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Challenging Times

Local chefs experience cooking on a food-pantry budget

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Those who can cook often pride themselves on being able to whip up delicious dishes using whatever items they have left in the pantry. 

But, as many learned this past weekend, it's one thing to have a cook's "empty" pantry and another to rely only on the donations found in the region's food pantries.   

Ten local chefs took on the Northside Common Ministries Food Pantry Brunch challenge Sat., Feb. 16, creating dishes crafted only from a list of items commonly found in the food pantry for a crowd of about 200.

Jeeraporn Chaisri, owner of Thai Me Up, improvised a fried corn cake — but took some leeway in adding bean flour, coconut and red-curry chili paste, items that may not be as easily found as the corn, rice, salt and egg that made up the rest of the recipe. 

"They have such limited things," she says of the pantry, adding that the lack of fresh food, in particular, was challenging. Cooking under such conditions on a regular basis would be tough, she concedes. 

"At first, maybe I'd be OK," she says. "But for an extended period of time, no."

Jay Poliziani, director of the Northside pantry, says that, on average, those who use the facility typically cover a third of their food budget themselves. 

Springboard Kitchen's "BBQ-in-a-bite" was the crowd's favorite. - PHOTO BY AMYJO BROWN
  • Photo by AmyJo Brown
  • Springboard Kitchen's "BBQ-in-a-bite" was the crowd's favorite.

But families relying on such assistance often don't have much to spend on food after paying for basic necessities, according to data compiled by the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. A single parent working full time for $10 an hour, for example, will earn $20,000 annually. Factor in such costs as rent or a mortgage, utilities, transportation and medical bills, and items like the spices, oils and other items that cooks rely on to punch up staples may seem like extravagances.

It was a reality the team for the James Street Gastropub recognized. Staying true to the challenge, the chefs created an all-in-one breakfast bite with a pancake base, topped with a three-cheese and egg frittata, candied bacon and a little bit of orange zest. 

Chef Alex Johnston says being creative enough to impress others was particularly difficult. 

Adds James Street's owner, Lisa Saftner, "It really makes you appreciate and be grateful for the full pantry we have." 

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