‘Ugly food’ needs love too — 2 restaurateurs are sweeping St. Louis off its feet with it
Michael and Tara Gallina are the proprietors of Rooster and the Hen, a culinary concept — they say — that seeks to delight eaters through thoughtfulness; for the way our food is grown and raised, to the care and warmth in which it's served.
The couple has held a series of pop-up dinners at places around town, after recently moving back to St. Louis, where Michael grew up. He was the chef at Dan Barber’s well-known farm-to-table restaurant, Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York, and Tara was the senior service captain there.
The two are profiled in this month’s Sauce Magazine in a feature about “ugly food” and why chefs and restauranteurs are turning to things like broccoli stems and cuts of meat you don’t normally find on fine dining establishments’ menus.
“Americans throw out an unbelievable amount of food from the farm to home kitchens and in restaurants every year,” said Heather Hughes, the managing editor of Sauce. “Food that is undesirable … like ugly carrots. Carrots don’t always grow in pretty, perfect lines and often farmers know no one will buy a really knobby, ugly carrot. Instead of even trying to sell it to people at all, they will throw it in the compost or feed it to pigs…it is lost to human consumption at all.”
RELATED EVENT: Public Radio on Tap: Sustainable Dining in St. Louis
Chefs across the country are working with farms to reduce that waste, which was the reason why Michael and Tara moved back to the Midwest and started their restaurant work with pop-ups.
“We want to build relationships first,” Michael said. “That’s why we didn’t come in and just open a restaurant. We wanted to do the due diligence of meeting the farmers and seeing what their needs are. To make this whole thing work, you have to have this relationship with the farmers to where you can call them and have the farmer drive the menu more than you drive it.”
That’s a refreshing dedication, especially considering the Tampa Bay Times’ recent investigative revelations that what is often labeled at restaurants as “organic,” “local” or “sustainable” may actually be anything but.
This co-dependent relationship means you’ll find a different look of plate of food when you arrive at one of Michael and Tara’s pop-up concepts: way more vegetables of all different varietals and looks. Instead of serving a large cut of protein with a vegetable garnish, Michael makes the vegetables the star of the show and uses cuts of meat you won’t normally find in a restaurant. Things like beef neck, shanks or heart.
"We want to build relationships first."
“It is more of the perception that to eat sustainably now, having a protein-centric diet is not really the way to go forward,” Tara said. “It doesn’t mean, don’t eat meat — we are not vegetarians. We eat meat all the time. We recognize we’re coming into a Midwestern city that is ‘meat and potatoes’ as many people would probably describe themselves so our idea is to show how interesting and exciting and delicious it can be to eat in different proportion.”
Michael said that Rooster and the Hen seeks to support the “entire farm and the entire product.” That means actually utilizing things chefs normally throw away. Yes, even the broccoli stem. “Peeling is the secret,” Michael said. “You can slice it thin and mix it in a stir fry.”
Tara hopes that if diners see they can get more worth from a product, that they will learn how to cut down on food waste in their own kitchen. They may also be willing to pay for “ugly food” at the farmers market when they see it can be prepared well.
“We’re not trying to make it scary and unapproachable,” Tara said. “It is not just going to be tiny food on a plate in a long, serious tasting menu. Our goal is to create a restaurant that is a place you’d want to come back to a couple of times a week. The menu will change often based on what’s coming in from these local farms.”
Even through the night, you might get a totally different pork meal at 5:30 p.m. than you would at 8 p.m.
“The first couple of tables might get loin or leg but as the night goes on you might see some of the shoulder or some of the rib,” Tara said. “It is kind of being open to seeing what they can do in the kitchen with whatever is available.”
"There's a lot more to being a chef than creating great food."
In that way, embracing the full spectrum of food, “ugly food” too, is kind of an adventure.
“There’s a lot more to being a chef than creating great food,” Michael said. “We’re trying to reach out and support a cause: food waste.”
This Sound Bites segment is produced as a part of a partnership between Sauce Magazine and St. Louis Public Radio.
St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.