'Fast, fresh and healthy' is the motto at the Red Oak Cafe

| Sunday, Aug. 9, 2009

David Gancy has traveled across the world, cooking and working in diverse locales such as Australia, Hawaii, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Switzerland and New York City.

But the 40-year-old is now firmly rooted in Pittsburgh with his Red Oak Cafe. The Red Oak Cafe sits in the heart of Oakland, right on Forbes Avenue, and specializes in what he calls American comfort foods. Gancy and his business partner and fellow chef, Kevin Huber, own two companies that operate in seven locations around the city, including four at Carnegie Mellon University. They serve between 2,000 and 2,500 people at these locations every day.

"We have a good niche in this economy -- nothing is over $8," says Gancy, a Chicago native who went to culinary school in California. "We have no waiters or waitresses at any location. It's all casual, with limited service. We get a decent breakfast crowd at Red Oak, and a good lunch crowd."

Red Oak Cafe is housed in the former Kunst Bakery. Pittsburgh murals on the walls are 70 years old, but everything else is new or re-purposed. The wooden tables and chairs were made with recycled wood, and even the comment box is an old cigar box found at Construction Junction.

"We did a lot of work to open two-and-a-half years ago," says Gancy with a sweeping gesture. "We have 45 seats here, including individual seats for those who want a quick, healthy lunch on their own."

Red Oak's motto is "fast, fresh and healthy" and Gancy sticks to that with each item on his menu. Every day he offers a blue plate special, which is always a hot entree.

Monday, it's braised pork loin cutlet, baked potato and parmesan broccoli. Tuesday is chicken mushroom marsala with organic brown rice and garlic green beans. Wednesday features a barbecue pulled pork sandwich, roasted potatoes and squash and zucchini. Thursday he serves a slow-cooked beef brisket and gravy, mashed potatoes and carrots. And Friday's special is the herb-crusted wild Alaskan pollock, vegetable slaw, organic brown rice and asparagus.

"Red Oak changes the menu every four to six months, but we try to keep the customer favorites on," Gancy says.

Red Oak Cafe also offers vegetarian blue plate specials, such as organic brown rice, vegan chili and assorted veggies and a veggie beef-like product. Eight entree-sized salads are available, served with house toast, and several sandwiches round out the menu. Gancy is especially proud of his oatmeal smoothie, OTY -- which stands for oatmeal, tea and yogurt blended together and served warm.

"The oatmeal smoothie is a drinkable meal," he says. "It's good for your blood and your stomach. It sells all day. It's tasty and very nutritious. We use organic oats, wheat germ and flaxseed as well as organic, low-fat yogurt from Stoney Field."

Gancy buys his pork shoulders, meats, eggs and produce from Miller Farms in New Wilmington, Lawrence County. Mose and Mary Miller, Amish farmers who practice all-natural growing techniques, own and operate the farms.

"We use organics when we can," Gancy says. "We also feature organic breads and wraps from Super Bakery, which is an organic bakery in Pittsburgh."

Gancy worked for Aramark at Heinz Field as the executive chef, and at the Omni William Penn Hotel as the executive sous chef. He started out as a line cook in the four-star Restaurant Daniel in New York City. Gancy and his wife, Katie, traveled together around the world while he honed his culinary skills at different restaurants. She's a Pittsburgh native, and they have two daughters.

"I started working in restaurants when I was 13," he says. "I like to work with my hands in food. It's important to keep it simple, use high-quality ingredients and use simple techniques."

None of Gancy's locations is open on the weekends, although Red Oak Cafe will start serving a Saturday and Sunday brunch in mid-August.

"I like being my own boss, making my own decisions and controlling my own destiny," Gancy says. "I think I got a good enough concept, (and) I can grow it."

David Gancy of Red Oak Cafe has shared his popular Wednesday blue plate special -- Barbecue Spiced Pulled Pork -- with Cooking Class.

The pulled pork turns out so tender and juicy you will savor every bite.

The roasted potatoes on the side add wonderful flavor and texture to the dish.

Barbecue Spiced Pulled Pork

Pork shoulder, 4 to 7 pounds

14 cup salt-and-pepper mixture (recipe follows)

1 tablespoon cooking oil

1 cup Red Oak barbecue spice rub (recipe follows)

Rub meat thoroughly with salt and pepper mixture. Roast in 400-degree oven for 30 minutes, and then decrease temperature to 250 degrees for 4-5 hours.

Cool, hand-shred and toss with Red Oak Barbecue Spice Rub.

Makes 12-15 servings.

Salt and pepper mixture:

2 cups kosher salt

18 cup black pepper

18 cup white pepper

Mix together thoroughly.

Red Oak Barbecue Spice Rub:

Season to taste. Use fresh, toasted and ground spices when possible.

1 cup ground cumin seeds

12 cup ground coriander seeds

1 cup brown sugar

1 cup chili powder

14 cup ancho chili powder (can be found in the Strip District)

14 cup paprika

14 cup salt and pepper mixture

2 tablespoons cayenne

1 teaspoon ground cloves

Mix all ingredients thoroughly. Store in a covered container. Add after the meat is cooked and shredded, to make sure every bite is seasoned properly. Use spice mixture to your level of seasoning enjoyment.

Chipotle Citrus Barbecue Sauce:

1 tablespoon cooking oil

12 cup yellow onions, diced

12 cup red onions, diced

14 cup shallots, diced

Canned chipotle -- three peppers

12 cup red peppers, diced

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 cup orange juice

14 cup lemon juice

14 cup lime juice

12 cup brown sugar

1 cup ketchup

1 cup canned tomatoes, diced

1 tablespoon Worcestershire

In a saucepan, heat cooking oil over medium heat and add onions, peppers and tomato paste. Cook 5-7 minutes over medium heat.

Add orange, lemon and lime juices and reduce by half. Add brown sugar, ketchup, diced tomatoes and Worcestershire.

Simmer for 20 minutes, puree, and simmer for 20 more minutes.

Makes 1 quart.

Roasted Potatoes with Garlic, Shallots and Herbs

David Gancy suggests using a variety of red, yellow, and purple potatoes for roasting, and choosing ones of similar size to ensure consistent cooking.

5 pounds potatoes, par cooked, see note

12 cup cooking oil

14 cup butter

12 cup shallots, diced

2 teaspoons garlic, chopped fine

1 teaspoon paprika

1 teaspoon salt and pepper mixture

14 cup chopped parsley

In a pan, heat oil, butter and shallots over low heat for 10 minutes. Add garlic, cook for 30 seconds more and remove from heat. Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Toss potatoes with shallot mixture, paprika, salt and pepper mixture. Roast for 20 to 30 minutes and toss with parsley.

Makes 12 to 15 servings.

Note: Par cooking stands for partially cooked. Cover the whole, unpeeled potatoes in cold, salted water. Bring to a low boil and cook until just fork tender. Cut them into halves or quarters for roasting, depending on the size of the potatoes.

Additional Information:

Red Oak Cafe

Cuisine : American

Hours : 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays-Fridays. Closed Saturdays and Sundays in the summer. In mid-August, brunch is offered from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays

Entree price range : Nothing on the menu is more than $7.75.

Notes : There is no bar, but customers can bring their own bottle of wine. Handicap-accessible. Major credit cards accepted. No reservations accepted.

Address : 3610 Forbes Ave., Oakland

Details : 412-621-2221 or www.redoakusa.com

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