Legume whatsoever -- not vegetables or grains, or meat or dairy from animals fed on genetically modified feed.
"After a year of learning about genetic engineering in our local foodshed, I realize that meeting this goal will take a lot longer than I thought. I used to think GMOs were mostly found in the grain fed to feedlot animals, and in grocery-store corn products and junk food. This sense was wrong.
"Last summer the kitchen was pure misery because of my trying not to do GMOs. It was making my work so much harder. I've calmed down now."
Will the chicken fit the pan?
"It occurred to me that if I, who purchase thousands of pounds of local foods every month, was relatively unaware of GMOs in food produced here, then a lot of other people who are drawn to eat locally for reasons of quality and health may be unaware, too -- and it might be a pretty important thing to write about.
"I got to thinking about farmers-market sweet corn. Yes, you will find GMOs in the farmers market. This was the corn we would use before organic sweet corn ripened later in the season. And it occurred to me that some of the local animals we use had been fed GMO grain at some point in their lives."
Last spring he got on the phone.
Chris Brittenberg of Who Cooks for You, a small farm 60 miles north in New Bethlehem, "provides us with certified naturally grown produce. He anticipated my question. 'We've already planted non-GMO sweet corn for you.'
"I called Pete Burns in New Wilmington about chicken. They had capacity to do the volume we need and wanted to be doing non-GMO, but didn't think they'd find a wider market for the pricier chicken. Still they agreed to do a batch for Legume." They anticipated paying a lot for feed trucked from Virginia.
Pondering the reality that "most animal feed in these parts is GMO prompted us to wean ourselves more quickly off grain-finished beef. We lined up three animals to try in August.
"I was pretty excited and expected to hang 'Resist Biotechnology' by the end of summer."
But Mr. Burns' reluctant non-GMO feed supplier was dragging his feet.
Mr. Brittenberg reported the corn didn't look so great. He would side-dress it.
Chef Hooper was close to throwing in the towel.
"Is the answer to buy corporate-farmed, organic corn shipped across the country, or use some GMO corn for a few weeks, because your customers want corn now?
"One day Pete Burns came in: 'We have your GMO-free chickens today. We decided to do all our chickens GMO-free from now on, not just yours.' "
The farmer's wife, Tara Burns, blogged: "Our feed mill got some local GMO-free feed really cheap, for this year only. Hooray! We started with our chickens and pigs and laying hens, too."
But Legume would need the non-GMO birds to come in smaller -- 2 pounds, 12 ounces, instead of the usual 31/2- to 4-pound birds. They had to fit into the pan when flattened to make the outrageously popular dish, Chicken Under a Skillet. Mr. Hooper agreed to pay a little more for smaller birds.
The farmer's wife said: "Trevett understands, 'If you want good food you are going to have to pay good money for it.' "
Then the corn ripened. Mr. Hooper: "We had a few weeks of fresh corn and we're still using the last of 200 pints of corn relish we put up in September, which makes me happy."
Where's the non-GMO beef
Earlier this year the issue was steak. Through a year of whole-animal butchery, Legume always had ample ground meat, braising cuts, innards and soup bones. But the 100 steaks from the two cows a month went so fast they practically had to be signed up for in advance. "Customers coming to a nice restaurant, maybe for a celebration, thought there should be steak."
Mr. Hooper blogged to customers that he would meet demand. In February he added a "Legume Steakhouse" to the menu. He would source extra entirely grass-fed steaks (thus still local and non-GMO) from Jubilee Hilltop Farm in Bedford. He would get larger steaks, grass-fed but grain-finished (probably GMO grain), from Painted Hill Farm in Oregon. He promised Legume would source at least 75 percent of all meat and poultry locally.
The beef-tweaking decision was picked up in a Post-Gazette story that explored it in context of larger questions: Is "local" on the wane in Pittsburgh as reported in some other cities? How pervasive is restaurant "green-washing" here (the practice of appearing "green," bragging about locavore and organic ingredients, but using few on the menu).
There was bounce-back for Legume, as Mr. Hooper told 65 people gathered for a "Sustainabilility Salon"-- a sort of shaggy and enduring series of living-room seminars for foodshed advocates -- hosted by master-gardener and blogger Maren Cooke (marenslist.blogspot.com) of Squirrel Hill.
He said he'd gotten a slew of frustrating questions from customers and even vendors: "So you're not doing local meat anymore? Are you even doing organic vegetables?
"Read the blog," he told those people. 'We're not really changing that much."
He titled his PowerPoint talk on sourcing meat given at the salon "It's Complicated." The message revealed that you have to look over your shoulder to see how far you've come.
In 2007 the fledgling, 30-seat Legume (then in Regent Square) bought all conventional beef and pork. In 2009 they'd switched to premium family farms like Painted Hill, buying humanely raised animals free of artificial hormone and antibiotics. In 2010 they bought their first whole hog and started curing meat. In 2011, Legume moved to Oakland and hired a butcher. In 2012 half the meat they bought was local. In 2013 they bought all local meat -- prompting the grousing about not enough steaks.
With a good supply now of grass-fed whole animals from the Burns Angus Farm in New Wilmington, Legume's main beef supplier -- no relation to Pete and Tara Burns supplying non-GMO chickens in Ridgeway -- the chef thinks he can up the vowed 75 percent local to 95 percent -- with only the grain-finished Oregon steaks possibly GMO.
As more local non-GMO feed becomes available, Mr. Hooper is encouraged:
"I'm talking to some farmers in Grove City who are doing corn-finished beef on GMO-free corn, which is really exciting. It is important to have the option of healthful grain-finished beef on the menu for people who like that style of beef. Our ultimate goal is to offer both grass-fed and GMO-free corn-fed beef from Western Pennsylvania.
"Clarion River Organics and Dave Heilman in Sarver, both feeding non-GMO, are doing more pigs than before. Things are looking up."
The next hurdle? Dairy. "We use so much of it! You can buy meat directly from a farmer, but there is always the dairy plant between the farmer's milk and the consumer." He'd love to get milk with entirely grass-fed cows from a dairy near Harrisburg, but can't afford it.
"We hear all the time that our food is too expensive -- even though a great deal of it is organic and local, and our price point is a few dollars below other fine-dining restaurants. We do exceedingly well with meat and produce, but dairy ... I've been kind of ignoring it.
"I want Legume to be all or nothing, but I don't think we can. For now it's impossible to be local and GMO-free. I think it's better for Legume to support and work with the local foodshed, with all its imperfections.
"Can we serve a better purpose being transparent, talking about all this, instead of being a model of purity with higher prices?"
He wants you to come in, ask a lot of questions and see that poster.
(You can see Mr. Hooper's unedited essay on Legume's struggle with GMOs on the blog -- legumebistro.blogspot.com.)
Virginia Phillips: email@example.com.