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Food & Drink

Bloomfield filmmaker's series continues look at Pittsburgh food scene

| Thursday, May 12, 2016, 8:55 p.m.
A still from 'Food Systems: Chapter 3' at Hidden Hills Dairy in Everett, Bedford County
David Bernabo
A still from 'Food Systems: Chapter 3' at Hidden Hills Dairy in Everett, Bedford County
A still from 'Food Systems: Chapter 3' at Three Cheers Farm in New Bethlehem, Clarion County
David Bernabo
A still from 'Food Systems: Chapter 3' at Three Cheers Farm in New Bethlehem, Clarion County
Filmmaker and musician David Bernabo
Filmmaker and musician David Bernabo

Pittsburgh's restaurant scene has gotten a lot of national attention in the past few years — Zagat's, New York Times, Food & Wine, Saveur, Eater, take-your-pick — which still comes as a shock to many.

Yet, to those who have been working the line, putting all their savings on a dream, betting on a risky new concept in a marginal neighborhood, it's been less surprising.

All those travel stories have sketched some outlines of how food has changed in Pittsburgh. Rick Sebak's folksy documentaries about beloved neighborhood spots and Andrew Zimmern's typically sharp “Bizarre Foods” travelogue tell parts of the story very well.

But filmmaker and musician Dave Bernabo, 33, of Bloomfield has created perhaps the defining documentary of this period of transition, a three-part film series called “Food Systems.” All three films will be screened May 15 at Row House Cinema in Lawrenceville. Bernabo did it by going way back to the beginning, talking to just about everyone, and then zooming back out to the places where Pittsburgh's food is grown, raised and harvested.

“Two years ago, I was finishing up my first documentary, ‘Ongoing Box,' about the role of process in artistic (creation),” Bernabo says. “One of the ‘artists' was (chef) Kevin Sousa. He mentioned that a movie on restaurants in Pittsburgh would be interesting. I was looking for a new film project and just dove into this.”

Sousa has a central role in the first film, “Food Systems: A Night Out.” His “Alchemy” nights of improvisational experimentation and molecular gastronomy at Bigelow Grille marked a turning point for Pittsburgh dining — and what customers would accept. Sousa's stand-alone restaurant, the since-closed Salt of the Earth, brought national recognition as did his record-setting Kickstarter campaign to start an ambitious farm-to-table restaurant in Braddock. (Several years later, it has yet to open, however).

But the most fascinating aspect of “A Night Out” may be the memories and menus from the old days of dining in Pittsburgh. Bernabo traces restaurants from the '60s onward, through forgotten hotspots such as Ben Gross and La Normande.

Things changed very slowly, at first. A few chefs and restaurateurs got interested in elegant French cuisine or, like Jean-Marc Chatellier (of the eponymous Millvale bakery), brought it with them. Tim Ryan, now president of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, was one of these chefs, making him uniquely suited to explain in the film how dining was changing in Pittsburgh and in America at large. For the longest time, it was either a very formal experience, a special occasion to be experienced relatively rarely. Or, it was a working-class thing, a connection by and for immigrants who missed the flavors of home.

“Mary Miller had collected a lot of old menus,” Bernabo says. “She does food tours in Pittsburgh. Digging up that history was a lot of cold emailing people. Ninety-five percent of the people who responded said ‘Yes, whatever you need.'”

Then, in the mid-'90s, everything started to speed up. The Big Burrito restaurant group opened up its quirky, hip Mad Mex, then the ambitious pan-Caribbean cuisine of Kaya and Mediterranean excursions of Casbah. New immigrants brought new cuisines — Korean, Vietnamese, Mexican, Kenyan — and the pursuit of fresher ingredients sparked a virtual arms race of who could find the local farms.

Another generation of chefs, like Sousa, got started working in the Big Burrito kitchens, and/or eating their food. Joined by a few out-of-towners and natives returning from food gigs elsewhere, this next wave of chefs, such as Keith Fuller (Root 174), Sonja Finn (Dinette) and Trevett Hooper (Legume), was ready to really take chances — and did.

“Food Systems, Chapter 2: Dinner on the Farm,” is a short film (and, oddly, the first part that Bernabo filmed).

“It's farm-to-table dinners, mere fly-on-the-wall, less narrative,” he says. “Just going to farms that were hosting dinners and seeing what happened. A little more ‘food porn.' ”

Despite the films' tiny budget, Bernabo's shots of food being prepared and served are as delectable as anything you'll see on Food Network.

“Food Systems 3: The Ecosystem,” ventures beyond the restaurants, to those who grow and raise what will end up on the plate — from pigs to fish, cheese to whiskey. Though this sector has grown in tandem with the restaurant scene, the tone of this film is completely different.

Farmers also love what they do, but their anxieties seem especially sharp and seemingly without end. Climate change and oil-and-gas fracking aren't abstractions to them — some of Bernabo's subjects have seen major droughts destroy entire crops and had streams ruined by spills. Even the peppy, jazz-inflected score (played by Bernabo himself and Swiss jazz group Le Rex) of the first films is replaced, by an anxious, somewhat mournful score.

“People have been extremely honest with their opinions,” Bernabo says. “That made the creation of this film much easier. Every few minutes, there's a strong opinion that carries the story. It's great seeing people being so passionate about what they do. They're really investing their lives in making food better in the area.”

Bernabo isn't finished yet, either. A fourth chapter is in the works.

“The fourth is about home-cooking,” he says. “How you can save money, educate yourself and what happens if you don't have access to healthy food or the know-ledge. It gets into hunger and food access. ... I thought these four films together would give a good idea of what food culture is like in Pittsburgh and who's actually doing all that work.”

Bernabo is hoping to get the films into food studies programs at universities and find other partners to host screenings. There will be DVDs and Blu-Ray copies available eventually (see for updates).

Michael Machosky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at or 412-320-7901.

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