Chefs' post-shift pastimes

Written by Brandon Baltzley on

knife originalEveryone needs a hobby. In most industries, people tend to take up distractions that don't reflect their daily duties on the job. In the food industry, it seems that punching off the clock just opens up more time to hone other food-related crafts.

Since moving to Pittsburgh I've met a handful of cooks who spend their days off cultivating herbs, aging vinegars, home brewing beer, crafting steel knives and foraging for mushrooms and other wild products.

When I did my first pop up in Pittsburgh, I was sent home with a gift from the sous chef of Shadyside's Casbah, Dustin Gardner. It was a beer vinegar that he had started a few weeks earlier. Now, around six local chefs have started their own vinegars out of spawns from Dustin's "mother."

Andrew Hill, a sous chef at Stagioni on the Southside where I have been working, enjoys home brewing and is quite good at it, if I may say so. Recently he had three different brews fermenting away: A lambic made from local cider provided by a farm in Beaver County where he lives, a California common made with foraged Cluster hops, and a hard cider. The crew at Stagioni anxiously awaits the bottling of these shift beers.

During warmer weather, Chad Townsend, the sous chef at Salt of the Earth in Garfield, spends Sundays in the woods foraging chanterelle and bolete mushrooms. He took me to his local spots my second week in town, and his knowledge amazed me, though all the while he exhibited humility by constantly telling me he is an amateur. The 5 pounds of fungus we brought back told a different story.

A cook at Bar Marco, John Heidelmeier, has a workshop in the basement where he continues his grandfather's craft of making knives. He is now supplying a handful of cooks, bartenders, and friends with custom-made steel knives complete with engraving and very sharp edges.

As for myself, I tend to let my business partner, Leigh Hansen, dabble in the extracurriculars in our kitchen, where there are micro-greens being grown for a handful of local restaurants as well as jars upon jars of kombucha fermenting away.

To say that seeing all these people spending free time sharpening new skills is commendable would be an understatement. I wish I still had the energy to follow suit, but alas, on my day off you'll probably find me in a booth with a notepad, a plate of wings and a Jim Beam neat at my favorite bar, Gooski's, writing things like this. 

Post-Gazette photo

Brandon Baltzley is a chef behind Crux, a mobile collaborative currently based in Pittsburgh. His book "Nine Lives: A Chef's Journey from Chaos to Control" will be released in May 2013.

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