Q&A: the scoop on Pittsburgh’s food culture

Garret Jones

David Bernabo is a tough man to label as anything but an “artist,” but even that doesn’t do him justice.

Bernabo has made visual art installations, owns a lengthy discography, dances, choreographs and is now releasing his second film project — an introspective three-part documentary on Pittsburgh food culture called “Food Systems.”

The series explores the history and popularity of Pittsburgh’s blossoming restaurant business from as early as 1970 to the present. Part one, titled “A Night Out,” sold out its first three public screenings, and part two debuts in early October.

Bernabo sat down with The Pitt News to talk about his inspiration for “Food Systems,” the future of Pittsburgh’s food ecosystem and why issues, such as sexism and racism within the industry, affect the greater Pittsburgh community.

The Pitt News: What was the inspiration to create the “Food Systems” trilogy?

David Bernabo: A friend — when I was making my previous film “Ongoing Box,” which is a film about artist process — mentioned that it might be interesting to have a documentary about Pittsburgh restaurant history. The thought being some of the things I would [look] at would be when was the first Chinese restaurant or when was the first sushi restaurant, kind of how Pittsburgh’s restaurant culture developed over time.

In doing that it was hard to find people who were around 50 years ago or 80 or 70 years ago, so I reduced the scope to the late ’70s until now, but also expanded the scope to things outside of general history — what are the problems today [with Pittsburgh cuisine] and what are the good things today?

TPN: Is there a specific reason you chose to base “Food Systems” off Pittsburgh’s restaurant scene instead of other cities with artistic reputations like Portland or Austin?

DB: I mean, practical concerns — I live here. It’s quicker to drive or walk to a restaurant to do an interview.

But it also happened that Pittsburgh’s restaurant scene was booming, and awareness of food and where food comes from and all of these local initiatives — like 412 Food Rescue and the Community Kitchen in Uptown. All these great initiatives are happening and they’re seemingly thriving.

TPN: Why do you think Pittsburgh’s restaurant culture is experiencing a sudden growth? 

DB: It seems like there are enough people in town that want to cook [artistic] food and it’s matching up with an audience being there.

The film kind of shows a progression of high-end dining [which] expands drastically once big-burrito became a major force, so your Mad Mex, and Soba, and Umi and a lot of cooks went through the big-burrito lifespan. And then [those cooks] opened up their own restaurants, so you kinda saw that happen in the mid 2000’s. Now all those people are either very established — or they’ve had sous-chefs that are opening their own restaurants ­— so it’s kind of expanded in that way.

TPN: Apart from food, does your film explore any other related issues?

DB: The first film is dealing with restaurants, [but] I wanted to look at sexism — and you see that in who can get financing, who can open a restaurant, who can have community support for a restaurant and which restaurants are written about, and I think that it’s not only [about] the sex of the owner or chef.

Different racial issues also enter into that equation too. It’s covered a little bit in the [first] film but it probably should be covered more, and that was one of the issues of not having narration. I didn’t force the issue. I tried to ask it of a lot of people and use what I could.

Issues of racism will definitely be discussed in [the third] film. Especially when you talk about neighborhoods that are [changing] … You look at the East End, you look at East Liberty — East Liberty has been extremely gentrified, and it seems to be on pace to keep [developing] in a negative and a positive light … crime’s down. Gun violence is down. Drug violence is down.

But … it’s been replaced with a glossy coating, and it forces a lot of people [living] there out, and it’s kind of the same gentrification story. Larimer has a lot of money — a lot of green technology and green buildings — being injected into the neighborhood.

Homewood has some development going on too, and so, one thing I’m hoping to explore is just getting some folks’ opinions on what’s happening to the neighborhood and what’s happening to food within the neighborhood because of these changes.

I was looking at the Homewood restaurant [public records] from ’84 to ’87. I actually read a complaint about there being too many options for food — like too many restaurants and too many groceries — and now you kinda see that reversed.

I think some of that is institutional. It’s who’s actually getting funding in these neighborhoods. One person I interviewed said it’s “basically not black people.” So it’s a lot of like do-gooders who are not apart of the neighborhood, who are trying to inject solutions, and I don’t think that’s exactly the [right] solution.

TPN: Do you think food draws tourism to Pittsburgh like it does Portland, Austin or elsewhere?

DB: That’s a good question. [Pittsburgh] feels like Portland in a way to me. I was in Portland a year or two ago and it seemed like there was a good representation of restaurant styles and different types of cuisine, and it feels like Pittsburgh is kind of matching at that level.

I was just in Brooklyn this past weekend … there’s definitely more there — more styles, you know — so maybe. I think part of it’s just hype, but I think the food scene here is really good, and there are a lot of really good restaurants — different styles — and each year there are new things that keep expanding the options that someone could have when they want to go out to eat.

TPN: Will Pittsburgh ever generate a cuisine reputation like New York or Miami?

DB: I think [it would] be hard to say yes … [The] first [obstacle] is your sources of food and if you’re from New York, you have access to a ton of different types of food … I know there are plans maybe for in the [Strip District] to kind of revitalize the market there, but I don’t think [that in] its current state, it’ll allow for that kind of … New York rivalry.

In Miami, I suppose the growing seasons are longer, just because it’s nice out for most of the year. So I think the one thing to look at there is food availability and where you’re sourcing the food and how much good food you can get all year.

There aren’t thirty restaurants like [Swedish restaurant] Fäviken that can adapt to these local sources of food out in Sweden. So I think … one of Pittsburgh’s main challenges, [is that] it’s still a small city.

It’s still a limited audience and I feel like there’s going to be a ceiling at some point for how many people are going to spend that amount of money all the time, consistently. So I think there are waves — you’re seeing a lot more mid-priced restaurants now.

I think that’s partially because people want to check out the the high-end restaurants, but they’re also like Sherri [Leiphart] from Thin Man Sandwiches [in the Strip District] … they want to improve lives on a daily basis and you can do that more with a mid-price point — you know, a really great sandwich for lunch — so I think that’s a new thing you’re going to see.

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